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Pop Psychology Children: At-Home Dads Convention helps fathers rest, break the isolation and share tales from the front lines. If it can't make them regular guys again, that's OK. They miss their babies.


DES PLAINES, Ill. -- This is their night. Anything goes. Nine men who take care of their children full-time are free for the weekend. No responsibilities. No worries. No kids!

What's it going to be, boys: Shoot pool until dawn? Check out the strip joints? Scratch, belch and watch ESPN until your retinas revolt? So many possibilities. They head to a restaurant to discuss them.

"While we're waiting, shall we pass around pictures?" David Boylan asks.

Out they come, snapshots and Polaroids and school pictures. Pictures in wallets, pictures in cute photo books, pictures right out of the frame. Kids in swimsuits at the beach. Kids in Winnie the Pooh Halloween costumes. Kids on swings. Pictures of smiling kids and smiling dads. Lots of kids and dads.


"OK," Casey Spencer says. "How many of you guys miss your kids?"

"I've only been away an hour," Bill Balmer replies.

This is no ordinary night on the town, but then this is no ordinary group of fathers. This is the first At-Home Dads Convention at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, a Chicago suburb, and it has attracted 50 men from across the country who stay home with the kids while their wives work. The nine men who swap photos at the restaurant are meeting for the first time, but they've known each other for months.

They participate in a computer chat group for at-home dads on America Online, one of several ways, including newsletters and play groups, that these fathers maintain their sanity and remind themselves they aren't alone.

The untallied

But they are still rare. So rare that the U.S. Census Bureau can't say for certain how many at-home fathers there are because the researchers never thought to ask. Estimates range from 300,000 to 2 million, but Lynne Casper, a Census Bureau statistician and one of the convention speakers, says it's just a guess.

"You guys are something that we've never seen before," she says. "We're just at the ground level of trying to figure this out."

The convention is a place to start. But mostly, says Bruce Drobeck, a marriage and family therapist in Texas and another of the speakers, it is a chance to send the at-home dads a message: "Yes, you can do this."

Call them parental pioneers. Or child-care trendsetters. Just don't call them "Mr. Mom." At-home dads complain that the 1983 hit movie portrays fathers as incompetent oafs who wouldn't know a spin cycle from a motorcycle.

Not these guys. Listen to Peter Baylies, 40, of North Andover, Mass., who assumed most of the parental duties for his two children after he was laid off from his computer job five years ago. He has a housekeeping tip for fathers.

"Whatever room your wife enters when she comes home, clean that room first," he says. "She'll think you've been busy working all day if she sees a clean room right when she first walks in."

Want more? Boylan heats water, cinnamon and clove in a pan -- "The house smells like Christmas" -- while Spencer prefers heating onion, garlic and butter to make the kitchen smell like someone has been cooking all day. And if you must resort to Spaghettios for lunch, at least hide the can at the bottom of the trash. No one will be the wiser.

Boylan, 42, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., who gave up an acting career to care for his two children, raises his glass.

"Here's to the dads," he says.

Spencer, 44, who has come to the convention from San Diego, proposes another toast.

"We ought to thank the people responsible for us being here. To the moms!"

Actually, Baylies is the person most responsible for this weekend. He started his newsletter, At-Home Dad, in the spring of 1994, and it now has 1,000 subscribers, covering topics such as parental burnout. Or, as Baylies put it in a recent issue:

Everywhere you look, there's another Lego, matchbox car, half-eaten cracker, or a used baby wipe on the floor. The whining noises of the vacuum cleaner and the kids increase in frequency, there are more diapers to change, more dishes. You forgot the trash, and you can see the garbage truck at the end of the street. It's raining out, and the videos have been watched 70 times each. Those chocolate-covered walls begin to close in. Finally, it begins to dawn on you you're burned out.

On this night, though, Baylies has a different dilemma. This is the longest he has been away from his two boys -- John, 4, and David, 18 months -- and he's not sure what to do with himself.

"It's weird," he says. "It's like I'm a free man. You're like a trapped bird let out of a cage. You're free, but you don't know what to do."

He can join the conversation at the restaurant. Right now Jim Mains, 38, who left an administrative job at Loyola University in Chicago to raise his two boys, is holding forth about Burger King. And he is not happy.

"I'm starting a campaign against Burger King for not having enough 'Toy Story' toys in their kid meals," he says. "I stopped at four different ones, and none of them had them."

"They have 'Space Jam' toys at McDonald's," Bill Balmer says helpfully.

"We're talking shop here," Casey Spencer explains.

Shop talk

They talk about everything -- everything about kids, that is. Nobody mentions the NFL. Nobody talks about pumping iron. The name Cindy Crawford was noticeably absent from the dinner table.

Instead, they talk about the stares they get when they take their children to the park in the middle of the afternoon. They discuss their computers, the main way they keep in contact with other adults. They worry about what's going to happen to their careers when they re-enter the work force. They wonder if they will re-enter the work force.

A baby cries in the restaurant.

"OK, who brought the kid?" Mains jokes. "Get rid of the kid."

