The good father is a good mother

CATCHING UP WITH... KEVIN KNUSSMAN

The state trooper who sued for a leave to care for his ill wife and baby has now retired from the force to become a full-time dad

January 09, 2000|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

Kevin Knussman always wanted to be a good father, the type of man who never missed a Little League game or school play. The type of man his own father was.

So when his wife became ill after giving birth to their daughter, Knussman, a flight paramedic, asked the Maryland State Police for extended leave so he could care for little Paige while his wife recuperated.

The state said no, and Knussman sued -- then became something of a folk hero as the media spread his story across the country. He even wound up in Hillary Rodham Clinton's book "It Takes a Village." And along with fame, he picked up $375,000 from a sympathetic jury last summer.

He also gained something unexpected: a new full-time job. His wife now goes to the office every day, while Knussman paints tiny fingernails, washes dishes and arranges play-dates.

The man who set out to emulate his father never thought he'd end up following in his mother's footsteps.

`A no-brainer'

"I miss taking care of patients," Knussman says now, six months after retiring with 23 years on the force. "I miss the excitement of flying on MedEvacs. But I don't miss the stresses of working with the Maryland State Police. I don't miss the environment."

Much has happened to him since he filed his groundbreaking sex-discrimination lawsuit in March of 1995. He fathered a second daughter, Hope, who is now 3. He watched his wife, Kimberly, return to work at the Department of Housing and Community Development in Crownsville. And in July, he left his job for good. "It was a no-brainer," he said, noting that a supplemental retirement program pays him 59 percent of his salary. "Financially, where's the incentive to go to work when I was needed at home?"

Slowly, he has grown accustomed to the new rhythms of his days. He gets the children ready for morning school programs, tidies the kitchen, and reads to the girls in the afternoon. He has conquered the microwave and boasts about his steamed broccoli.

It's a lifestyle more and more men have embraced, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study released last fall. The number of unemployed men who chose not to work because of "home responsibilities" doubled from 4.6 to 8.4 percent from 1991 to 1996.

And a front-page New York Times article last week described an At-Home Dads Convention -- one attendee has an apron that reads "Women want me, Martha Stewart fears me" -- where men discussed loneliness, isolation and weight gain.

But Knussman, 42, never intended to be a trendsetter. He doesn't seek out other at-home dads for coffee (even though he thinks there is at least one other one in his neighborhood), and he hasn't ever logged on the Internet chat room called MrMomz.com.

"I don't feel like we set out for me to be the full-time caregiver of our children," he says. "Before the trial, I said, `I'm a trooper, and that's all I ever wanted to do. I got to live the life of my dreams. But at the end of the day, when I take off my uniform, I'm a daddy and a husband. And I'll be a daddy and a husband for a long time after I'm a trooper.' "

Even so, his new job has taken some getting used to.

The downside: "The kids are very demanding. ... You work to their schedule. And if I want to do a project, I like to do it exclusively -- to plan it, think about it -- and with kids, that's impossible."

The best part: "The hugs and kisses and `I love you's.' "

Knussman is getting better at multi-tasking, though. He juggled a recent telephone conversation with a game called "Silly Faces" against his 5-year-old, the one whose birth started all this. ("Paige!" he shouted into the phone at one point. "You won again!")

It makes quite a change from high-speed chases or administering CPR to re-start a heart.

"It even came as a bit of a surprise to me that this is what he's chosen to do since his retirement," says Deborah Jeon, the ACLU attorney who represented him. "Kevin was so committed to his job. He was the epitome of what a state trooper should be. ... And I always knew he was a very committed dad."

Expectations, surprises

Knussman feels the weight of the people's expectations, since his trial attracted so much attention. "People in the community prayed for us, and neighbors helped us," he said. "I had a pretty high degree of conviction to be a good father, as my father was to me. And I'm obviously being held accountable now." At-home dads may be gaining strength in numbers, but Knussman's wife, Kimberly, says her co-workers still express surprise when they learn about the couple's division of labor. "It's a very foreign concept," she says. But it's one that works.

In the mornings, when Kimberly is somewhat less than perky getting ready for work, "early bird" Kevin puts on a show for the girls, acting like a waiter as he serves them breakfast, she says.

Someday, he may return to work in the health care field. But right now, he envisions his family leave stretching far into the future. "I've got no burning desire to do anything now but take care of the household, the kids, and the family," he said. "Family first."

There's just one thing that worries him about his girls. The other day, Paige expressed surprise that women were allowed to do the same things as men, like be a judge or own a gun. "Where is she getting this, that `I'm a girl, and girls can't do certain things?' " Knussman wonders.

He'll teach her: Girls don't have to fit gender stereotypes. They can be anything they want. Just like their dads.

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