When Dave Nicolato became a stay-at-home dad three years ago, his friends from the East Coast sent him a box of bon-bons to enjoy his free time.
They’re still in the fridge.
Like any full-time parent, his days are filled with the care and feeding of two small children. No small feat, as he is apt to point out (in between placating his oldest son, who is begging him at the moment to play basketball).
Being idle is only one of the misperceptions stay-at-home dads face.
Recently, while in the supermarket checkout line, a bewildered mom asked him, “Is it your day with the kids?” Nicolato, 34, hears the question a lot. That, or, “Do you have custody?” It’s not even unusual to be asked, “Is your wife deceased?”
In fact, Nicolato’s wife, Cortney, 33, works full-time as a vice president for a health care consulting firm and the pair agreed even before having their children that Dave would be the one to stay at home. And he’s not alone.
Nicolato is one of a growing number of dads—by some estimates 2 million nationwide—who chooses to be the primary caregiver of young children. “I’m lucky to do this,” he stresses. But, he readily admits his uncommon choice brings with it common challenges in equality and acceptance.
Keith McLaren, 39, is out running errands with his two young kids in tow (along with another SAHD and his children) while he describes what he calls “rampant discrimination” toward men who choose to raise their children full time.
“In the business world, it’s all about equal opportunity … in the stay-at-home world, it’s all mommy-based and that explicitly excludes me.”
People’s perceptions of what men and women “should do” are not easy to change, states Dr. Aaron Rochlen, a counseling psychologist in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, who has done several studies addressing the mental health, adjustment and barriers for men in nontraditional work roles.
Recently he conducted a study to assess the psychological well-being and relationship satisfaction of 244 men who stay home with their children while their spouses work.
According to the results, 45 percent of participants reported having experienced a negative reaction from others based on being a SAHD.
“There does still seem to be stigma out there toward stay-at-home fathers, and more generally, men and women in nontraditional career and family roles,” surmises Rochlen.
McLaren knows first hand about this “deep-seated mentality” of gender roles. He once invited a SAHM over for a playdate, and later her husband called to say he felt uncomfortable with McLaren “hanging out with my wife during the day.” McLaren countered by asking his friend if he ever has lunch with McLaren’s wife, Mary Anne, during the day (the pair work together). “Is that really any different?” muses the dad.
Cortney Nicolato says she has been surprised at the reception of SAHDs. “I have also gotten a couple of, ‘and you’re OK with your husband being at home with the kids by himself?’ It makes me wonder why dads are not given the same respect as moms in the parenting department,” she contends.
“The job is gender neutral, as far as I’m concerned,” offers Mike Denning, 28, who produced a documentary called Stay At Home Dads: The Dad Revolution, and is at work on a sequel.
The Irving father of three has experienced his share of discrimination, like the time he was trying to soothe his colicky daughter in public and a bystander chimed in that, “she just needs her mommy.”
“It still hurts, but you get over it,” he says.
Denning admits he had his doubts over whether he could hack it in the beginning, but soon realized he was just as good as his wife at taking care of the kids and keeping up the house. In fact, he enjoyed it.
“I feel like a more complete, well-rounded person,” says Denning. “It’s a blast every day.”
Rochlen notes that many of the men he surveyed feel the same. They are able to overcome the criticism and are not worried about how others define their masculinity.
He added that SAHDs are helping shift the idea of men from “financial provider/breadwinner” to doing what's needed for the family.
“I have found that how men react to the stigma that may still be out there is important,” shares Rochlen. “But the overwhelming majority of these men are not impacted by stigma, love what they are doing, are proud of being a father. They often consider it their hardest and most rewarding roles in their lives.”
Guy by Himself
Like any parent who stays at home, Nicolato, who left a career in the restaurant industry, started to crave companionship. As the Lakewood-turned-Lantana resident reached out to various support and play groups, he realized quickly that “99.9 percent” were made up of women (much like the parenting magazines and books he picked up were geared toward women).
He jumped in anyway but found there to be a disconnect. Often he felt like women perceived him as a “stalker” or the conversation veered toward intimate topics such as ovulation or losing the baby weight. “I could tell I wasn’t really fitting in anymore,” says Nicolato.
