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It Takes a Strong Person to Survive Life on the Daddy Track : Every Monday night, hundreds of men go online to chat about their careers. But they're not discussing office politics--they want to commiserate with other full-time dads.


In La Cienega Park on weekday mornings with baby Chelsea, a cooing infant in a ruffled bonnet and stroller, Marty Ross made a noble effort to connect with others in the same situation. Ross joined in the conversations about diaper rash, sleep disruption, spitty-uppies, even the way having a new baby can wreak havoc with a couple's sex life. But when the talk turned to husbands, things got ugly.

"Yeah, I know, I mean sometimes my wife . . . " he would begin. At which point a pack of women with fury in their faces would descend on him.

"What do you mean, your wife? " "What do you know, you're a guy." "Get a job, what's wrong with you, anyway?" "Creep!" "Loser!"

Ross decided he needed to start hanging with the guys--other full-time, stay-at-home dads. But that turned out to be a great deal easier said than done. "I felt like I was in a caste system," said Ross, a 38-year-old musician and composer in Los Angeles whose wife, Doreen, is an executive in the entertainment industry. "There just wasn't anybody else."

In subscribing to a small bimonthly publication called Full-Time Dads, Ross, like others of his stay-at-home compatriots, has made his first feeble attempt--a baby step, you might call it--at reaching out to fellow househusbands. At-Home Dad, a quarterly newsletter with a circulation of 700, even carries a "network" page that resembles any magazine's or newspaper's personal ads. Cyberspace pops can chat once a week in a cozy online group. What these efforts lack in numbers they make up for in serving as windows into the special challenge of stay-at-home fatherhood.

In San Diego, 33-year-old James Dicenzo found that as the full-time, stay-at-home father of 2-year-old Lauren, and now of 4-week-old Gabriel as well, he was viewed less as a pariah than as a curiosity.

"It was like, 'You cook and clean? You care for the kids? I want one of those too!' " said Dicenzo, who left a 15-year career in social services to stay home and raise his children while his wife, Leslie, worked as an electronics engineer.

James Levine, head of the Fatherhood Project at the Work and Families Institute in New York, noted that not all at-home dads are "role reversal fathers in the stereotype created by the movie 'Mr. Mom.' " Many such families are made up of split-shift workers, Levine has found, where a father--a firefighter or police officer at night, for example--may care for children during the day while a wife is at work, or vice versa. At-home dadhood, said Levine, who has been studying the phenomenon for 20 years, has now reached a "critical mass," where "while it is unusual still, it is no longer considered freakish."

U.S. Census Bureau figures show that in 1993, the most recent year for which there is data, about 9.9 million children under 5--or about 16% of all preschoolers--were cared for full time by their fathers while their mothers worked outside the home.

Readily and loudly, many of these dads admit to a nagging sense of isolation. They feel lonely, alienated from a culture that barely acknowledges their existence--never mind offering them any shred of respect.

They are viewed not only with suspicion, but also with the almost inevitable assumption that they are simultaneously unemployed and unemployable--a double whammy for all but the most secure of work-focused male egos. When Dicenzo got playful with a telephone surveyor recently, for instance, and described his occupation as "domestic god," the pollster--with not a trace of drollery in his own voice--replied, "that would be 'unemployed.' "

Family members are often perplexed when a man opts to stay home to raise children. "So you'll do this for a few months and then you'll go back to work, right?" is the usual refrain from in-laws and grandparents.

Friends puzzle too. Stay-at-home fathers point out that whereas a woman may leave one set of co-workers behind when she moves from a career outside the home to full-time mothering, she soon finds another set of co-workers in the form of other mothers. Men say it is far more difficult to connect with a male peer group.

Stephen Harris, 36, contends that "there are enough men out there doing it that need the validation" that comes with camaraderie. As editor and publisher of Full-Time Dads (circulation 350), produced in his Cumberland, Me., home, Harris hears the complaints and concerns of men who are forging the trail of full-time fatherhood.

Often they coincide with his own experiences since making the decision seven years ago to stay home with the kids while his wife went off to work as the editor of a computer service newsletter.

Before 7-year-old Ben and Robin, 4, were born, Harris had been a cook, a photographer and a catalogue designer for Brookstone, purveyor of yuppie playthings. As Harris reasoned, "Some people have vacation homes or drive big cars. Our luxury was for one of us to stay home."

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