How Stay-at-Home Dads Redefine Gender Roles

The Hollywood version of the stay-at-home dad hasn't changed much in 20 years.

In the movies, so-called "Mr. Moms" only take care of the kids because they've lost their real jobs or because they're hopelessly incompetent. But the cliche has failed to keep up with the reality, illustrated by men like 37-year-old Caleb Cohen, a former software engineer who seven years ago chose full-time parenting over a career as a software engineer.

"Seven years ago, if I were to be in a park like we are today, I would certainly have been the only one," said Cohen, of Scotch Plains, N.J. "I would have been looked at like, 'What's wrong with you. Where are you at? Did you lose your job?' And I'd be ostracized. And today, I have no problem. It's more accepted. It's like, 'Hey, there's a father at home at noon on a Thursday.' That's not such an abnormal thing anymore."

His wife, Lucinda, admitted that she can become jealous of her husband, who is the primary caregiver for their sons, Josh, 7, and Sam, 3. She envies the time he gets to spend with them, and the spontaneous pleasures they enjoy, including a recent trip to the beach on a day of triple-digit temperatures. But she appreciates the peace of mind she gets from having a husband who stays at home.

"From my perspective, it's a huge benefit," she said. "I don't have to worry about the kids. When one of them is sick, I don't have to try to coordinate my backup care."

Caleb Cohen said he "wouldn't trade this for anything in the world" despite the fact that the job comes with responsibility for the housework, too, including shopping, cooking, cleaning and laundry.

The main reason more men are becoming stay at home dads may be because women increasingly earn more than they do. In 1981 -- just one generation ago -- 15 percent of wives earned more than their husbands, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Now 25 percent do.

Lucinda Cohen is a research chemist at the pharmaceutical behemoth Merck & Co. Inc., and she knows that their division of labor makes financial sense.

"I've got a PhD, he's got a bachelor's degree," she said. "I have more earning potential and, when we worked, when we were both working, I liked my job better than he did."

But the decision to be a stay-at-home dad is rarely just economic, said Aaron Rochlen, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who has co-wrote a research paper on stay-at-home fathers.

"The notion that they're actively challenging is that 'provider' for men means economic," Rochlen said, "and I think these guys are helping to stretch that. And I think they're helping to redefine not only what a father's job is but what it means to be a man."

Lucinda Cohen admitted that people react with "nervous laughter" when she tells people her husband stays home and takes care of the kids.

"People think he's divorced and it's his day with the kids, or that there's something wrong with him, [that] he's a freak," she said.

Though it can feel socially awkward at times to explain he is a stay-at-home dad, her husband pointed out that being a working dad did little to boost his so-called manhood.

"Working in a cubicle in and of itself was not masculine," he said. "So not doing that doesn't mean I've lost any masculinity."

That attitude, Rochlen said, is emblematic of a larger cultural shift in the way men define their historical role as breadwinners.

"For many men, the idea of male as breadwinner -- as economic provider -- has been equated with men's identity," he said. "And now I think, it's shifting. So the idea of provider means more what needs to be done for my family."

Rochlen said men are still aware of the stigma of stay-at-home dads but are also actively challenging the notion of a provider's role being solely economic.

"They're helping to redefine not only what a father's job is but what it means to be a man," he said.

But being a man in a woman's world is still not easy. Even making a play date can be fraught with baggage.

"It's still an issue, a taboo in this country to go and hang out at another woman's house," Cohen said. "And it's also difficult to invite another woman, 'Hey, why don't you come over to my house and play?'"

Still, he sticks to his bottom line: The Cohens' priority is the well-being of their children.

"We do it for the kids," he said. "I think any stay-at-home parent does it for the kids, and we're doing this as the best way we can provide and take care of our children."

But the ultimate arbiters, the kids, barely notice the social revolution under way.

What does 7-year-old Josh think about having a stay-at-home dad?

"It's just like a stay-at-home mom, but different," he said.

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