Number of stay-at-home dads is on slow, steady increase

Some get strange looks, find few friends among mothers in neighborhood

December 26, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PURCHASE, N.Y. - Around the streets here at midday, few men can be seen. There may be a retired schoolteacher and a gardener or two, but mostly Terry Purinton is alone.

Between 8 in the morning and 6 in the evening, he is often the lone man in the grocery store, at the park or picking up the kids from school.

By now, he is used to it. It has been more than a decade since Purinton, 37, began taking care of the house and children while his wife, a documentary film producer, went to work in New York City.

"One word," he said. "Isolation."

Sure, Purinton also writes and works as a caretaker on a large estate. But if stay-at-home mothers demand respect, Purinton will settle for recognition.

"If I were a woman, people would say I was amazing," he said, sitting at his kitchen table on a gray day this month. "But I'm a man, and so this is seen as weak."

While television audiences are gripped by the suburban drama of Desperate Housewives, stay-at-home dads face their own forms of desperation: strange looks from moms and nannies, snide remarks from former colleagues, and elusive play dates.

The number of fathers who run the household while their wives go off to work has slowly but steadily grown over the past decade, to just slightly more than 5 percent of men with children under 18, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Stay-at-home dads (who would rather be called anything but househusbands, thank you) are still out numbered by stay-at-home moms 6 to 1 - 8.4 million compared with 1.4 million, according to the bureau.

The strength in numbers is evident in many ways. In the unspoken rules of suburbia, mothers broker the play dates with an exacting calculus, weeks and even months in advance. For some, socializing with each other while their offspring crawl around is as essential as whether or not the children get along.

And here, the dads come up losers.

"We'd never get the invitations," Purinton said. "I'd call and leave messages, but if you've done that three times, you sort of figure that doing it any more is just pestering."

Part of the worry, many suspect, are the raised eyebrows that too much gender-mixed daytime socializing could bring.

Bill White, 38, says he routinely had polite chats with mothers he met at swimming lessons in Cold Spring Harbor, but was rarely included in coffee dates or outings to the park with his 5-year-old son, Jack.

To become a full-time dad, he had walked away from a six-figure income in technology sales and his friends from work.

"My focus was on diapers and feeding schedules and naps," he said, thinking back to the first year. "They would feel sorry for me, like my wife has to work while I sit around and watch Oprah."

Slowly, he met a few other dads from Long Island and started weekly outings with the kids. And just like the mothers they had watched jealously, the fathers began trading recipes, advice and gossip.

"You can only talk about kids for so long," said Mark Bergin, 42, who regularly takes his 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter to the play group. "If you're in a mixed crowd, women can't complain about their husbands, and men can't complain about their wives. This is our locker-room sort of thing."

Or maybe it is a fraternity sort of thing. Once a month, they have a "boys' night out" at a bar, leaving their wives to fend for themselves until the wee hours. Last year, Smith and two other guys took a long weekend vacation in Las Vegas.

"There've been plenty of `what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas' remarks, but honestly, it was pretty mild," Smith said. Mostly the men gambled and ate during the day and went to shows at night - no strip clubs, no dancing on bars, he said.

For all its success, Smith's group is an anomaly in the New York suburbs. Most of these fathers see themselves as islands in a sea of women. Still, not all crave bonding time with the guys.

"I would like to get other people's tips and hear how they handle things, but I'm not really interested in finding men just to talk to," said Richard Champlain, who is in his third month as a stay-at-home father of newborn twins, Emily and Katherine. His wife, Gillian Jackson-Champlain, has encouraged him to make more male friends near their home in Croton-on-Hudson, but Champlain says he is content to doze or play video games in his down time.

With the earnest enthusiasm of a rookie, Champlain says he has few complaints. On one recent afternoon, Emily easily fell asleep for her afternoon nap, while Katherine began fussing and crying moments after he left the room. Just as he started to dash up the stairs to their room for a third time, the phone rang.

It was his wife.

"OK, honey I've got to go," he said. A few moments passed. "Really, I've got to go." The impatience began to set in: "Really, bye!"

"That can be annoying," he said as he hung up the phone. "I have a baby crying, and she's still trying to tell me something."

Jackson-Champlain, who returned to work as an advertising producer last month, has her own concerns. With her commuting, she is often gone for 12 hours at a time, limiting her contact with her daughters. When Katherine cries hysterically, she does not quiet in her mother's arms, but the moment Champlain picks her up, the sobs subside.

"Sometimes I do feel like, you know, they don't like me or they don't love me," Jackson-Champlain said, explaining that such moments often bring her to tears. "As a mother, they're supposed to be your babies. It's very upsetting to know that I am not the one who can comfort her quickly."

Many stay-at-home fathers find that they are fish out of water, too.

"Conversations with men here revolve around banking, and the kinds of cars you drive, and the country club," Purinton said. "That gives me the heebie-jeebies."

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