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72 Hours at the Largest Stay-at-Home-Dad Conference in the Country

Every September, hundreds of dads gather to commiserate about what it’s like to be the primary caregiver

“I can’t remember the last time I arm-wrestled,” a tattooed, 50-something stay-at-home dad in a leather biker vest named Don tells me, satisfied. He has just pinned in seconds the dad across from him, who is nearly twice his size in both directions.

It’s around 11 p.m. on a cool Wednesday evening on a picnic bench outside the Grand Central Restaurant & Bowling Alley in Portland, Oregon. We’re at the National At-Home Dad Convention, put on by the National At-Home Dad Network, now in its 22nd year. Tonight’s event is Dad’s Night Out, a pre-game for some of the 150 attendees who show up early enough to party. I’m trying to get these stay-at-home dads, who are extremely wary of me, to open up.

They’re exceedingly polite, but dubious: What was I doing here? Was I coming in with preconceived notions about fathers as bumbling oafs who could scarcely be relied upon to change a diaper, much less raise a child?

“What exactly is your angle?” Don asks me, point blank, just after he beats me at arm-wrestling, too, even as he graciously lets me use both hands.

Guys who can’t get a job?

Lesser men who can’t cut it in corporate or entrepreneurial America?

My intentions are good. But admittedly, I’m going in with a few preconceived notions. I’d read that at-home dads make up about 16 percent of the stay-at-home parenting community. I’d read that most men become stay-at-home dads not because they dreamed of it as little boys, but because they lost a job, so they suck it up and make it work.

I know from previous reporting that they work against stereotypes from Mr. Mom and laundry commercials, which in spite of their theoretically good intentions, still perpetuate the stereotype of the moron who can’t keep a plant alive, much less a tiny human.

I know from being alive on earth that dads tend to be seen as either incompetent, or heroic for just showing up.

I know that studies say that men whose wives out-earn them die younger, because when masculinity is threatened, men tend to engage in more self-harm.

I know stay-at-home dads fight a lose-lose stigma: If you’re unemployable, you haven’t fulfilled your prescribed role as a real man. But even if you chose the life of a SAHD (the acronym for stay-at-home dads), you must lack the ambition and drive all men are (allegedly) innately born with.

Is it even okay to say some men simply aren’t ambitious?

Either way, what’s wrong with you?

I assume that these guys will be young, progressive, hipster dads with healthy beards wearing children slung in BabyBjörns, longing for Obama and sipping on single-origin coffee. (It’s Portland, after all.)

But I quickly learn from the couple dozen men at this bar and the some 100 I will meet at the conference over the next couple of days that I’m right about the stigma, but wrong about some of the facts.

These dads aren’t hipsters: Aside from one young guy with a beard bouncing his baby in a carrier on his chest, they all look like average dudes from Middle America — lots of cargo shorts, flip flops, T-shirts and scraggly facial hair.

These dads are all married, and entirely straight except for two gay men, and — barring one black guy, a few Hispanic dudes and an Indian man in attendance — overwhelmingly white, something the organization’s president, Chris Routly, laments. “It’s about 95 percent white,” he tells me of the conference. “That’s something that stands out immediately to us that we’re working on.”

These dads aren’t that young, either. While a few may be in their late 20s or early 30s, these dads are largely in their mid-to-late 30s and 40s. Some, like Don, are even in their 50s. Most have kids under age 8, but there are fathers with kids of all ages represented, from teenagers to some as old as 22. Even though it’s arguably progressive for a man to stay at home at all, the organization, I’m told, attracts stay-at-home dads across the political spectrum. They’re from all over the country, too, with attendees from Alaska to Florida, with urban cities and small towns represented in between.

I learn something else: The figures about how many SAHDs there really are might be wrong.

Depending on how you quantify the SAHD label — truly unemployed for the last year and not even looking for work, or just a part-timer, freelancer or consultant who occasionally picks up work in his spare time — the number of fathers who are the primary caregivers in America could be anywhere from 160,000 dads to nearly 2 million, or 1 in 15 fathers.

