Look Who's Barefoot in the Kitchen

You could say Doug Wilson is the sultan of savvy dining in Dallas. The 35-year-old can get his family of five in and out of Furr's Cafeteria--where he and his wife lean toward the meat bar and his kids prefer the seven colors of Jell-O--for under $30. The deal he's got at Marshall's BBQ and Souper Salads is even better: $20. Avoiding places like Olive Garden and TGI Friday's, with their $45 tabs, is one of the many ways Wilson and his wife, Lisa, survive on just one annual paycheck of $40,000.

Her paycheck, that is. Wilson used to spend his days soaked in sweat managing road repavings in the 110-degree Texas sun. Now, he does the housework, runs the errands, and scours the city for bargains in his '86 Ford LTD. "This is the hardest job I've ever had," Wilson says.

In many ways, you could say Wilson has traded places with June Cleaver, becoming one of a new and growing breed of housewife--the househusband. In fact, the number of children living with stay-at-home dads has jumped 70% since 1990, to 1.7 million, according to Census data. "These are dads who have committed to leaving their life for four to five years," says family researcher Robert Frank, a psychology professor at Oakton Community College, in Des Plaines, Ill., who studies at-home dads.

Some of these fathers, like former Simpata Inc. CEO Jeff Simon, were fried from working 12-hour days and missed spending time with their kids. Others, like former Dell Computer Corp. (DELL ) senior manager Justin Espinosa, decided to stay home with their children after they got laid off, sending their wives into the workforce, only to experience marital strife as a result of the swap. Then there are those like Wilson, whose wife's earnings began to outstrip his, causing him to question the value of spending $1,200 a month on a germ-filled child-care facility when he could raise his kids himself. Trailing husbands, who follow their globe-traveling executive wives, are also part of the trend. "Five years ago, if you were recruiting a female executive, you always had to take into consideration the husband's career, who we could introduce him to," says one of Silicon Valley's top headhunters, Russell Reynolds Associates Inc.'s Becky Stein, whose physician husband has primary responsibility for their kids. "Now, I don't even think about it anymore."

Because their overall numbers are still so tiny, the increase in stay-at-home dads hardly means most fathers have suddenly become co-CEOs of the home, sharing equal responsibility for child rearing with their wives. "In most households, working women are still the ones doing the second shift at home," says Frank. But, more and more, researchers note, the roles are starting to change, evident in the increase in male executives working compressed weeks so they can have more time with children, in shift workers who are taking responsibility for daytime child care, and in dads working from home so they can be closer to their kids. Frank estimates that the total number of dads with primary responsibility for children in dual-earner households has jumped 25% since the early 1990s to 2.5 million.

TAKE-OUT TIME. Another surprising statistic: Children are actually spending more time with their parents than they were 20 years ago, according to several studies. The enhanced participation of men in child-rearing is the biggest reason, besides the falling birth rate. One recent time diary study, conducted by Sandra L. Hofferth and John Sandberg at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, found that despite a rapid increase in the number of dual-earner families, children under 13 with working parents were spending an average of four hours more a week with their mothers and almost six hours more a week with their fathers than they were in 1981. The increase, notes Purdue University's professor of family studies, Shelley M. MacDermid, stems in part from discomfort parents have in sending kids out to play unsupervised. In fact, the study found that children's time with mothers and fathers in two-parent families increased so much that it washed out any decrease of time due to the mother's outside employment.

If parents are spending more time with their kids, then what gives? Housework, according to Suzanne M. Bianchi, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. Bianchi found that both working and at-home moms spend about half the time on household chores that they did in the 1960s, thanks to take-out meals, hired housekeepers, and wrinkle-free clothes. Meanwhile, men's time on household duties during the same period has doubled, so that they are now doing fully one-third of housework.

Of course, the current economic downturn is playing a role in men's increased involvement. Often, though, these dads say their time at home adds to the family stress level. As much as wives want their husbands to be involved, the role reversal can be difficult, forcing them to relinquish control of the home. Husbands, on the other hand, have to struggle against the ingrained expectation of being the bread winner. Espinosa, the Dell manager, thrived in his career in service operations there. But the 28-year-old often worked 60 hours a week. He was worried about the way he often left the house before his three kids even woke up. So when he got laid off in May, he decided to make the scariest decision of his career--putting it on the shelf for the summer. His wife went to work, for the first time in their marriage, at a local Internet company. "The stress between couples is tremendous," he says. "Two sets of our friends are separated right now, and the layoff has had a lot to do with it," Espinosa says. He's now looking for a new job.

Even if couples hash things out in their relationship, as the Espinosas have, trading places can bring on judgments from the outside world. Many stay-at-home dads complain about the conversational snubs and weird stares they get at playgrounds and school yards. More and more, though, these caregiver fathers are likely to become a more familiar sight.

By Michelle Conlin in New York

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