A big yellow school bus idles across the street from a Best Western hotel that glows carnival-like in the blue Chicago predawn. The dads shuffle on board with steaming coffees. One of them, for some reason, is carrying a little white KitchenAid meat grinder. Noonan is doing a head count. "Hey, boys!" he says, reaching into a red Igloo cooler. "Want a beer?"
It is 6:58 a.m.
When the bus rolls up to Oakton Community College an hour later, they all filter into their chartered classrooms for a continental breakfast and a talk by the keynote speaker—Dr. Kyle Pruett, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale with a Flanders-style mustache. The doctor has made a career of studying SAHDs. He suggests they break into groups to discuss some of their issues. The dads move their chairs into circles. One of the first issues: What your parents think/feel about what you're doing with your life.
"My stepdad always asks if I need help with my résumé," says Terry Stockton, a 36-year-old from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"My mother was not so happy," says Brian Reid, 30, a lanky redhead who's applying his Ivy League journalism degree to a SAHD blog called rebeldad.com. "She's probably ahead of her time in terms of pressing her children to greatness." The group pauses to consider this.
"You ever see Gypsy?" somebody asks.
Next up is the subject of isolation. As a SAHD, you're banished to a special kind of neutered subspace. The other dads think you're a water lily, and the moms eye you like you're a child molester. Tony Peters, 37, a balding former disc jockey from Dayton, Ohio, says he arranged an outing last year to the local mall with a handful of Dayton SAHDs. But when they descended on the food court, the mall crowd just didn't know what to make of them. All those men with all those babies—where did they come from?
"It was like Martians landing," Peters says, holding a Solo cup of Coke. "People would just stare. One woman finally came up to us and asked, 'Is this the gay dad's club?'"
Of course, the life of a stay-at-home dad wasn't necessarily a first-choice scenario for all of these guys. Often the arrangement comes only after the painful realization that your wife will always earn more than you—that, in fact, your salary is barely enough to offset the day-care bills. For some, the decision comes when one emasculating change after another piles up in a rock slide of humiliation. Nick Nicholsky, a 37-year-old dad from Lodi, California, was unemployed for months after losing his job as a pharmaceutical sales rep. Right around the same time, his wife's mortgage-lending career lifted off and Nicholsky found out he had a low sperm count. "My esteem level and ego were shot to shit," he says. "I couldn't get a job, and I couldn't get my wife pregnant."
Even after an in vitro procedure got the couple the daughter they always wanted and simple economics got Nicholsky the job of primary caretaker, he was still pounding the dents out of his masculine pride. "I would still say I worked with my wife in the mortgage business—it took me 18 months to just come out and say I was a stay-at-home dad," he says. "One of my neighbors, once he heard that, he didn't want anything to do with me. He still thinks I'm a deadbeat."
Nicholsky hopes those attitudes are on the way out. The ones who have a real problem with their gig are the fiftysomethings, he says, "because it's a different generation. But dudes my age say, 'Fuck, that's awesome—how do I do that?'"