Another thing: Whether they’re changing diapers or wrestling iPads from teenagers, they all have breadwinning wives who make their lifestyle possible. Many dads here are quick to admit there’s enormous privilege in not just being able to live on one income (particularly when women are typically paid less than men), but also being able to hand the kids off to sitters, nannies or supportive wives to attend this whole shindig in the first place.

And that study on men who earn less dying young? It’s worth noting that it was conducted on people born between 1931 and 1941, and it’s unclear whether any of the participants actually earned less by choice. This is the most important distinction for the dads here. They chose this lifestyle. Though at least one researcher claims 80 percent of the dads who stay at home would work if they could, that doesn’t seem to be the case for these men.

Yet one thing tends to resonate with all of them: They’re sick of being treated like they can’t take care of their kids because they are men.

As the night wears on, they start talking. Over and over, they frame the conference in the language of empowerment. I’m told that this convention is not a support group — it’s about networking. Professional development. Keeping dads connected to other dads.

“I’m just here to help the younger guys,” a graying SAHD in clear-framed glasses named Andy tells me, admitting his two teenage kids are far more concerned about making sure they have keys to the car and a little walking around money than missing him. “That’s when they really need this.”

“It’s not like it used to be,” he continues. “It used to be if you were a stay-at-home dad at a cocktail party, and someone asked what you do, you’d say, ‘Oh, I’m a consultant.’ Now, though, it’s much more fluid. It’s at the point where gender and bodies shouldn’t determine who earns or who parents anymore.”

Andy’s story is typical: He had a career as a coder and so did his wife, but once they had kids, they realized one of them should be at home and they didn’t want to outsource child care. Her career was on an uptick, and he was temporarily off a project, so he stayed home temporarily at first. But then, one night at dinner, they realized it was working pretty well. “We just looked at each other, and she said, ‘I really like what I’m doing now.’ And I said, ‘I really like what I’m doing, too.’”

Another dad tells a harrowing story of divorcing after being a SAHD to his daughter, losing custody, regaining it for some 18 months, only to have his wife fight for custody and regain it. He’s now remarried, with four kids he parents while his wife works as a doctor. He stops several times when he becomes emotional about recalling having to prove over and over again that he was a parent deserving of at least equal time.

I mention that his story seems plucked right out of an MRA forum, where aggrieved men in custody battles detail their increasing anger at what they feel is a biased family court system, and ask if the experience left him bitter. “No,” he says, his eyes welling up. “I don’t want shit to do with my ex, but I love my kid.”

Later he offers a drunken addendum. “Why am I not bitter toward women?” he asks, then grins. “Because I love women. And I love pussy.”

It’s getting late, so the dads decide to head back to the hotel. Most of them have been up since 5 a.m., taking care of kids and making to-do lists for their wives, who will inevitably text them over the next few days asking where the clean socks are, or what the kid prefers for a snack.

“Let’s go to a strip club,” one dad says, looking around for takers, before glancing my way and realizing a woman is in earshot. Portland, coincidentally, is known for three things: Beer, coffee, and having the highest number of strip clubs per capita, the latter due to relatively relaxed zoning laws.

They don’t invite me along, but several kindly ask if I have a way back to the hotel before piling into a rideshare.

Later, a dad tells me they never actually made it to the strip club, and it was all just a joke — they simply found another bar and drank and talked until 2 a.m. I can’t tell if he’s lying.

The stories here may be from different men — with different former careers, different career-driven wives and different-aged children. But after a while they’re remarkably similar. These men chose to do this. Each of them had careers prior to choosing to stay at home. It’s not that they lack ambition; it’s that all of them were in couples who agreed on one critical value: They didn’t want to outsource their child’s care to someone else. Someone should stay home. The question was, who?

For most of history, that person was the woman. In 1967, 49 percent of mothers stayed home, and though that number dropped to 23 percent in 1999, by 2012, it was back up to 29 percent. It’s also the woman who has less earning power and is assumed, based on her biology, to have a greater vested interest in childcare.

In Portland, however, the dads say their decision to stay home came down to a couple of key factors: Their wives simply made more money than they did, or her career advancement opportunities were simply brighter. I also hear repeatedly that it was the husband who had the better temperament to raise the kids.

“I’m clearly the more patient one,” one dad tells me. “I can watch Daniel Tiger a thousand times in a row. She can watch it maybe once before she’s like, ‘Okay, I’m out.’”

