MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
On this Father's Day, let's hear about the growing number of stay-at-home dads in this country. Nationwide, the number of men who are full-time stay-at-home parents has risen significantly since the 1970s. But full-time fathers say they still struggle to be accepted. As part of the NPR-wide project How to Raise a Human, NPR's Jason Beaubien has the story.
BEN SANDERS: (Unintelligible) Help your brother?
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It's mid-morning in a tidy housing development on the far-flung western suburbs of Washington, D.C.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Oh, he wasn't chewing Legos.
SANDERS: Well, you can't play with Legos and yoyos at the same time, right?
BEAUBIEN: Ben Sanders, a former business executive, is settling disputes over Legos and yo-yos. Sanders, who's raising two boys, has been a full-time dad for six years.
SANDERS: It's a tough job. There's no breaks. It's 24/7, there's no vacation. You can't get sick.
BEAUBIEN: Many of the challenges facing stay-at-home dads are the same as those facing full-time moms.
SANDERS: The amount of work - it's crazy. Like, it takes a while to get used to constantly being on your feet, constantly, you know, shopping, laundry, errands, running kids here, running kids there. It is very busy. It's very hands-on.
BEAUBIEN: And then there's the fact that some people still aren't comfortable with his decision to be a stay-at-home parent. Initially, Sanders signed up for a mom's group in his neighborhood but didn't feel completely welcome. He says finding play dates for his kids is a bit harder as a dad.
SANDERS: It's like sales, you know? People say no all the time. If you're going to be in sales, you can't fear rejection. So ask enough stay-at-home moms if they want a play date, maybe one or two out of 10 will say, yeah, let's do it.
BEAUBIEN: Researchers say that stay-at-home dads still struggle with entrenched social norms around a man's role as breadwinner. In many parts of the country, there are so few stay-at-home fathers that it can be difficult for them to find each other. And Sanders says some people just don't understand the choice his family has made. His wife, Nicole Sanders, has a high-pressure job with a large defense contractor in the D.C. area.
NICOLE SANDERS: I don't think I could do my job if he weren't at home. I travel a lot. My schedule is very erratic and unpredictable.
BEAUBIEN: In an eight-minute gap between business calls, she has a no-nonsense demeanor of someone who's spent a lot of time around military professionals.
SANDERS: I'm in and out of the city, which getting from here can be difficult with traffic. So the flexibility I have because of, you know, knowing there's always someone covering home allows me to be very flexible at work.
BEAUBIEN: Census data from the early 1970s shows almost no American men listing their occupation as full-time parent. That's changed, but only a bit.
BRAD HARRINGTON: It's still relatively uncommon.
BEAUBIEN: That's Brad Harrington, the executive director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family.
HARRINGTON: Depending on whose numbers you believe, it's somewhere between one out of 20 or maybe one out of 15 at-home parents is a dad. So there's still an overwhelming majority of at-home parents are women.
BEAUBIEN: Harrington's research has found that, among millennial men, more than half say they would consider being a stay-at-home dad if their spouse earned enough to support them. Yet he sees a disconnect between what people say they might do and what actually happens. Sometimes, the decision of whether the husband or the wife is going to stay home is driven simply by who makes the most money, and, overall, men still tend to earn more than women. Corporate culture, particularly at large, established companies, can also discourage men from deciding to stay at home.
HARRINGTON: There is a kind of a time lag between what is the experience of young fathers these days and what do the people at the top expect from young working dads?
BEAUBIEN: And Harrington says social isolation remains a major challenge for these fathers. To try to combat this, men have been setting up their own versions of mommy and me groups.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There you go.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And your wife is an attorney also?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, she's a doctor.
BEAUBIEN: On a recent Wednesday morning in Arlington, Va., a dozen stay-at-home fathers and about 20 kids have gotten together for a weekly dad's group. The kids range in age from a few months to 9 years old. Some of the older kids are playing dress up in the basement. A boy is building a Lego tower in the sunroom. Dads are drinking coffee, eating doughnuts and hanging out. Aaron Rosenbaum says this weekly get-together fills a void for him.
AARON ROSENBAUM: Just the camaraderie of being around other men who are also stay-at-home dads. No one feels uncomfortable around you, or you don't feel like people are wondering why you're staying at home or anything like that.
BEAUBIEN: He used to live on Capitol Hill in D.C. and says there were tons of activities for young kids.
ROSENBAUM: But I was almost always the only dad. Most moms were completely fine with me being there, but lots of times, I felt like a lot of people wouldn't actually talk to me or just kind of avoided me. And I don't know if it's just because they were not comfortable or what. I don't know.
BEAUBIEN: He acknowledges that parenting can also be a lonely endeavor for stay-at-home moms, who suddenly find their world swirling around a nonverbal infant. But Rosenbaum says he thinks men struggle a bit more to break out of that isolation.
ROSENBAUM: I feel like moms are more likely to come out of the woodwork and get together. Dads tend to be kind of loners (laughter).
BEAUBIEN: But that's something stay-at-home dads are realizing they have to work on for their own sanity - and to make sure their children have opportunities to play with other kids.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington.
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