The new caretakers: Through job losses and other factors, number of stay-at-home dads on the rise

By Julia Merchant • Contributing Writer

A year and a half ago, Fatie Atkinson spent most of his time in an office designing custom furniture and tossing around ideas with other creative professionals. Today, instead of the chatter of a bustling office, Atkinson is more likely to hear the roars of his 2- and 4-year-old sons as they chase him around, pretending to be monsters. A far cry from his position in the corporate world, Atkinson has a new title — stay-at-home dad.

When the economy forced Atkinson’s employer to let him go, he took on a whole new role — one that’s traditionally been held by women. He now takes care of his sons all day while his wife goes off to work as a hospice nurse, providing for the family financially.

But Atkinson is far from alone. The United States has an estimated 5.5 million stay-at-home parents, including 140,000 fathers, according to 2008 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s triple the number from a decade ago — and the figure is rising as the economy forces more and more to rearrange their lifestyle.

For Atkinson, a Clyde resident, having his meetings replaced with trips to the playground has been a big adjustment.

“What I would say is that it’s hard to accept the role,” Atkinson says. “It is what it is. It’s definitely different. There’s a lot more emotion involved, and being a guy, that’s just different. You just don’t expect to be doing the dishes and cleaning the house. It’s definitely a role reversal.”

Clint Matthews, another new stay-at-home dad, refers to himself as a “domestic engineer.” Matthews graduated from Southwestern Community College in the spring with a Graphic Arts degree but couldn’t find work. His wife fast-tracked her degree to enter the workforce as a teacher, while the couple decided Matthews would stay home to care for their 7-year-old daughter at least until the economy improved.

Now, Matthews’ daily responsibilities include “keeping the house clean and doing the shopping and laundry, so when my wife comes home, she still has a happy child and clean house.”


Breaking stereotypes

In many ways, it’s a role reversal that society is still struggling to adapt to. When Mark Upton of Cullowhee quit his job as a sheetrock hanger to care for his daughter, now 4, while his wife pursued a master’s degree, his co-workers were skeptical.

“They thought I was some sort of con man who tricked his wife into taking care of me,” Upton says.

On top of the typical challenges that come along with being the primary caregiver — Upton’s daughter was a colicky baby who cried nonstop — Upton has continued to deal with society’s perception of him. A burly and admittedly scruffy guy, he chuckles as he recalls his daughter’s tantrum in a grocery store, which prompted stares from strangers who feared she was being abducted.

Upton has grown used to strangers’ glances. He’s still often the only dad around when he takes his daughter to the playground or library in Sylva.

Jerry Span, of Fontana, says his parents were a bit taken aback when he presented the idea to them. Span lost his job as an activities director at a resort roughly six weeks ago. Until then, his wife had been caring for their two daughters, ages 2 and 5; the couple decided Span’s layoff would give them the opportunity to switch roles.

“They’ve been raised as the father is the provider,” Span says of his parents. “But while I may not be supporting my family financially, I’m providing a lot of other gains by doing this.”

So far, Span is relishing his new role, particularly the way it’s impacted his relationship with his 2-year-old daughter, whom he’s home with full-time.

“I’m able to spend a lot more time with my daughter,” he says. “Before, I saw her about two hours a day, but now we’re pretty much with each other all day seven days a week. I’ve noticed a difference in our relationship, and I’ve been able to appreciate her a lot more.”

For Jake Ferguson, being the primary caretaker of his 5-year-old son affords him an opportunity his own father was unable to have. Ferguson’s wife, a technician with AT&T, had better benefits through her job, so the couple decided she would continue to work after their son was born.

“My mom died when I was young, and my dad worked and we stayed on our own a lot,” Ferguson recalls. “We could never afford a babysitter and stayed home a lot by ourselves. I decided early on that any time I could spend with him could be precious.”


Daunting task

Of course, staying at home with a kid brings spending time with them to a whole new level. More experienced stay-at-home dads know first-hand that ambitions don’t necessarily match up to reality.

“Basically, I thought it would be a lot of fun and games. It’s a little more work than I thought,” admits Ferguson. “Up to about 3, it seemed like it was all work. He needed help with every little tiny thing.”

Upton had plans to write in his free time.

“I thought it was something I’d do as a stay-at-home dad, but by the time she went to bed, I’d be too exhausted,” he recalls.

Newer stay-at-home dads Atkinson and Span have ambitions to continue working part-time from home. Atkinson has discovered, though, that between breakfast, baths, and entertaining the kids, it’s not easy to slip away.

“I’m lucky if I get a shower and brush my teeth,” he says. “You lose a lot of independence. It’s hard to have time to get mentally recharged.”

Span is experiencing the same challenges while getting his business, Simplicity Public Relations, off the ground.

“Two-year-olds demand a lot of attention,” he says. “In the middle of working on something on the phone with a client, the last thing you want to do is be distracted by a 2-year-old that wants something.”

Being in charge of a child’s well-being can be daunting. Upton describes his biggest challenge as “sort of trying to be everything for her; protecting and keeping her safe, but instilling discipline; and recognizing she also has a need for play.”

Stay-at-home parents must map out a day’s activities and try to diversify them.

“I feel like I should be doing more for them,” worries Atkinson. “I don’t want to get stuck in a rut as far as doing the same thing over and over and over. That gets monotonous. I try to get them out of the house as much as I can.”

The isolation of being a stay-at-home father can compound the day-to-day challenges of parenting. None of the dads interviewed for this article were aware of more than a couple other stay-at-home-fathers, if any. There aren’t any active groups specifically for stay at home dads in Western North Carolina.

“For a while there, I did go stir crazy, until I got involved in some groups and activities and started to take him places and stuff,” Ferguson says.

It was overwhelming at first, Ferguson remembers. “I didn’t really know where to start. That’s the hardest part for me as a dad — most guys are used to doing stuff on their own. We don’t ask.”

Ferguson credits a program administered by the Haywood-based group Kids Advocacy Resource Effort for providing him with guidance. Through the program, a child development specialist visits a home to show parents developmentally-appropriate activities to do with their child, like tossing a ball into a basket.

Ferguson also joined some local playgroups, and he says the moms welcomed him.

Other dads do things differently when it comes to activities and social interaction.

“We just hit the playgrounds and meet people out there basically,” Upton says.

Span says for now, he’s managing fine on his own.

“I don’t really feel like I’ve needed a support system. I’m sure as I get into this further, I’ll get tired of the redundancies and try to find something,” he says.


Worth it

Despite all the challenges stay-at-home dads face — including isolation, a loss of independence, and the pressures of everyday care — there are certain moments that make it all worthwhile. For Atkinson, it’s the “wonderful, adorable moments” like when his sons chase after him with ferocious monster voices. Or for Ferguson, the fieldtrips he was able to take that allowed him to watch his son’s reaction to new sights and sounds, like Sunburst Trout Farm. For Span, it’s walking hand in hand with his two daughters after they waited to greet the oldest one at her bus stop.

Matthews, another stay-at-home dad in Clyde, may sum it up best. He says the importance of his relatively new role as his daughter’s primary caregiver really hit home recently, when he read a statistic that the average American father spends an average of 37 seconds a day in direct communication with their child.

“I spend hours a day with my daughter,” Matthews says. “I consider it a job, not a drudgery. I’m really blessed.”

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