How Stay-at-Home Dads Bounce Back From Career Hiatus

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After 19 years at a major newspaper, Ken Kaplan accepted a buyout so that he could shift his career and spend more time with his two young children, now 9 and 14 years old.

That decision made Kaplan, a Boston resident, the primary caregiver in his household of four.

"I thought I owed it to myself to have some time with the kids," says Kaplan. As the children began heading off to school, "I sort of felt like an absentee father being at work during dinnertime. For many years, I felt cut out of their lives."

As the economy continues to putter along, households are rethinking their mechanics and shifting gears, allowing more dads to embrace the role of Mr. Mom. And, like the women before them, some men have been left wondering how to return to the labor market after a short- or long-term stint at home taking care of the kids..

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2009 unemployment rate for women was 2.2 percentage points lower than the rate for men, revealing one of the largest work force gender gaps ever.

High unemployment has hit both men and women, with men numerically bearing the brunt of the impact as the recession continues to snatch more jobs from men than women.

In September, the unemployment rate for men 20 years old and up stood at 8.9 percent, a few paces above the 7.2 unemployment rate for women in the same age bracket.

A layoff took systems analyst Raymond Gordon, who lives in Atlanta, out of the work force in early 2009. While he searched for a job that would take advantage of his skills, he found himself building stronger ties with his two children, including a young son for whom he has custody every other week.

"The time with your children you can't get back," he says.

The number of stay-at-home dads rose to 158,000 in 2009, a bit of a jump from the 140,000 married men who spent at least one year at home in 2008 caring for children under 15 while their wives worked.

The stay-at-home ratio for moms to dads continued to shrink, moving from 38 to 1 in 2008 to 32 to 1 in 2009.

Stay-at-Home Dad Organizations Help Counter Isolation

But the new role reversal has yet to create a huge increase in traffic at the annual At Home Dad Convention, where stay-at-home fathers met for expert and academic discussions on such topics as how to discipline children and nutrition.

"We may see an increase in years to come as dads become more comfortable accepting the role that they have been put into," says Philip Andrew, a stay-at-home dad based in Lincoln, Neb.

"One thing people need to realize is when a dad goes through this transition it takes quite awhile to get through that period and be comfortable with it," says Andrew. The adjustment from full-time employee to stay-at-home dad can take one to two years.

A stay-at-home dad for 10 years, Andrew was catapulted into that role after his employer went bankrupt and day care became a problem. "We sat down to figure out how to work this out, and [how to] get rid of day care costs, then we jumped right in," said Andrew. His period of adjustment lasted a year. "I really ... enjoyed being around my daughter, but I did struggle a little bit with the isolation."

It's a problem many men may experience after losing the built-in social network provided by a company and colleagues. "You may face some pressure from parents and grandparents who don't think a dad should stay at home," says Andrew. But "a lot of my friends were very supportive of me, and I was still able to keep in touch, and I'm still in touch with them until this day."

For both Andrew and Kaplan, their wives became the top wage earners, and the men were offered the opportunity to reconnect with their families.

For Gordon, the decision to purchase a franchise allowed him more flexibility in his family life. "If I just tried to do it on my own, it would be tremendously difficult. By starting a franchise, I had a process to follow instead of spinning my wheels," says Gordon, who is now owner of Cybertary of Atlanta, a company that offers virtual administrative support. "Due to the nature of Cybertary, I can pretty much entirely fit my schedule around my son's. My home is my office, so when [my son] has activities that I need to participate in, I have the flexibility to participate in those activities, and I can just make up the time as needed," says Gordon. But not every dad is looking to become an entrepreneur.

Turning Parenting Skills Into Assets

In between car pooling, caring for his father, taking on big home-improvement projects, juggling chaotic camp schedules, cooking and freelancing, Kaplan networked and took informal meetings to hone his skills in an industry that has experienced year-to-year change.

In September, an employer sought him out for a temporary job. Did his time spent with his kids win him the position? "I don't know if my being at home was an asset [during] the interviewing process, but I was able to talk about it in who I am and what I do," says Kaplan. "I had no compunction about telling them. My impression was anyone I spoke to understood what it was that I hadn't had in my life, and what it was that I was getting in my life."

What definitely helped was Kaplan's freelancing and gaining new skills as the media industry evolved.

After a break from the work force, most career experts say it important to discuss how you spent the time away and to continue to network.

"You can address it in your cover letter. If it's appropriate, talk about what you've been doing in that time off," says Charles Purdy, a senior editor at Monster+HotJobs. "Just because you weren't getting paid doesn't mean that something isn't valuable."

Thanks to activities his children participated in, Andrew took on two part-time jobs as his kids got older, dipping his toes gradually into the work force. After enrolling his daughter in the Pioneers Park Nature Center many years ago, Andrew became a volunteer for the organization, which led to a job as a nature teacher.

"You can't isolate yourself from the public," says Andrew. "You need to get out, get involved in local parenting groups, get involved with your local Parent Teacher Association. You're networking with other people. Instead of cold calling people, you have someone who knows you and maybe works with you on the local PTA."