The Christian Science Monitor, The Baltimore Sun and The Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal were all clamoring to talk to them. The questions came in rapid fire, "What is it like to be an at- home dad?", "Did it bother you to be called a Mr Mom?", "What does your wife think of this arrangement?" One dad was asked, "How do you handle 5 kids all day?" The last question was posed to at-home dad Eric Rosenthal, who along with his wife, Ann, was attending the first ever At-Home Dads convention held in Chicago Nov 23rd.
When our researcher, Dr. Robert Frank, called me earlier this year with this brainstorm, I thought of it as an oxymoron... An At-Home Dad Convention? I didn't think dads across the country would get in their minivans without the kids to attend such an event. But it was worth a try. So Dr. Frank armed himself with a five page proposal, convinced the Oakton (IL) Community College board to hold this historic event.
It turns out Dr. Frank was on to something... his idea worked. Forty-five at-home dads did make the trip to Chicago. The group also included 7 couples, one of which was Eric and Ann Rosenthal. One reason this couple may have gotten the most attention from the media, was because they brought their five-month-old Daniel who was the only one wearing diapers at the convention. Even with forty-five dads milling around, it was relatively quiet to them, since they have 4 other children, ages 2,5,7, & 9, being watched by a sitter at their Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home.
Since I've never heard of an at-home mom convention being held, it was the first time any national convention was held exclusively just for parents who stay home with the kids. The night before the convention, I joined several dads at a local restaurant. Since many of the dads there participate in a weekly America Online chat, we felt like getting our keyboards out and "chatting", but settled for the real thing this time.
Those attending the dinner were Mike Bliss of Minneapolis, MN, (who brought his laptop and was proudly sporting a Kermit the frog watch); Steve Klem of Cocoa Beach, FL; Dennis Finley from McLean, VA; Bill Balmer from Waukegan, IL; America Online's at-home dads chat leader David Boylan of Glen Ellyn, IL. Also joining the group were two DAD-to-DAD chapter leaders Jim Mains from Oak Park, IL; and Casey Spencer of Encino, CA. Starting off the dinner, Casey toasted the wives for making all this happen. Later he expounded, "I don't often see many measurable, tangible benefits are in this activity for her, even though they exist. She gave up 3 days, though, and they were very valuable to me." Boylan echoes, "I think is too easy to forget what they (our wives) have gone through to get us to where we (as a family) are." Boylan also noticed that a Baltimore Sun reporter, Ken Fuson, was surprised that he didn't hear any wife bashing at the table. He said, "I thought that was cool. I've sat in many coffee clutches where the women bash their hubbies. We didn't even come close to that bitter idea. I'm proud of us." (After the convention the reporter spent the following week at home in Iowa with his kids, partly due to the convention's inspiration.)
The following day the crowd (some a bit tired after staying up til 2am), listened to the first speaker, Dr. Lynn Casper, of the Census Bureau. She explained the difficulty of tracking down exactly how many at-home dads there are, and determining how involved they may be. She joked, "Since there are 45 at-home dads in the room, I can only positively say there is between 45 and 1.9 million involved at-home dads in America."
Counting at-home dads who were unemployed, Dr. Casper shows that in 1993 there were 340,000 of us. With employed dads added to the mix, the estimate jumped to 1.9 million. These figures were all from families with working wives. In some cases, even though a dad could be working outside the home, he could still be the primary care-giver. For example, a fire fighter who may work his full 40 hour shift in two days, may find himself home the other five days caring for the kids while his wife works the full week.
From the many stats offered to the dads, they realized it was tough to figure how involved these dads really were and how many made the choice purely for the sake of the children instead of for economic reasons. Noting the number of questions Dr Casper has to ask in her surveys, Barry Reszel of Libertyville, IL mentioned to Dr Casper that the only question he has asked was to his 2 1/2 year old boy...Milk or Juice?
Bob Frank followed with info from our last survey showed that on average a couple would lose $27,000 of income when dad is at home. Dr. Frank recounted to the dads how one producer from CNN's Financial Network, (CNNfn) asked him. "Why would anyone stay home if they lost $27,000 income?" Dr. Frank stated, "She did not understand that we wanted to be with our kids and that the money wasn't the issue...." Ned O'Reilly, of Crystal Lake, IL, agreed, "I don't even think of lost income when I'm at home, it's not even an issue with me."
Of the convention, Frank noted, "I thought it was a great opportunity for stay at home dads to unite and network. I finally was able to meet many of the people that I'd previously only known through phone conversations or e-mail. It re-affirmed my belief that stay at home dads are a nice group of people. With dads flying in from across the country and some couples driving hundreds of miles to be at the convention, it confirmed our belief that stay at home dads are interested in this type of get together."
Speaker Bruce Drobeck, a marriage and family therapist from Dallas, TX, looked around at the media and remarked, "You know you have arrived when the media doesn't show up."
He then got the dads talking with a group discussion. Topics ranged from money matters to the ESPN2 cable channel (a lifesaver for one dad). The discussions brought many unanswered questions. On money matters, Jim Mains noted, "When I buy my working wife a dozen roses, who's money is it? It makes you think twice when you are paying $42 of her money to get flowers." Drobeck replied "The only guy who really afforded to be an at-home dad was John Lennon."
Mark Abraham, an at-home dad of just one month, wanted to know, "When is the honeymoon going to end?" Drobeck than asked for a show of hands on how many started "cold turkey", that is direct from work to home with no inkling of what the experience would be like. The room filled with hands. Seeing the response one dad noted that it took him one year to realize that by 5pm his shift was not over like it used to be at work." Steve Klem chimed in, that while we are at home we are always working, don't think we are not."
On the topic of isolation, Dennis Findley of VA said that to he "likes to take off one or twice a month by himself.. it really helps." Mike Coombs of Oak Park, IL, does almost the same thing with trips to the local library. Dr Drobeck's agreed and expanded on the idea noting that, "We also need individual time with the wife and time with the kids to balance out our new lifestyle. Some dads suffer in silence... we may have more in common with at-home moms than the traditional working dad. The nontraditional life style is a test of our marriage, and you really have to work together to make it work."
During the convention a separate DAD- to-DAD meeting was lead by chapter leaders Casey Spencer and Jim Mains who offered tips on starting and running playgroups. Mark Abraham was surprised and excited at the number of dads listed in the At-Home Dad Network and is ready to start up his own DAD-to-DAD group when he returns to his home town of Golden Valley, MN. Mark noted that he is "Interested in seeing a 'think tank' group identified to talk about any future activities on a regional/national basis." He added, "I've realized how important it was for me to come and meet the other AHDs in our world, and feel there are many others who would love to know a group like this exists." Mains noted, "It was so nice to be able to put faces with the names you have seen on the computer screen, newsletters, and television. The best thing was the mental stimulation! Obviously other dads felt the same, based on almost every session ended with fathers hands in the air wanting to ask another question."
After comments by myself on running home businesses and a speech by David Boylan on the importance of connecting with dads, Dr Frank ended the day by taking parenting questions and announced that Oakton College would like to host the 2nd convention (no date set).
As we left, Casey Spencer (a photographer by trade) took a group shot, and just like that 45 dads, 7 moms, (and one 5-month-old) were on their way back home to their kids for another year of baby wipes, diapers, spot cleaning, sinks filled with dishes, and of course, ESPN2.