Pop Psychology Children: At-Home Dads Convention helps fathers rest, break the isolation and share tales from the front lines. If it can't make them regular guys again, that's OK. They miss their babies.

December 09, 1996|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

DES PLAINES, Ill. -- This is their night. Anything goes. Nine men who take care of their children full-time are free for the weekend. No responsibilities. No worries. No kids!

What's it going to be, boys: Shoot pool until dawn? Check out the strip joints? Scratch, belch and watch ESPN until your retinas revolt? So many possibilities. They head to a restaurant to discuss them.

"While we're waiting, shall we pass around pictures?" David Boylan asks.

Out they come, snapshots and Polaroids and school pictures. Pictures in wallets, pictures in cute photo books, pictures right out of the frame. Kids in swimsuits at the beach. Kids in Winnie the Pooh Halloween costumes. Kids on swings. Pictures of smiling kids and smiling dads. Lots of kids and dads.

Par-ty!

"OK," Casey Spencer says. "How many of you guys miss your kids?"

"I've only been away an hour," Bill Balmer replies.

This is no ordinary night on the town, but then this is no ordinary group of fathers. This is the first At-Home Dads Convention at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, a Chicago suburb, and it has attracted 50 men from across the country who stay home with the kids while their wives work. The nine men who swap photos at the restaurant are meeting for the first time, but they've known each other for months.

They participate in a computer chat group for at-home dads on America Online, one of several ways, including newsletters and play groups, that these fathers maintain their sanity and remind themselves they aren't alone.

The untallied

But they are still rare. So rare that the U.S. Census Bureau can't say for certain how many at-home fathers there are because the researchers never thought to ask. Estimates range from 300,000 to 2 million, but Lynne Casper, a Census Bureau statistician and one of the convention speakers, says it's just a guess.

"You guys are something that we've never seen before," she says. "We're just at the ground level of trying to figure this out."

The convention is a place to start. But mostly, says Bruce Drobeck, a marriage and family therapist in Texas and another of the speakers, it is a chance to send the at-home dads a message: "Yes, you can do this."

Call them parental pioneers. Or child-care trendsetters. Just don't call them "Mr. Mom." At-home dads complain that the 1983 hit movie portrays fathers as incompetent oafs who wouldn't know a spin cycle from a motorcycle.

Not these guys. Listen to Peter Baylies, 40, of North Andover, Mass., who assumed most of the parental duties for his two children after he was laid off from his computer job five years ago. He has a housekeeping tip for fathers.

"Whatever room your wife enters when she comes home, clean that room first," he says. "She'll think you've been busy working all day if she sees a clean room right when she first walks in."

Want more? Boylan heats water, cinnamon and clove in a pan -- "The house smells like Christmas" -- while Spencer prefers heating onion, garlic and butter to make the kitchen smell like someone has been cooking all day. And if you must resort to Spaghettios for lunch, at least hide the can at the bottom of the trash. No one will be the wiser.

Boylan, 42, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., who gave up an acting career to care for his two children, raises his glass.

"Here's to the dads," he says.

Spencer, 44, who has come to the convention from San Diego, proposes another toast.

"We ought to thank the people responsible for us being here. To the moms!"

Actually, Baylies is the person most responsible for this weekend. He started his newsletter, At-Home Dad, in the spring of 1994, and it now has 1,000 subscribers, covering topics such as parental burnout. Or, as Baylies put it in a recent issue:

Everywhere you look, there's another Lego, matchbox car, half-eaten cracker, or a used baby wipe on the floor. The whining noises of the vacuum cleaner and the kids increase in frequency, there are more diapers to change, more dishes. You forgot the trash, and you can see the garbage truck at the end of the street. It's raining out, and the videos have been watched 70 times each. Those chocolate-covered walls begin to close in. Finally, it begins to dawn on you you're burned out.

On this night, though, Baylies has a different dilemma. This is the longest he has been away from his two boys -- John, 4, and David, 18 months -- and he's not sure what to do with himself.

"It's weird," he says. "It's like I'm a free man. You're like a trapped bird let out of a cage. You're free, but you don't know what to do."

He can join the conversation at the restaurant. Right now Jim Mains, 38, who left an administrative job at Loyola University in Chicago to raise his two boys, is holding forth about Burger King. And he is not happy.

"I'm starting a campaign against Burger King for not having enough 'Toy Story' toys in their kid meals," he says. "I stopped at four different ones, and none of them had them."

"They have 'Space Jam' toys at McDonald's," Bill Balmer says helpfully.

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