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Time with kids is priceless, local stay-at-home dads say

On weekday mornings, Jose Mendez is up at 4 a.m. to make breakfast, send his wife off to work and ready his five kids for their three schools. A stay-at-home dad since 2006, his marathon days of chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning, helping with homework and refereeing squabbles often last until midnight.

"I think it's easier to go to work every day than staying home," admits the Deltona dad, who's raising three children and two stepchildren, ages 6 to 14. "Sometimes I do resent it. I am the man, after all."

Men like Mendez have doubled in number in the past decade, but only 3.4 percent of all married fathers with children younger than 18 are stay-at-home dads.

The trend is still unusual enough that society isn't always sure what to make of men who don't work. Some men confess to isolation, misguided potshots by other dads and even a loss of self-esteem.

"A lot of times, I'd like to be the one out in the world, working," Mendez says. "But it's a financial decision."

To out-earn his wife, a billing-department supervisor for a large eye clinic, the Army reservist would likely have to rejoin the Marine Corps on active duty. And that would mean moving, perhaps to Germany, and uprooting the kids.

In a volatile economy, the decision on which parent will be the primary caretaker — if either — often boils down to salary comparisons. When moms earn more, dads are more likely to stay home. But there are other intangibles.

"Of the two of us, my husband is definitely more creative — which I think is important in parenting — and more patient," says Lori Smiles, a 47-year-old Web-technology specialist in Orlando's College Park. "For us, it has worked out fantastically."

Barry Smiles, 52, a former executive chef, made the decision to stay home in part because his wife's job brought better health insurance. Despite a few awkward moments with other kids' mothers, he says he loves it.

"You have to be comfortable with yourself," Barry Smiles says. "The most difficult part was being accepted as a Mr. Mom at the park. The ladies would say: 'Oh, have you got a day off?' Or, 'Are you widowed?' It took them a while to accept that here was a father who was raising his child."

The arrangement has allowed him to volunteer at his daughter's school and coach her soccer team.

"In the beginning, when Lori suggested it, I thought it would be changing the diapers and scheduling feedings," Smiles says. "But then you start to see the development and the growth of your child, and Chloe started going to preschool and now is doing dance and soccer. Watching that, your life just opens up."

On the flip side, he once envisioned an at-home pace leisurely enough to pursue his own interests and projects — a notion he quickly found unrealistic.

So, too, did Ken Janata, also 52, a Windermere father of two. When his wife, Nancy, won a key consulting position with a pharmaceutical company two years ago, the accompanying salary boost made the couple sit down and re-examine their priorities. Ken — an outside sales representative for Home Depot — decided paying a nanny to watch the kids no longer made sense.

"It's not easy. It's stressful, it's a job. You think, 'OK, they're at school for six hours; that should be time to relax,' but it's not. You've got to clean up, run errands, get dinner ready. It's not like you're sitting on your butt."

Though he works occasionally as a substitute teacher, his main focus is his 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. He coaches his son's Little League team and his daughter's softball team, which means shuttling them to weekend tournaments.

"I think the kids like it," he says, though there have been times when the 10-year-old asks, "Daddy, when are you going back to work?"

The couple admit they're fortunate that they can live well enough on one income — a luxury they acknowledge many families don't have.

More than anything, sociologists say, economic reality explains why more dads don't follow suit.

"The trend in general has been away from one parent staying at home and the other working," says Liz Grauerholz, a professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida who has studied gender issues. "In most families, both parents need to work in order to survive. I tend to believe that economics pretty much dictate everything. If it were feasible for families to survive on one income, we might see stay-at-home fathers more often."

If one parent does stay home, it's typically the wife, Grauerholz says, simply because the average woman still earn less than the average man does. That's not to say that lingering stereotypes don't play a role.

"We give a lot of lip service to the importance of family," she says. "But for couples really trying to live that out and make the best decisions for the kids, it still takes a lot of courage to overcome all the barriers that they face: their parents, who say, 'What are you doing?' or their friends who don't get it."

It bothers some more than others.

"If people want to give me grief for being Mr. Mom, for spending so much time with my kid, so be it," says Kevin Grogan, a former elementary-school teacher who lives near Clermont. At 40, he has been the primary caregiver for his two children, 8 and 6, since the oldest was an infant.

"When I was still teaching, I would see my son about a half-hour before I went to school, and maybe see him an hour afterward before he went to sleep. So an hour and a half total for the day. I felt like I was missing so much," he says.

When he and wife, Kimberly, decided in 2006 to buy a triathlon store, Gear for MultiSport, they decided she would take the helm at the business and he would head up home duties, though they share both jobs. Neither has regrets.

"You always hear how quickly childhood goes by, and I really wanted to be there," Grogan says. "And this arrangement gives all of us more flexibility to be together as a family."

Lori Smiles would agree, though she confesses there were tugs at her heartstrings when Chloe was a toddler.

"She didn't understand why Mommy had to leave during the day," she says. "But I'm sure dads who work outside the home feel the same way. No matter who leaves, when children are young, they don't understand."

ksantich@tribune.com or 407-420-5503

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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