CHICAGO — Kevin Rudge strapped his 18-month-old daughter into a shopping cart and wheeled her down the grocery aisle singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider."
Their morning outing started about the time his wife, Camille, a banker, arrived at her office.
The couple agreed he would take a break from his career after his managerial position at Nortel Networks was eliminated in late 2002, during the telecom industry downturn.
He could have stayed at Nortel in a different position or looked for another employer, but neither option appealed to him as much as spending time at home with his two growing daughters, then ages 2 and 7. The youngest was not yet born.
"It started out as a kind of a joke, 'I'll stay home with the kids,' " he recalls. "My wife came back with, 'Well, what do you think of that?' "
Camille Rudge recalls their discussion as a "gut" decision, similar to when they walked into their home for the first time and knew it was where they wanted to raise their family.
"Certainly, it was a big financial decision, but it didn't become that at all. We didn't do the traditional 'future value of his earnings' analysis," she says. "This just felt right. We didn't want our work style to define our lives or how many children we had. We wanted to find a way to be more in control."
Women overwhelmingly outnumber men as stay-at-home spouses, but studies suggest that younger men are more likely than their fathers to step off career paths.
Nearly 60% of male Generation X professionals said they would consider dropping out of work for a period of time, compared with 43% of male Baby Boomers, according to a survey by staffing firm Aquent, Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business and consulting firm Work+Life Fit Inc.
As women move into demanding corporate jobs, some rely on husbands to manage households and care for children. That's especially true for women at executive levels.
Fortune reported that more than one-third of the magazine's "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" in 2002 had stay-at-home spouses. The magazine called them "trophy husbands," not for their looks or charm but because they deserve trophies for trading roles to help their wives' careers flourish.
The Rudges decided to see how Kevin liked the arrangement. One year stretched into two, then three, and their youngest was born. There were no thoughts of Kevin returning to work.
He became a carpooler, a "phonics parent" at their middle daughter's school, a Girl Scout "cookie dad" and a somewhat capable cook.
"I would like to have the food on the table when Camille gets home from work, the way my mom did it," he says. "It just doesn't always happen."
Camille's career flourished -- she is corporate managing director and head of foreign exchange and derivatives for LaSalle Bank Corp. in Chicago -- and Kevin discovered an outlet for his humor. He started a blog called "Confessions of a Trophy Husband," at www.mydaddoesnotwork.com, initially to share the children's stories and pictures with their grandparents and Camille. He writes late at night when everyone else in the household is sleeping.
Camille no longer worries when her job requires staying late or traveling. "There was an ease for me that made my work lifestyle a little more fluid," she said.
Equally important was no longer having to find out what happened during their children's day exclusively from a third adult. Kevin does receive help with the children from an au pair.
"When you have a caregiver in your lives, you need to have both parents and the caregiver all aligned. How are they sleeping? When are they napping? What happened in school?
"We found the communication of parenting is much more natural and easier" with Kevin at home, Camille said.
And there is an added benefit: "Kevin brings me into the funny part of their world and everyday life. I get to hear the stories."
Kevin insists that neither he nor Camille is particularly "domesticated," even though he cooks and cleans. Ponytails are another matter. "Dad doesn't do hair" is a family joke.
"Getting them ready for school, you'd think I would have picked up some simple pigtails or something," he says. "Now they know not even to ask."
Even from strangers, Kevin gets credit for being an attentive father.
"A dad with a child doing whatever it is, people come up and say what a great job I'm doing," he said. "Men are held to a lower standard. The expectations are low."
Still, it takes self-assurance to be the only man at a swim class where the instructor tells the children to paddle to their mommies. He often finds himself the only dad in a room full of moms who assume he is out of work.
"Women have a puzzled look even when I explain what I do, that I'm a stay-at-home dad. There are just questions. 'Did he lose his job? Is he sick?' "
"Women are suspicious, and men are jealous," Camille says.
If her stay-at-home friends ask when her husband is going back to work, she answers: "When are you?"