Thursday’s activities for early arrivals include more family-friendly fare: A ukulele lesson from a fellow stay-at-home dad, a hike, a coffee tour and a photography walk. As I sit in the hotel bar waiting for the evening’s events to start, I overhear two newly arrived dads — one sporting a T-shirt that says “Dads Don’t Babysit.”

They look over the menu. One says the burger looks good. “I’m feeling extraordinarily large right now, though,” he says, patting his dad gut. He orders the turkey club instead.

They make the small talk of parents everywhere, asking each other their kids’ ages, how far apart they are, how tough it is to adjust from having just one kid to two.

“Sometimes they’re both crying, and I don’t know which one to go to,” dad number one admits.

“Just yell ‘CUT IT OUT,’” dad number two jokes.

“Yeah, I was counting the days until I got here,” dad number one says. “I’m just maxed out. The wife didn’t get home from work until 9 p.m. the other night; I just want to have more balance.”

“My wife said, ‘You packed too much,’ before I left,” dad number two recounts. “I said yeah well, that’s because usually the kids are throwing up on me.”

“Yeah, my wife is a big believer in this. ‘You need time away from home,’ she said. ‘You always come back so refreshed and recharged.’”

“Yeah,” replies dad number two, swigging on his locally brewed IPA. “It just feels good to be around people who get it.”

Having bonded sufficiently, they proceed to spend the next 20 minutes detailing the logistics of every single thing about their trip here. Flight times. Whether they should’ve upgraded their seats. Flying perks they did or did not cash in. The weather. Exact movies watched during the flight (“I watched Suicide Squad, then Scarface”). Whether to check their bags. Irritation that when they turned on their electronic devices, they were bummed to find their iPhone had updated, “but not the tablet.”

It is, I have to say, profoundly boring small talk for a couple of dads who are allegedly finally on the loose. But in a way, this is remarkable in and of itself: Stripped of career concerns, their days spent lost in the muck and isolation of baby jail, they have, in essence, what has long been thought of as “women’s problems.” And as a result, they’re as uninteresting as any woman left alone for eight hours a day or more with no one to talk to but small children.

“Hey, do you think you can bring beer on a plane?” one asks the other.

“That’s a very good question.”

Chris Routly, in his sixth year as president of the National At-Home Dad Network, finally has time to chat. He’s been a stay-at-home dad for almost nine years now, the father of two kids (ages 8 and 6).

After talking with dozens of dads, I realize this is perhaps the one group of men you can’t ask, “So what do you do?” Instead, I find myself asking, “What does your wife do?” Or more importantly: “Why do you do this?”

Luckily, they’re happy to explain. “It was a practical choice based on my wife’s income and career, and the flexibility of my work,” Routly says. “And based on personalities, I was just better suited to the role.”

Fighting the old stereotype that dads, at best, just plug in after work or on weekends to be the fun parent is, Routly says, the organization’s biggest challenge. “Presumed incompetence is the other big one,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s very surface-y and condescending. It’s that old lady in the grocery store. With me, they’d just address my child and not even speak to me: ‘You tell your daddy you should be wearing socks,’ they’d say.”

On the flip side: “If a dad is told he’s doing a great job, it’s because he’s overcoming a natural incompetence or stepping up when other men don’t. So it doesn’t feel like a genuine compliment,” he says. “Voicing this stuff to other people, for men, can feel like whining. But you come to something like [the National At-Home Dad Convention], with guys who go through the same thing, and they get the frustration.”

They also strive to tackle other modern issues. “Last year [at the conference] in Raleigh, HB2 [North Carolina’s controversial ‘bathroom bill’] came about, and we made a statement about it and decided to put an LGBT panel at the forefront so we could talk about those issues, even though we didn’t have a large constituency in our groups who were openly gay or trans,” he says. “Because of that, we had people in the audience stand up and say, ‘You guys don’t know I’m trans, but I appreciate that you’ve done this.’ So we want to be aspirational. Particularly as white guys, we don’t know how to talk about diversity with our kids. So we want to give space for someone from that community to talk about this stuff.”

