Bill Cole exhibits the heightened state of awareness common to certain jungle predators, cartoon superheroes, and, of course, the typical mom.
Although he can't see her from his back yard, he knows his 4-year-old daughter, Brenna, is out on the front steps, contentedly singing. He can even correctly identify the tune as Ariel's theme from "The Little Mermaid."
While picking peonies from the flower garden he tends daily, he can see from at least four houses away the happy expression on his son Will's face, and he knows the 19-month-old is safe playing in the neighbor's yard.
Bake a birthday cake? No sweat. He can also find time to buy a pair of emerald earrings for the wife (her birthstone; this man's got instinct), break up any fights between Brenna and her 5-year-old sister Elise (maybe once a day), clean the house and prepare meals for the kids.
Cole is no tiger, no Superman, and most certainly not a mom.
He is a stay-at-home father. Hear him roar.
"When I started, I thought there was so much more I needed to be doing I'd get panicky," said Cole, 39, a carpenter who left full-time employment five years ago to devote his time to his children. "But you know the whole reason I'm here is to protect and teach them. Once I figured that out, I could calm down by about half."
Once derided as little more than the proverbial fish out of water -- as in the 1983 Michael Keaton film comedy, "Mr. Mom" -- full-time dads have recently begun to get more public recognition -- and, for the first time, to band together.
Thanks, in part, to the wonders of electronic mail, the estimated 2 million dads who look after children while their moms work outside the home have begun to seek one another on the Internet, compare their experiences and demand a greater level of respect from society.
"Twenty years ago, people didn't do this," said Peter Baylies, author of the national newsletter At-Home Dad. "Men don't reach out for support the way women do. It's a little intimidating to ask for help."
When Baylies, a Massachusetts resident, was laid off from his computer software job nearly six years ago, he decided to stay home with his two preschool kids. What he discovered was a fulfilling lifestyle.
But if you think stay-at-home mothers are underappreciated, try being a stay-at-home dad, he said. A father who shows up at the playground with his kids is usually assumed to be a baby-sitter, or perhaps a divorced dad looking for a date.
"Why would a man want to take his kids to a park and hit on women?" asked Curtis Cooper, a happily married Minnesotan who has grown accustomed to the reaction. "The sexual threat really amazes me."
Recent surveys have found that most fathers who elect to stay home are motivated by a practical choice: Their wives have higher-paying jobs, and neither parent wanted to put the children in day care.
But what the fathers discover is that full-time parenting can be a lonely job. With whom can they discuss their travails? With neighborhood mothers? Their working friends?
Cooper, a former athletic-footwear buyer, said his own experience raising two children and "feeling like a guy in an all-girls school" led him to create a support group where a dozen or so fellow dads could sit and talk while their children played.
Today, there are 30 "Dad-to-Dad" chapters across the country founded on that same concept, and Cooper has written a handbook promoting at-home fatherhood.
"Our conversations are usually guy talk -- sports, that sort of thing," said Cooper. "We're not extremists."
Robert Frank, a stay-at-home dad and part-time community college instructor in suburban Chicago, said his own studies from graduate training in psychology have shown that stay-at-home dads felt more isolated than their maternal counterparts by a 63-37 percent margin.
"It's hard for men to break into the coffee klatch," said Frank, who studied stay-at-home fathers for his doctoral dissertation. "Society still regards mothers as the primary caregivers."
When a father elects to stay home, it isn't so much a role-reversal as a job upsizing. Dads don't become chromosomally-challenged mothers. Rather, they see an expansion of their traditional paternal role.
In the Cole household in Columbia, Dad is still the disciplinarian, still the Mr. Fix-it and still takes out the trash. And when his wife, Marianne, comes home from work she is still Mom, the family's prime nurturer.
"I feel guilty when I'm out of the house with my career," said Mrs. Cole, an executive assistant in the U.S. Department of Labor. "I feel like I should relieve him."
Cole, who grew up in a traditional suburban Boston household supported by his father's small construction company, never expected to be in this position. But the birth of his eldest, Elise, coincided with a downturn in the building industry. The move home made economic sense.
It wasn't easy going from the bottom-line world of building houses to the chaos and confusion of preschoolers. The new job required learning patience above all else, not always the easiest lesson for the human male.
"I had to slow myself down to half speed," he said. "You have to get down to the details more. You really have to understand what's going on."
On this particular morning, that means rounding up the youngest to meet Elise at her bus from kindergarten at 11:15 and then sitting down at the kitchen table to work on a card to comfort Mom on her 35th birthday.
"dear mama," Elise writes. "don't feel bad. you can invite me to your birthday. Elise"
Soon, it's time for lunch, hot dogs and pears, a meal that generates a few criticisms from the girls until their father explains that he's been too busy to pick up lunch meat for sandwiches.
Then comes the inevitable question: "Dad, what kind of animals are hot dogs?" Cole tells them that they aren't animals at all, but are sausages made from parts of cows and pigs. That seems to satisfy their intellectual appetites.
Later, there will be a trip to the post office, the baking of Mom's birthday cake -- lemon with chocolate frosting -- and a lot of time watching the kids play with their friends on the cul-de-sac.
"I hope the kids are learning that dads can be sensitive in ways that people thought were reserved for moms," said Cole. "But then I think they don't really have a comparison. Maybe they'll think all men are sensitive. That's something to worry about, too."
Family and friends have mostly been supportive. But not everyone. At a reunion of his championship college hockey team at Cornell University last year, teammates weren't exactly impressed by their one-time center's career accomplishment.
Nor was it easy explaining to some relatives that no, this wasn't a case of unemployment. This is what he wanted to do.
"It took my dad a while, but I think he has a huge respect for me," said Cole. "I think he feels now he missed something when his own kids were growing up, and he thinks more about his grandkids because of it."
Still, it would be easy to overstate the stay-at-home dad movement. U.S. Census figures show the number of full-time fathers has actually diminished slightly since the 1991 recession and only now may be hitting a modest upswing.
But advocates see the at-home dad movement as hitting a stage of maturity and wider recognition. More importantly, the heightened awareness of at-home fathers may be the harbinger of a renewed interest in fathers and fathering in general.
And, here's a novel idea: the movement may be helpful in finally achieving an equality between the sexes -- at least when it comes to raising children.
"You know there are times when you get to the mall and you have frozen breast milk for the baby and you can't warm it up fast enough to stop her from screaming, and everybody's looking at you and thinking, 'Well, he's not up to it," said Andrew Schaffer, 35, of Pikesville, a stay-at-home father of two.
"But I've enjoyed it. I've gained a lot of confidence. Would I want to do it again? Let's say I'm not sure I'm ready for a third.
* To subscribe to the quarterly At-Home Dad newsletter, contact Peter Baylies, 61 Brightwood Ave., North Andover, Mass. 01845-1702, or e-mail Athomedaol.com.
* To buy a copy of the "At-Home Dad Handbook," contact Curtis Cooper, 13925 Duluth Court, Apple Valley, Minn. 55124 , or e-mail DADtoDAol.com.
* Robert Frank, the stay-at-home researcher, can be reached by e-mail at drbobfranol.com.
Pub Date: 6/21/98