NEW YORK — Hey, Mr. Mom.
What's up, Workaholic?
Whether they say it out loud or acknowledge it at all, that work-home divide traditionally reserved for the Mommy Wars can also rear between dads who go off to the office every day and the kind in the trenches with the kids.
There are bound to be rifts, given the growing league of dads staying home at least part time. But do the paths of work dads and home dads intertwine enough to make them care quite so deeply as the mothers? How exactly are they perceived, not by researchers or journalists, but by each other?
"To be a stay-at-home dad requires a lot of confidence in who you are," said Paxton Helms, 41, in Washington, D.C.
He became one about four years ago, when his daughter was 3 months old. A son followed, and he now takes part-time contracts as an international development consultant with flexible hours. His wife also works part time.
"The strangest thing that ever happened to me as a (stay-at-home dad) was riding on the Metro with both my kids and a guy asking me, 'So where's Mom?' I couldn't even think why in the world somebody would be asking me that question, so I couldn't even muster an answer," he said.
Suspicion about wives, layoffs
Other at-home dads worry about jealousy from working brethren (What are they really thinking about all that time spent with the women?). Or suspicion that they're out of work. And dads on both sides of the divide report the occasional cold shoulder.
"It seems that they try to avoid me or don't want to talk about what life is like for them," said dad-of-one Donald DeLong, 55, a Bloomfield Township, Mich., attorney who acknowledges a "deeply rooted need to work and 'earn a living.'"
"When I do talk to them, the topics stay guy-safe. That is, sports, cars. After all, we're both still guys. We don't talk about that sensitive touchy-feely stuff."
Other at-home dads, those by choice or pushed out of the job market, said they've endured some snark, but they consider it more of a dad-on-dad discomfort than a serious divide.
Martin Weckerlein, 33, is among them. He simply doesn't have the time to care. He was a tank commander in the Germany military, then a bank worker for six years before he gave it up to be an at-home dad for his three kids, ages 8 years old, 3 years old and 9 months. The family lives in suburban Washington, D.C., where his wife has a government job.
"When I'm with other dads who are my age, whether they work or stay at home, they tend to be pretty accepting and even curious as to how that works that we can afford me staying home, what I do during the day with the kids, and they say it must be nice to have that time," he said.
"When I am talking with men who aren't fathers or who are older, their questions usually focus on what my career goals are after I am done being home with my kids. They seem to assume this is only a temporary thing for our family, a pause in my career for a few years, instead of an investment in our family," Weckerlein said.
Yes, "Mr. Mom" comes up, the newest iteration in the shape of Chris Rock and his goofy band of dads with infants strapped to their chests in the movie "What to Expect When You're Expecting."
It's been nearly 30 years since Michael Keaton was that guy on screen, setting the kitchen on fire and making his kids miserable in "Mr. Mom," but the lingering moniker feels more like yesterday for Weckerlein and other at-home dads.
"I hate that phrase, Mr. Mom. I can't imagine my wife going into the office and saying, 'Hi everyone, it's Mrs. Dad,'" said Dan Zevin, a humorist, at-home dad to two and author of a new book, "Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad."
In Boston, 32-year-old Nolan Kido is no stereotype. He's the exhausted at-home dad of an 11-week-old daughter as his wife completes her dental education. He deferred work on his doctoral degree in accounting after doing some recession-era math: his earning power versus her earning power in the face of more than $360,000 in student loans.
"At the very beginning they were a little weirded out, like what do we talk about, what's the common themes, but now the impression that I get more is actually jealousy," he said of his working-dad friends. "It's not, like, mean kinds of things but just, 'Oh, I wish I could stay home' or 'Oh, I'd love to go to that park.'"
The number of at-home dads who are primary caregivers for their children reached nearly 2 million in 2010, or one in 15 fathers, according to one estimate. Al Watts, president of the National At-Home Dad Network, thinks a more accurate count is about 7 million, using broader definitions that include part-time workers. That amounts to one-third of married fathers in the U.S.
Most want to be there, as opposed to the kind who never thought about it until the ax fell on their careers, he said. And more often than women, they do earn a bit of income at the same time, he said.
What it takes to do it
Watts, in Omaha, has been home with kids for a decade, since the oldest of his four was a baby. He sees a subtle shift in attitudes emanating from working dads.
"Eight years ago, one of my wife's customers, when he found out that I was an at-home dad, he said, 'Oh you know, I'd really love to do that.' I knew what he really meant was that he assumed he could then just hang out at home and play video games and watch TV and not have to go to work anymore," Watts said.
"Now when I have those conversations, they're generally like, 'You know, I really wish I could do that.' But then they find out I have four kids and they're like, 'Well, I couldn't do that!'"
The raised eyebrows, pregnant pauses and need to hide their real interests — shopping, crossing guard duty, laundry — for more generic work-dad friendly fare is tedious sometimes for Trey Parker, 32, in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta.
With a full-time working wife and two boys, ages 2 and 9 months, to care for, a trip to Costco holds more allure than last night's game or chatter about sales quotas.
"It's a little harder to speak with guys who are corporate dads," Parker said. "At Christmas parties and stuff like that, there's absolutely nothing in common with them. They're either talking about sports or whatever sales or whatnot they have going on at the office, and you can't comment on any of that stuff. You're naturally drawn to the women because they're talking about the kids and the family."
Weckerlein wasn't used to the idea that wanting to stay home with the kids was something other than perfectly natural.
"It's kind of surprising that this is really a big deal because in the 21st century I thought we could think a little bit different. But yes, I get that 'Mr. Mom,'" he said.
There won't be any of that from 41-year-old Marty Guise in St. Louis, but he does feel the distance.
He has a full-time job and a part-time one to pay the bills. The consultant for nonprofit organizations has two kids, ages 13 and 11. His wife quit her teaching job to be home but now works as a substitute.
"'What do you do for a living?' is a pretty common ice breaker," he said. "When a man tells me that he stays at home, it's usually preceded by or followed quickly with a justification, like 'I lost my job.' I receive that as a defense for staying at home. Right or wrong, men like to be the breadwinners."
He quickly adds: "I think it's devaluing of men or women to say that staying at home is any less important than working 40-plus hours a week."
What it's like to stay home
Do you miss having a real job?
Tony Reynolds, 47 and at-home dad for 11 years, has heard it all since a downsize at a large insurance company solidified his decision to be home in suburban Columbus, Ohio, with his two youngest boys from a second marriage.
"The other dads make snide comments or ask bizarre questions sometimes," he said. "I say it is a real job, and I bet you couldn't do it."
Once pretty much by himself with the moms all day, the economy has driven some of his former dad doubters his way.
"One used to say 'I wish my wife made so much money so I could stay home,' then he lost his job and started taking care of the kids and was like, 'Wow, this is a lot of work,'" Reynolds said.
"Another used to drive a Mercedes," he added. "He's now a crossing guard at the school. I got him the gig."