Once a rarity, more fathers are choosing a day job of caring for their children.
Mark Abraham remembers the early days of Minnesota Dads at Home (MDAH) -- way back in 1997 -- when he and several other at-home fathers would gather with their kids at a playground in Golden Valley.
"If looks could be laser beams, I would be dead," jokes Abraham, who now lives in Roseville. "The mothers at the park with their kids would look at us like, 'Who are you, why are you here and aren't you supposed to be working?' "
At the time, when Abraham's oldest son, Eric, was going on 2 (he is now 17), there simply weren't many dads at home with their kids, or if there were, they weren't getting together for play groups and field trips the way they are today. Times have definitely changed. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2001 there were 81,000 fathers nationally who identified themselves as the primary at-home parent. By 2011, that number had grown to 176,000.
Abraham, a former regional director for Habitat for Humanity, left that job and cared for Eric and daughter Nicole, now 14, while his wife worked as a physician. He launched MDAH as a way to help fathers form connections -- on the playground and with one another -- which remains the organization's mission today.
A better schedule
Current MDAH director Zachary Moore is a former sales manager and is now home full-time with daughter Rossalyn, 5, and son Angus, 18 months, in St. Louis Park. A few months after Rossalyn was born, he and his wife decided that he would be the at-home parent.
"We both worked odd schedules, and I was at a place where it really was the right fit for me," said Moore, adding that he loves getting to know his kids better every day. "Not being burnt out from a day at the office means that peak energy and focus time of the day goes into building our relationship."
Jim Altstatt of Bloomington has three boys -- identical 5-year-old twins Lexi and Tito and 2-year-old Nick. Although MDAH has a website that promotes the organization, Altstatt first came upon the group at a local recreation center. He had left his full-time job to stay home with the kids not long after Nick was born.
"Another dad asked me if I was part of the group, and it didn't take long for me to join," said Altstatt, who had worked as a project manager. "It was during the winter, and I was going a little crazy, to be honest. It was tough getting used to not seeing people at the office on a regular basis."
That's not surprising. "We tend to get a lot of new members in the winter," said Moore.
There are several kids' play groups that meet regularly; some are more active than others. Events and opportunities are promoted through MDAH's Yahoo groups and Facebook page. The organization has a board of directors, but there are no membership dues.
A family choice
When asked whether the economy has brought more dads to the group, in the wake of layoffs or other circumstances, Moore said that hasn't been the case. "The majority of our members are at-home dads by choice," he said.
In addition to the play dates, there are also occasional "Dads' Night Out" excursions -- rock-climbing is a big favorite, and so is bowling. Moore said that they tried a book club but that after about six months, it ran out of steam. When they all get together without their kids, like most parents, they tend to talk about their kids, although Altstatt said conversations "really do run the gamut from parenting to sports and just about everything else."
Both Moore and Altstatt said they have become more patient as a result of being the at-home parent, and they appreciate how difficult the job really is.
"Some days, it's easy and you don't struggle a second, but most days you have to really keep your emotions to yourself and remember 'I am the adult here,' " said Moore. "But I love getting to know my kids and can appreciate what it means for the rest of my life with them."
MDAH founder Abraham looks back fondly on those early years.
"It brought me a sincere appreciation for my job as a dad. I knew at the time that I had better be enjoying those moments because you snap your fingers and they are gone," he said.
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.