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The modern dad: Staying home to raise kids

Tuesday - 6/17/2014, 6:51am  ET

More men are choosing to stay at home to raise their children. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON -- When Sonny Lemmons and his wife found out they were pregnant, they did what most expectant parents do.

"We sat down and pulled out our check book and looked at our savings account and then began to weep openly," says Lemmons, who worked in higher education at the time, along with his wife.

"Financially we could afford [child care], but emotionally, the price was too high to pay somebody to raise our child."

His wife's compensation package included on-campus housing, a perk that was too good to give up just before having a baby. So Lemmons decided he would be the full-time caregiver.

"It just made more sense for me to quit my job and stay home," says Lemmons, who lives in Columbia, South Carolina.

"It was such a bizarre idea for me. I was the one who brought it up, but I had never in my life changed a diaper before; I had no clue how to take care of a baby. But when I thought about the idea of never being there for my son, I couldn't handle that. My career was not that important to me."

Lemmons is one of the roughly 2 million fathers who stay home with their kids full-time. That number is up by about 1 million since 1989, as is the percentage of dads who say their primary reason for staying home is to care for their family, a recent PEW study reports.

While the decision to stay home made sense to Lemmons and his wife, it didn't sit well with everyone. Lemmons contacted some mentors when he was considering staying home. Some offered support, but one told him he would be "committing professional suicide" if he decided to leave the workforce to raise his children.

Despite his mentor's advice, Lemmons stayed home.

The Day-to-Day Life of a Stay-at-Home Dad

When Lemmons, who now has a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old, talks about how long he's been at home with his kids, he doesn't respond in years. He calls his years of time at home "tours of duty."

"Because it feels like a battle," he says with a laugh.

When his first son was an infant, he relied a lot on some stay-at-home mothers he knew for advice and guidance.

"I would call them and say, ‘He's been up since 6 a.m., we've gone through every activity I had planned for the day and it's 10:45 a.m. What do I do?'"

But not everyone was as helpful and receptive to Lemmons. When he sought out new mom's groups or playdate groups, he would feel unwelcome at times.

"Without exception, every mom's group that I either contacted or showed up to, I was either looked at with concern or fear because I was a guy who was encroaching on a crowd of women, all with their children," he says. "Socially, it has been an interesting experiment."

However, not everyone experiences that stigma.

Mike Adamick has been an at-home dad for eight years for his daughter, who is 8. Similar to Lemmons, his decision to stay home was a financial one.

"My wife is a lawyer and I was a reporter. And as a lawyer, she just made gobs more money than I was ever going to make as a reporter," says Adamick, who lives in San Francisco. "It's just worked out so well for us as a family. I'm glad we made that decision."

He says he hasn't experienced too much judgment from others.

"I've been fortunate enough to live in San Francisco, where a stay-at-home dad is the least crazy thing you're going to see on the street," he says.

From the beginning, Adamick says parent groups were welcoming to him and his daughter, including the "mommy and me" classes. He experienced the same at his daughter's school, where he plays an active role on the PTA and as a room parent.

"It almost seems like I've been welcomed with open arms into the parent community, which I was a little worried about," he says.

Creating a Community

Both Lemmons and Adamick have turned their experiences as at-home dads into creative professions. Lemmons blogs about his experiences and contributes to other publications, such as "The Myth of Mister Mom." Adamick has published two dad's DIY books and contributes to other outlets, such as National Public Radio and The New York Times.

Adamick says he planned to keep his writing up while at home with his daughter, but he never thought his writing would result in craft and science experiment books.

"I really had no idea how long the stay-at-home gig would last, and I knew eventually my daughter would move out and go to a, hopefully, very good college, and who knows what I would do then. One day I'll be back in the workforce," he says.

Lemmons says writing about his experience has connected him to other at-home dads, domestically and internationally, who are going through the same emotions. Some of the dads he talks to have been at-home dads for years, others are just starting out.

Despite its challenges, Lemmons and Adamick say staying at home has given them an opportunity to connect more with their kids.

"It's something I feel really grateful for, coming from a family where I didn't really connect so well with my own father," Adamick says. "I'm the full-time caregiver and my daughter and I pretty much do everything together."

"As a stay-at-home dad, I am able to be there for a lot of the first milestones that a lot of other dads miss: the first steps, the first words, the first projectile vomit, the first exploding diaper. I get to be there for all of this, and I love it," Lemmons says.

Teaching their kids that women aren't the only ones who can stay at home to raise a family is an important lesson Lemmons and Adamick hope to pass on to their children.

"To be able to support a working woman who is just totally kicking butt at work and providing a good example for her daughter -- I'm proud to be behind her and help her in any way that I can," Adamick says.

"My sons are growing up seeing me, in a number of ways, shattering gender stereotypes," Lemmons says. "They do laundry with me; they cook with me; they clean with me. They see dad doing this. They don't think that everything domestic is relegated to a position for a woman."

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