Global Policy Forum

Men on the Daddy Track


By Sue Shellenbarger

Wall Street Journal
November 8, 2007

For years, the stay-at-home dad has been treated as a cultural oddity, an ill-at-ease comic hero who can't wait to don pinstripes again and get back to the office. Interviews with men who stayed home with their children for several years, and are now looking back on it, paint a different picture. While much attention has been paid to at-home mothers who opt out of the corporate rat race for good, many at-home dads are quietly doing the same thing -- finding flexible alternative work. And while the adjustment can be rough, some of these men discover at-home parenting marks a permanent turning point toward better life balance.

Early in his five-year stint home-schooling his two sons, Jim Chandler, a former software-program manager, worried he had "sacrificed career and financial objectives" by dropping out, he wrote me in a 2004 email. He likens quitting work to jumping off a speeding train. But as he gained confidence that the setup was benefiting his sons, Mr. Chandler decided he didn't even want to return to a conventional career. This year, he started a flexible consulting business as a technical writer. Freed from the pressures of managing big contracts, he is content to "work around the fringes," he says. Although his wife, Diane, a software executive, admits to being "a little jealous" of Jim's time with the kids, she says having a parent available "makes a house more of a home."

Recruiters at Mom Corps, a Marietta, Ga., professional staffing firm specializing in flexible work, seldom saw at-home dads among job seekers in the past. But they have recently begun seeing a steady trickle, says CEO Allison O'Kelly. Just 4.8% of married-couple families with children have at-home dads; 30.5% have at-home mothers, government data show.

At-home dads often pay an even higher career price than moms. After dropping out in 2001 for what he thought would be 18 months caring for his son, Eric Sonntag, a former magazine-circulation director, found returning to work so difficult that he had to job-hunt for two years, then take a 20% pay cut. Staying home "set my career back half a decade," says the Forest Hills, N.Y., father. He was "looked at askance" by many hiring managers, he says. When he explained what he had been doing, some asked disdainfully, "What else did you do?"

One reason men get Daddy-tracked, of course, is prejudice. In a 2003 study at Wake Forest University, 242 college students were shown mock personnel files of mothers and fathers who had taken leave for family reasons, plus others who hadn't. Asked how likely each employee was to be a good team player, such as helping co-workers with tasks, the students rated men who had taken leave lower than other employees. Male raters were especially biased, scoring leave-taking dads lower on the likelihood of being punctual and available to work overtime. Taking leave made no difference in how female employees were rated.

Many men map their own detours around such bias. Steve Haderlein quit his corporate-banking career in 1999 partly because he knew his escalating work hours would only continue to rise, robbing him of time with his two children. He quickly learned that at-home fathering "isn't for wimps," he says. At parent gatherings, he was met with such remarks as, "What's he doing here?" he says. At-home dads must also "be ready for questions from male friends -- 'So what do you do all day?' "

But like many at-home moms, Mr. Haderlein found a meaningful public-service sideline; he ran for the Pasadena, Calif., city council and won. Three years later, he started a new, kid-friendly career as a high-school teacher, allowing him to stay involved with his children, now 13 and 9. His wife continues to work as a hospital administrator. "If you'd asked me 15 years ago when I was a newly minted M.B.A., would I ever be a stay-at-home dad, I would never have thought so," he says. But the outcome has been "entirely positive."



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