The Rib Dinner. A classic affirmation of bone-gnawing, charcoal-grilled American maleness. And the 20 or so guys around a pair of tables at Carson's Ribs in downtown Chicago are hungry for that. It's a victory dinner of sorts—the close of another kick-ass year at work. They're good at what they do. The only problem is, you're not good at hearing about it. You give them blank looks at Christmas parties when they describe their work, your alpha quietly sizing up their unfathomable beta. It usually ends with you walking away, befuddled—maybe even a little embarrassed for them—by the time they squeeze those words out: stay-at-home dad.
On this chilly November weekend, though, they can finally let go in the company of people who "get it"—namely themselves. It's the eve of the 10th annual At-Home Dads Convention, where about a hundred extremely nurturing and mostly unemployed men from around the country gather at a community college in the suburbs northwest of Chicago to air out the pride and shame that come with their line of work. What better way to mirror that peculiar societal niche they inhabit than with a rib dinner? Sure, they're eating meat with their bare hands...but they're wearing those cute little bibs.
As the platters arrive, the dads are comparing notes on charity bracelets and housekeeping technology. "I bet you've got one of those Dyson vacuum cleaners, don't you, Bob?" one of the younger dads says to Bob Noonan, who looks more like an NFL coach than a homemaker who dabbles in interior decorating, subsidized by his wife's commercial-real-estate commission checks. At 52, he's a decade or two ahead of most of the others. Which pretty much makes him their de facto leader. A conference veteran. A real dad's dad.
"I guess I am kind of a neat freak," Noonan says. "I like a clean house." But he does not, thank you very much, own a Dyson. And he's not a fan of "Mr. Mom" characterizations ("I don't call my wife Mrs. Dad, do I?"). Those are the kinds of digs that keep stay-at-home-dads (SAHDs) from coming out of the pantry. According to the 2004 U.S. Census Report, only 98,000 men chose the changing table over the boardroom. Compare that to the estimated 5.4 million stay-at-home moms and it's easy to understand why the housebound father still struggles for acceptance. They say there is progress. They say they are finally kicking the stereotypes once and for all. The blogger era has been good for them. They're finally finding each other—getting organized, forming play groups—and this conference is their ultimate Elks Lodge.
At times, though, there is suspicion even within their own ranks. When someone mentions the concept of an unmarried SAHD, Jay Massey, a shaggy 42-year-old from Pensacola, Florida, shakes his head: "That means you're either gay or you're just a moocher."
"Moocher?" says Noonan, his hands spattered in barbecue sauce. "You shallow bitch!"