I ask Routly if he ever gets any pushback on hosting these bleeding-edge issues with a largely white, middle-class, straight male audience. “Some, but often it’s fairly unspoken,” he responds. “At the end of the convention, we ask people to fill out surveys about what they like and don’t like. Last year, some people told us the LGBT panel was getting a little bit too much into politics. And they weren’t interested in that, so they didn’t attend.”

“I’m shocked to meet at-home dads who do what we do, are loving fathers and still harbor some misogynistic views,” he continues. “I don’t know how to reconcile these things, but they’re out there. Most of the guys who come to this, whether they’d say they’re feminists or not, are totally sympathetic to women. In our Facebook group, which has 1,800 people, if someone posts anything misogynistic or sexist, it’s shut down. But I’m part of other dad Facebook groups and that stuff is probably 50/50.”

One thing, however, these dads don’t deal with are the dreaded Mommy Wars — values clashes between mothers who take no-holds barred positions on breast v. bottle or cloth v. disposable diapers. “There’s so little in the way of Daddy Wars for us,” Routly says. “Some of it is because we’ve watched the Mommy Wars, and we don’t want to do that. Also, it’s because if you’re in your community, and you’re seeking out other at-home dads, you might find someone that you don’t necessarily click with, but you have no other choice. Dads have to get along if they want to have a community. If a mom doesn’t like one community of moms, there are many others.”

In the end, that camaraderie comes from a common enemy: “If we have disagreements, we all have to unify over the fact that we’re doing our best, and we all feel isolated and judged.”

It’s a Thursday night mixer for at-home dads at Punch Bowl Social in an upscale indoor mall, sponsored by Father’s Eve, a meetup group dedicated to helping men connect and spend the night before Father’s Day just hanging with other dads like them. (Their tagline: “Fatherhood is a team sport.”)

On the train ride there, an older dad recounts how, back in the day, you’d go to a park to take your kid to play, and within six minutes, you’d find yourself surrounded by a group of suspicious moms, one of whom would say, “So, which one is yours?”

“I have a dark sense of humor, so I always wanted to joke, ‘I haven’t decided yet,’” he says. “But that wouldn’t have gone over well.”

The dads inside mingle and drink and chow down on free hot dogs, hamburgers and ribs. They brag about their wives’ big incomes and prestigious jobs — one of the wives, a surgeon, has let a dad drive her Tesla to the event to give other dads rides. They evince a pride at being married to a heavy hitter as a proxy for their own success.

Rob Tavill, an at-home dad for the better part of a decade to 12-year-old twins, mentions his wife runs R&D at Conagra Brands. He’s been dealing with side-eye from other men and women for years. He was often the only father in his daughter’s dance class and was ostracized by wives who didn’t understand why he was there or thought he might be trying to hit on them. And at school, even though he was listed as the primary contact, his wife got the calls time and again.

“No matter how much society evolves and changes, the mom at home or as the primary caregiver remains the norm,” he tells me. He mentions Mr. Mom, and the fact that, even though Michael Keaton’s character eventually gets his act together, he returns to the “traditional” arrangement at the end when he gets his job back. Tavill says he would be jokingly called Mr. Mom, and would always ask, “Would you call my wife Mrs. Dad?”

Eventually, Andy, the graying SAHD in clear-framed glasses, reappears. He and Tavill exchange greetings, while Tavill sips on a Scotch. “Yours are…11 now?” Andy recalls.

“Nope, 12,” Tavill beams, pulling up a recent picture to share on his phone.

“I think we were the first generation to really wear being an at-home dad as a badge of honor,” Andy says. “The first to say, ‘We chose to do this.’ I didn’t lose my job. I’m not some loser who can’t get a job. These younger guys, they have a much more fluid arrangement.”

Next to the bowling lanes, a young man with a goatee admits his biggest problem is having no one to talk to. “I have no adult conversations,” he says. His wife is in pharmaceutical sales, and his kids are age 2 and 8. “My wife talks for a living,” he adds. “So when she gets home, she just wants to watch the crappiest TV, and I just want to talk. I’m like, ‘We’re at opposite ends of the spectrum right now.’ And she’s like, ‘Hey, just go out and get a beer.’”

I ask him if he takes her up on the offer. “Oh yeah,” he says. “I’m one of the lucky guys who gets to go out. Not like a lot of guys you talk to here, whose wives don’t let them.”

