With gender roles blurring, fathers are jumping in to do everything from changing diapers to being full-time caregivers. Ozzie Nelson, eat your heart out.
"Our culture is so surface-oriented," he said. "Everything is about what you own. The only things that matter that I own are my relationships. That, to me, is where the wealth of life is. Yes, I have to worry about paying the mortgage, but I'm emotionally wealthy."
He didn't feel that way a year ago, which is one reason he left a full-time job on the far side of the east metro for a chance to work out of his south Minneapolis home. It's only a half-time job, but it comes with an unparalleled benefit package: time with his kids.
His decision would have been highly unusual a generation ago, but a lot of things that fathers do now would have seemed strange to their fathers. A recent U.S. Census Bureau study reported that 32 percent of men with working wives routinely care for their young children, including changing diapers, doing laundry and taking their kids to medical appointments and play dates.
On the other hand, women can hardly contain their enthusiasm. When St. Paul stay-at-home dad Tony Vosooney takes his 26-month-old daughter to the supermarket, he allows extra time for the inevitable interruptions.
"The older women stop me and say, 'Oh, we're just so glad to see a dad spending time with his kids,'" he said. "I don't bother to tell them that I spend time with my kid every day."
And he's far from alone. The Early Childhood Family Education classes in St. Paul have seen an explosion in the number of men who accompany their youngsters to the sessions, which are aimed at children from birth to 5 years old.
"Just three years ago, 10 percent of our enrollees were fathers," said the program's supervisor, Donald Sysyn. "Last year, that jumped to 23 percent. I don't have the figures for this year yet, but based on what I've seen in the classrooms, it's going to be another significant jump."
Higher unemployment might be a factor, he conceded, but it's not the only nor the biggest one. Some men work part time, while others move to second or third shifts so they can be home during the day. And sympathetic employers are increasingly embracing the concept of flex time that enables workers to arrange their workdays around family commitments. Most of the men Sysyn has talked to didn't become caretakers by default. They made a conscious decision to be involved.
"They want to have a significant part in their children's growth and development," he said.
Nonetheless, it can be a difficult decision, admitted Bob Spaulding, who switched to part-time work so he could be home three days a week with his 2-year-old son. Money gets tight, and old mind-sets about manhood can linger.
"You have to be willing to challenge the expectation of the man being the wage-earner," the St. Paul man said. "But it's worth the financial challenges. I would highly recommend it."
Jon Harper has seen a sea change in the role of dads since he founded the nonprofit educational group Adventures in Fathering 25 years ago.
"It used to be a stigma" for a father to be home with his kids during the day, he said. "People would see that and say, 'What's wrong with you? How come you don't have a job, you lazy bum!' Now they see it and say, 'Good for you.'"
But even with social standards changing, fathers have to overcome familial patterns, something Harper discovered in raising his three now-adult children.
"My role as a father was defined by the role I grew up with," he said. "My dad worked six days a week, including a half-day on Saturday. I saw him Saturday afternoon and Sunday, and then on Monday he disappeared again. So I learned to be an absent father. Sometimes, even when I was there I acted as if I were absent. I'd go sit in another room until one of my kids would come ask me what I was doing. I didn't know where I was supposed to be."
Having fathers take on more parenting responsibilities is a win-win situation, said William Doherty, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Family Social Science.
"It's good for the kids, and it's good for the men," he said. "When you get that kind of a start, the close relationship carries over for the rest of your life. It's the most positive trend we've seen in family development in decades."
That said, there are potential pitfalls, he warned. Couples who work different shifts and, as a result, find themselves with limited time together need to make sure that their relationship doesn't suffer. The parents have to be on the same page when it comes to child rearing; they shouldn't have different sets of rules and expectations. And it should be made clear to the child that the parents are equals.
"If you create the idea that the father is a baby sitter, you're back to that notion that he's just an appendage," Doherty said. "Active co-parents must be a team. You don't want one to be designated the key parent while the other is just a fill-in."
Meyer admits that he initially stumbled into the role of being a hands-on father. When his older son was born 13 years ago, Meyer was wrapping up work on a degree from United Theological Seminary.
"I spent the first seven months of his life at home, writing my thesis," he said. "That experience -- to be home with my infant -- was amazing to me. It was not in my upbringing at all. My father was a really good father, but he wasn't involved to the level I am. After that [time at home], I made a conscious decision to reframe my daily life to be more present in my kids' lives."
Instead of going into the ministry, he focused on working for nonprofits, which tended to give him more leeway in scheduling. Still, he ended up missing too many of his sons' activities, which is why he opted last year to take a half-time job as a fundraiser for a nonprofit.
"It doesn't pay very well, but it's incredibly flexible," he said. "I could make more money, but I'd rather have more presence for my sons. That's a trade I was happy to make."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392