McLaren, who has been a SAHD for five years, says he has often felt like the “guy by himself” at story times, where moms tend to congregate in groups. He also admits to not feeling welcome into various mom support groups. Many organizations have specific policies against allowing men into their midst, while other clubs don’t have explicit guidelines in place.
“We have never been asked that question, so we haven’t really talked about it,” responds Cristi Paton of Preston Ridge Mothers of Preschoolers. “Our organization … is truly geared toward women. The mission statement, many of the speaker topics and the whole of the program are all mom-centered.”
On the other hand, some local organizations such as Arlington Early Childhood PTA and the Grapevine, Colleyville, Southlake Mom’s League do welcome men.
“Absolutely,” reports Susan Reynolds, president of the GCS Mom’s League. “We have a couple of members who are stay-at-home dads.”
Interesting and Cool
Despite the tribulations, all of the men acknowledge they have found their niche.
Nicolato serves as one of the “head dads” for the Stay at Home Dads of Dallas Group. “We have a small core group, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he states.
Denning says he doesn’t really hang out with a lot of other SAHDs, but does belong to a home-schooling group that consists mainly of women.
“Everyone I know thinks it’s interesting and cool,” replies Denning. “No one says anything negative like calling me a ‘bum’ or ‘freeloader.’”
And, though the negativity is still out there, “I could care less,” he stresses.
The dads group has been a “godsend” for McLaren, who will often drive 30 minutes just to connect with another dad in the Metroplex. He says he has cultivated some mom friends, but the gender divide, “still has a long way to go.”
Though Nicolato quips that he doesn’t “get as many weird looks at the Galleria (play area) anymore.”
Support from spouses, family and friends can make all the difference in the psychological well-being of the SAHDs, according to Rochlen’s study.
Cindy Conaway, Mike Denning’s wife who is 11 years his senior, confesses that she may be a “little more old-fashioned” and worried that, by virtue of being a mom, she was the one better suited to be the stay-at-home parent.
“Wrong!” declares Conaway, administrative assistant for the North Lake College Health Center. “Mike is leaps and bounds more patient, more thorough and more easy-going than I would ever have been staying home with the kids.”
She adds, “One of the biggest surprises for me was just how much less stressful life was once I let go and stopped worrying about how well Mike was going to manage solo at home. I know, for sure, that the children are happy, loved, secure, learning our values and staying healthy.”
“I Chose To Do This”
The men chafe at references to Mr. Mom or insinuations that they are just doing this until they find a job (though, certainly the downturn in the economy has forced more men to stay home).
“We are providing a service second to none,” stresses Nicolato. “I chose to do this.”
“There is no real difference between a stay-at-home mom and a stay-at-home dad,” says Denning. Both are involved in the rewards of caring intimately for their children and home each day. “It’s a full day’s work. I’m very proud every day,” adds Denning.
According to Rochlen’s study, fathers who said they felt confident about their parenting skills seemed much happier. Of those, the ones who encouraged their children to develop independence and who felt comfortable being nurturing and affectionate with the children expressed the highest degree of satisfaction.
Nicolato, who does most of the cooking and cleaning, says his life with his sons is so full that he’s more tired now than when he was training for a marathon.
“There are days when I go to bed 10 minutes after the kids,” he asserts. “I have a newfound respect for what my mom did.”
“I am certain that my boys will grow up to be amazing men because of the fact that they have their dad in their lives the way they do,” says his wife Cortney.
What is Normal?
Rochlen’s study suggests that modern couples are tailoring their family dynamics in flexible, personal ways rather than worrying about what the neighbors think.
It’s a trend not likely to fade, advises Rochlen, as the choice has more to do with ever-expanding boundaries of familial norms than economic motivators.
“It really is about what works for each, individual family,” emphasizes Conaway. “What is ‘normal?’ Why not create new traditions? Blazing our own trails has been exciting, fun, and sometimes scary, but always rewarding.”
Denning says, in the end, it’s all about love. “I don’t care who stays home [if that’s the choice you are going to make]. As long as the kids are safe and in a loving parent’s care, that’s all that matters.”