I ask why he thinks that’s true — why some of the wives don’t let their husbands socialize. “I don’t know,” he answers. “I don’t know if they’re just controlling or they just say no or what.”

A dad from Anchorage says it’s even harder to socialize in Alaska. “Anchorage has a lot of weird masculinity issues,” he says. “It’s military; it’s oil people. But the native communities, they’re actually totally fine with stay-at-home dads, because they’re used to everyone just taking care of the kids.”

Outside, Miguel, who stopped working in hotel maintenance for his wife’s nursing career and has a 3-year-old at home, says his wife is fine with him going out. He just feels too guilty most of the time. “It’s finding a way to justify the time,” he explains. Another dad whose wife is “really high up at American Express,” chimes in that he and his wife alternate going out every Wednesday, which really works for them.

Miguel, telling stories about how delightful his daughter is, and how he knows what he’s doing is really important in helping elevate gender roles, is suddenly distracted by his phone. It’s his wife, asking if the dishes in the dishwasher are clean or dirty.

“She hasn’t washed a dish in six years,” he laughs.

At the Friday keynote, researcher Brian Heilman, reporting on the state of America’s fathers to a crowded room, lays it bare: “Things are changing, but not fast enough.”

He floats some sobering statistics. In 1977, 74 percent of working men agreed that it’s better if men earn and women take care of the home and children. In 2008, a much lower, but still significant 40 percent of working men agreed with that same statement. He offered other bleak observations about how SAHDs are perceived: A “real man” is still a breadwinning man above all else. Caregiving is still seen as women’s work. No country has achieved gender equality in unpaid care work, and by some estimates, it will be 75 years before that happens.

And yet, in the last 30 years, men have become the most engaged fathers in history. They’ve increased their time spent with kids during the workday by 65 percent, he notes. Still, he adds, while everybody wants to spend more time with their kids, the workplace hasn’t caught up, in large part because the U.S. comes in dead last in government-supported family time off.

What’s more, as another nod to the privilege in this room: 95 percent of low-wage workers can’t take any time off whatsoever for a new child or ill family member. And half of all American children will live in a house without their father at some point during their life, driving home the fact that these men are truly novel in an age where fatherhood can still be optional, even after the kids are born.

Men need, Heilman says, to continue “smashing the man box,” and stop internalizing the pressure to be tough and successful and to only express emotion through anger, when they actually feel sad or confused.

“You guys here are really subverting this gendering,” he reassures. “That’s powerful.”

Then he adds, “Sexual partners are really into it when dad helps with the kids.”

“Tell my wife that!” a dad in the crowd yells, to uproarious laughter.

During the keynote, I meet Greg, who is on the board of the At-Home Dad Convention and who happens to be the only black SAHD attending the convention. I ask him why he thinks that is, particularly when by some accounts, black dads are twice as likely as white dads to be the at-home parent.

“I’m not sure, but we’re working on diversity initiatives to bring in more people of color.”

He does say it may be, in part at least, because of the stigma black men face as fathers. “Black fathers are even less identified as being strong fathers,” he says. “It’s changing, but it’s still an issue.”

Greg says his situation is a little different than that of the other men here. He’s not married to his longtime girlfriend, a nurse — though, like the others, he has had to explain over and over again that he’s not a bum. “I get a lot of the thing where [people] assume I’m just at home playing video games and smoking weed,” he says. “Little do they know I’m homeschooling three boys.”

He adds, “I do this so she can work as much as she needs to, to change jobs when she needs to, to quit when she needs to. I’m her rock.”

“Sometimes executive women and stay-at-home dads just go together,” says Kathy Bayert, VP of learning and advisory services for the Network of Executive Women, a professional leadership network of women who work in retail and consumer goods and aim for gender equality in the industry. Thus begins the panel on “Caregiving and Breadwinning: A Modern Twist.” In it, three couples with high-earning wives and stay-at-home dads talk honestly about life in the trenches.

We learn that these high-earning women were only able to be the go-to person at work because they had a go-to person at home who made those late-night phone calls and last-minute meetings possible. We learn that nearly all the senior women at PepsiCo have stay-at-home husbands. We learn — over and over again — how grateful they are to these men.