Somehow, though, the child's cries have punched their buttons. Boylan excuses himself to call a baby sitter. Steve Klem, a 37-year-old at-home dad from Cocoa Beach, Fla., says this is the first time he has been away from his 22-month-old daughter, Haleigh.

"Before this, the longest time away was five hours," he says wistfully. "I was looking at pictures of her while I talked to her on the phone. I'm already missing her."

Balmer, 31, of Waukegan, Ill., notices the clock. He has to go. He promised his wife he would watch their 21-month-old son so she could go out. He tries to explain -- this was agreed to before the convention took shape -- but he's struggling.

"See," Spencer says, "stay-at-home dads make good husbands."

"Aw, he's whipped," another dad teases.

Generalizations are foolhardy among this group. Some, like Baylies, became at-home dads because they lost their jobs (the 1991 recession turned quite a few fathers into at-home dads). Others, like Boylan, chose to do it. Most have wives with better-paying jobs -- from Balmer's wife, Mary, who is a chemist, to Spencer's wife, Sharon, who is vice president of a land development company -- but others are married to schoolteachers and stretch to pay bills.

They share a few traits. They are intensely dedicated to their children. In fact, they are true believers in the nobility of child-rearing, convinced that their children will be better adjusted than those placed in day care. And while they over-analyze everything from missing the water cooler to stepping on Fisher-Price's plastic inventions, they're more than willing to poke fun at themselves.

"Veggie burger?" one father chides Boylan. "Veggie burger? You're out with a bunch of men and you're ordering a veggie burger?"

But the jokes end when they discuss what motivates them.

"I know I'm good at it and I know it's best for my family," Mains says. "To be honest about it, this is what I feel I was predestined to do."

Father care

What he didn't realize was that there were other fathers just like him. Robert Frank, who teaches human and child development at DePaul University and Oakton Community College, and who is an at-home dad himself, says his research found that 63 percent of at-home dads feel isolated.

Mains certainly did. His wife, Donna, is a technical planner for an advertising agency, "and she's out there every day having adult conversations," he says. "You get tired of baby talk."

So he organized a Dad-to-Dad group in the Chicago area, where a handful of at-home dads gather for adult conversation. "We talk about vasectomies, or how to get the baby to go to the bathroom in the toilet," Mains says. That sort of adult conversation.

All of the at-home dads agree that they have more in common with at-home moms than with working dads.

"The difference is that women whine and men don't," one of the fathers says. "That's off the record, by the way."

But it's a popular sentiment. Spencer offers a theory. The at-home moms, he says, "would probably say that they don't feel appreciated. I don't feel most of us would say that. They'll say, 'I wish my husband was more like you.' It's flattering to us, but not to their husband."

They say women often comment about how great it is that the at-home dads care enough to put careers on hold. Men, by contrast, sometimes react the way one did to Boylan: "What are ya, a wimp?"

Drobeck, the therapist from Texas, calls it "coming out of the pantry" -- when do at-home fathers feel comfortable enough to identify themselves as at-home fathers?

"I'll tell them I'm an architect and a stay-at-home dad," says Dennis Findley of McLean, Va., who has a degree from Harvard University. "You don't want people to think you're not doing anything."

Not doing anything? Findley, 38, takes care of year-old twin boys. He left an architectural firm two months before the boys were born.

Now you can kid Findley about spending more time with Pampers than Pei, but understand this: When he was in fifth grade, Findley's own father deserted the family and he has not seen him since.

"I'm sort of doing the opposite of that," he says. "I know I missed a lot by his not being there. A lot."

Others tell similar stories. Boylan's father, for example, was married three times, and Boylan says he was abused physically and emotionally by a stepfather. "I'm breaking the cycle," he says.

Rewriting history

And for Spencer, staying home with his 18-month-old daughter, Keilani, allows him to be the father he wasn't for two sons from his first marriage, which ended in divorce when the boys were young. "It made me very open to this option," he says.

The night on the town continues. Boylan recalls the time his wife came home to a messy house and asked him what he had been doing all day. "Did you hear what you just said?" he said to her. "Is the role reversal complete now?"

That reminds Klem of the time he told his wife, "If you don't like the way I do it you can come home and do it yourself."

Spencer looks sheepish. "See, we whine, too," he says.

Dinner is over, the night is young, so what will the fathers do next -- watch the World Wrestling Federation on television, see if the harness track is still open, smoke cigars until their lungs burst?

"I'm tired," Findley says. "I'm going to bed."

After all, the convention begins the next morning. Included among the men who attend are a handful of wives.

One couple, Eric and Ann Rosenthal of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, bring 5-month-old Daniel with them, the youngest of their five children. The Rosenthals agreed Eric would leave his accounting job and stay home after their third child was born.

"If you have kids, you've got to take care of them," Eric says. "They want love. They want attention. They want time. And time isn't cheap."

The Rosenthals share the parental duty during the morning sessions. First Daniel sits on Dad's lap. Then Mom's lap. Then Dad's lap. Then back to Mom, who inconspicuously lifts her shirt and breast-feeds her son.

There are still some jobs that only Mom can do.

Pub Date: 12/09/96

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