Education & Workforce Development

Dads let these moms soar: Some couples find it makes more sense for the father to be in the stay-at-home parent role

June 13, 2005

Sometimes they do it for economic reasons. Or perhaps they don't want their children to be raised by baby sitters.

Whatever the case, some couples find it makes more sense for the dad to be a stay-at-home parent. And sometimes-as with the couples in this story-that decision has helped enable the moms' careers to soar.

Debra Minott, director of the Indiana Personnel Department, was working for Eli Lilly and Co. in San Diego when she had her second child in 1990. Her husband, Paul, had his own window-cleaning business in Indianapolis before they moved. But he couldn't find a job he wanted out there, so he took an hourly position as a darkroom technician for a radiology group.

When Paul realized the baby sitter's rate for two kids was as much as he was making, he suggested that he become a stay-athome dad.

"I figured it would last three months at most," said Debra, 49. "But the longer he did it, the more he liked it."

And Paul, 52, is still a stay-athome dad for Emily, 17, and Tony, 14. "It's been an absolutely wonderful solution for our family," he said.

There have been obstacles, such as when locally based Lilly moved them back here and the moms in their Carmel neighborhood shunned Paul. But they had a very positive experience when Debra's career took them to Fort Wayne, where the moms in their neighborhood embraced him.

It's interesting to see the reactions from people when they ask what he does, Paul said. "When I meet men over 50, they're absolutely clueless as to what the heck to do with me ... whereas men under 50 say, 'If my wife could replace my income, I would stay home in a heartbeat.'"

The arrangement has been perfect, Debra said, because they've been able to move around for her jobs, and it's enabled her to take demanding assignments that include heavy travel. "Having that element of stability allowed my career to really progress and make more money for the family."

And it's been a fantastic opportunity for him, Paul said. "If anybody had told me when I graduated from college that I was going to walk away from that to be a traditional stay-at-home parent, I would have laughed," he said. "But it's an unbelievable privilege to be able to do this."

A partnership that works

It was early 1996 when Janet Allen got promoted to artistic director of Indiana Repertory Theatre and found out she was pregnant-all within about a month. Meanwhile, her husband, Joel Grynheim, was the head of programs for the Artsgarden-a job he was ready to leave.

Grynheim has a son from a previous marriage (Daniel, now 22), and he missed much of Daniel's early years because he was working full-time as the stage manager at IRT. He didn't want that to happen again, so he offered to be a stay-at-home dad for the baby's first six months.

Allen initially resisted. "I thought I might be jealous of the time he had with the kids," she said. But she agreed to a sixmonth trial.

Nine years and another child later, Grynheim, 55, is still a stay-at-home dad about 90 percent of the time for Leah, 8, and Nira, 5.

"It quickly became the only real way for me to do the work I do," said Allen, 49, who has to work nights and weekends.

And Grynheim, who's able to do some free-lance theatrical work, said he feels very lucky. "It's worked out very well. But our partnership is what made it work. When she comes home, she is involved and active with the kids' lives from the moment she steps into the house."

'Better than I ever

dreamt'

Jane Niederberger and her family were living out East in 1997 when she first took a job with Anthem Inc. (now Indianapolis-based Well-Point Inc.), where she is vice president of operations for the central region.

"Our kids were small-second grade and fifth grade-and we didn't have

anybody we knew [in Indy] who could take care of them," said Jane, 45. And her husband, Mark, 44, was an accountant who was ready to leave the company he was with. "So he said, 'I'll stay home for a while and we'll see how that works.'"

Eight years later, daughters Sarah, 18, and Amy, 15, still have a stay-at-home dad.

"It's worked better than I ever dreamt," Jane said. "I thought he would become bored, but that didn't happen. He has done a phenomenal job of getting involved in school and sporting activities with the girls and the community. He's creating a relationship with our kids most dads just dream about."

And Mark's opinion? "It's been great."

'There were no patterns'

Sarah Evans Barker, a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Indiana, and her husband, Ken, were truly pioneers when Ken decided to be a stay-at-home dad nearly 30 years ago. "There were no patterns," Sarah said. "We had to make it up as we went."

Ken was a partner with the Indianapolis-based Bose McKinney & Evans law firm, and Sarah was a lawyer in the U.S. attorney's office here. "It became readily apparent after we started having a family that we couldn't both be in fast-track jobs," Sarah said.

When Ken decided he didn't want to practice law full time, he became of counsel to the firm and gradually started spending more time caring for the kids. He eventually became a full-time dad to Kate, Susan and Grady, who now range in age from 30 to 25.

"Ken was never enamored of the practice of law, and I love my work, so we each were able to do what made our hearts sing in terms of professional activities," said Sarah, 61.

It was terrific, said Ken, 62. "It was great to be with them and help them lay foundations for success in their own lives." He also enjoyed the freedom to pursue his own intellectual interests.

They see positive personality traits and behaviors in the kids that reflect the arrangement, Sarah said. "They're independent, they're very at home with their dad as an authority figure, and he's not a stranger to them. They also see that both sides of the husband-wife equation have to be given enough freedom to be who they are."

In hindsight

When asked if she would do anything differently in retrospect, Judge Barker said, "It worked so well, I might have another kid."

Mark Niederberger said he has no regrets, but Jane said he gave her a good excuse to work even longer and harder. "I probably should have taken a little bit more time at home," she said. "But there were tradeoffs all along, and I'm not sure how realistic that would have been, considering how fast [Anthem] was growing."

Janet Allen learned the difference between the kids needing her to do something and just wanting her to do something-"and that's just as important," she said. "Our kids do complain I work too much, and I say, 'I hope someday it will matter to you that I work at something I'm really passionate about and that I think helps other people.' I think it makes me a better parent when I'm there, that I have the blessing of that kind of work."

Joel Grynheim regrets not making a concerted effort to meet with other stayat-home dads, but he has no other remorse. He recently saw a videotape he made of his daughter Leah napping as an infant. "I wouldn't have traded those images for anything," he said.

Debra Minott wishes she had nudged her husband to begin looking at part-time jobs sooner to ease back into the work force, since he won't need to be a stay-athome dad in a couple of years. "Paul feels like the job world has moved on and left him behind," she said.

Keep communicating

For other couples thinking about trying a stay-at-home dad arrangement, Debra said: "The key is making sure you don't force-fit the roles, and allow them to take shape based on what a person is good at."

Allen recommended re-evaluating the arrangement as often as either spouse feels that's necessary.

Jane had similar advice. "Figure out what are the ground rules, where is that point you don't want to go beyond, and how to signal each other if one is violating that."

Her husband, Mark, said dads need to consider whether it's something they can be satisfied doing, because it's a job where "a good evaluation would be a smile or a hug from one of your family members."

The success of the arrangement rises and falls on your ability to communicate with each other, Judge Barker said. It also helps to have a thick skin.

"I know there were a lot of people who thought this was not right, that Ken was squandering his Harvard education, and I must be overbearing and impossible to live with, because I'm making him do the stuff at home while I'm out doing the business world," she said. "So ... if it seems right to you and it looks healthy for the kids-who are your primary obligation-then don't be afraid. Have enough courage to try it."
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