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!"
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?'"
Stay-at-home dads want you to know something. They are men. They scratch their crotches. They watch football. They argue over the world's greatest guitarist. Still, it's safe to say that all that domesticity just does something to you. One dad confessed he was so starved for adult attention that he'd drive his kids to the mall just so he could talk to the store clerks—about anything. Another admitted to joining an infant-massage class so he'd have an excuse to leave the house. He even signed up for one of those moms' groups. And a tawny-haired Desert Storm vet named Gary Foskuhl, who now commands a homeland army of five kids, developed a crush on a certain domestic doyenne who doesn't exactly scream GI pinup. "Believe it or not, I'm a Martha Stewart fan and I really think she's attractive," Foskuhl says to the khakis–and–New Balance crowd attending his breakout session on stretching the family budget. "I was really like, 'Hubba hubba.' Till I found out she was 60."
After lunch some of the dads form one last circle to talk about the significance of this statistic: This year, for the first time ever, more women graduated from college than men. Could we end up in a world where single women prowl for that special, nurturing man? One she can count on to frost the cupcakes while she closes that big acquisitions deal?
On the bus ride back to the city, Noonan is passing out beers to the rows of weary dads. A few of them start in on him: SHOW US YOUR TATTOO! Staring into the endless string of taillights arcing down Highway 90, Noonan shrugs it off. "Too dark," he says. But pretty soon the traffic snarls and the beer supply dwindles to nothing. The situation could be volatile. The Dr. Seuss quotes are getting more frequent. So somewhere between the toll booths and the Ashland Avenue exit, Noonan undoes his belt, lets his jeans drop to his ankles, and lowers his tighty-whiteys just enough to show off the relic from his fraternity days. It floats in the darkness, an inky little continent on a bone-white hemisphere. The whole bus goes crazy as 20 rows of dads transform into kids. And Noonan, whose own kids have fled the nest, gets to be the dad again. A hero.