The men, however, admit it’s not an easy adjustment. “You gotta own it, who you are, and what you’re doing,” one dad says to the crowd.

“Sure, you’re still gonna tell people you’re an environmental scientist the first seven months,” another panelist says. “And that’s okay.”

They admit the biggest issue in giving up a career for parenting is their ego. “Just what I thought I was supposed to do as a man,” one explains. “People, when they found out I stayed at home, would look at me like, ‘You’re dead to me,” another dad adds. “‘I can make no connection to you.’ You just have to be good with what you do.”

Another panelist suggests being ready with a quick comeback when you receive that judgment for staying home with the kids. “You’ve gotta have a line, even if you rehearse it earlier. I wish I’d had a line when a doctor said to me once, ‘How do you get value out of doing this?’”

The panel on “Marriage and Relationships” might be more aptly renamed, “How to Feel Okay About Not Getting Laid When You Have Preschool Kids.”

“How many of you stopped having sex in the first six months?” asks Sam Stevens, the session leader and a marriage and family therapist. About half the men’s hands go up. Stevens tries to help them understand why — if she’s recovering from childbirth, she can’t. If she’s nursing, and her nipples are cracked and bleeding, she can’t. If she’s tired, she can’t.

“How many of you feel totally exhausted?” he asks.

About two-thirds raise their hands.

He reassures them that it’s totally normal. He asks the men their major concerns in their relationships. They call out at random from around the room: “Sex. Time. Time to have sex. Vacation. Connectedness. Not being roommates.”

He tells them about different ways to show love — not the way you want to show love, but the way she wants you to show love. Write her notes. Book a hotel to have sex for the day. Planned spontaneity.

A dad asks how he’s supposed to tell his wife his needs aren’t being met. That when she comes home, she wants time to herself to decompress and he’s starved for attention. “But that’s her need not being met,” another man points out. “When she comes home, that quiet is what she needs.”

“A crying baby,” Stevens says, “is a total boner-killer.”

“Or it’s not,” a dad counters. “You still have the boner. It’s just totally useless.”

The last day of the National At-Home Dad Convention is also the day of the most popular panel — the one on mental health. It’s led, again, by Sam Stevens, whose charismatic, friendly vibe immediately puts the men at ease. Plus, four days of joking, drinking, eating and swapping war stories has made them all trust each other.

“How many men have seen Mr. Mom?” Stevens asks.

About half the hands shoot up. One of the men’s hands is pitching the middle finger.

Stevens begins by telling them that depression in new dads is incredibly common in men. They’re more likely to experience it, he explains, if their spouse suffers from it, and if they have unrealistic expectations about what life with a young child is going to be like. Isolation is its single biggest predictor.

“Dads,” he says, “express depression differently. It comes out most commonly as irritability or anger.”

Many of the men nod.

Next, they start opening up. Some of them talk about disturbing, abusive pasts. Some of them talk about yelling at children, literally over spilled milk. Or yelling at the dog, just for being a dog. Sometimes when they snap at their wives or children, they know they need to stop, but they can’t. They trade stories of panic attacks and low moments. One dad simply offers that he’s here purely to figure out how to be supportive of his dad friends who are depressed. They talk of difficult, distant fathers who gave them no roadmap to be good parents. They don’t want to repeat the behavior, but here they are, doing just that.

“Then you realize, you’re just like him,” one dad says of his own withdrawn, emotionally unavailable father.

“But you’re not just like him,” another dad offers in support. “Because you’re here.”

The men clap.

It’s not easy to watch this display. Not because there’s anything wrong with these dads opening up, sharing, crying or offering each other hugs. Because it suddenly feels like an intrusion. It suddenly makes sense that these men would feel the need to reframe their choice as empowering, to call this a networking event, to carry around some defensiveness about their lives. The party line is one thing; the reality is a new era of masculinity, and the isolation and depression that can come with it. The difference here is, compared to women, they have so many added layers to peel back and rigid expectations to dismantle to be okay with their choice.

“What we’re doing right here,” says Stevens as he leads the dads in a healing session to help them recover from all the emotions they’ve been sharing, “is breaking the cycle.”