Keith Nagel was more than prepared for his 3-year-old's recent play date, with the right toy train (Percy, the green one), hugs when Percy slipped into a puddle, snacks and a game for downtime ("Spot It" cards).

Nagel's a pro. And it's no wonder: He's been taking care of his two kids full time since his oldest was in diapers.

It's only more recently, though, that he's come to fully acknowledge the role.

"Before, I was like, 'Well, I stay at home, but here are the other side things I do as well.' Now, I'm definitely a stay-at-home dad," Nagel said.

"You just have to own it," agreed Nic Sabatke, primary caregiver for his two kids, 1-year-old Mae and 3-year-old Anders, who recently played with Nagel's son, Sawyer, at a Maple Grove playground.

Nagel and Sabatke met through the 500-member Twin Cities Dads Group, part of a national network that hosts meetups and other events in 36 states. It's open to involved dads of all stripes, whether stay-at-home, work-from-home, working, married, divorced, gay or straight, but often includes weekday events for dads who are at home with their kids.

Nagel and Sabatke also are active in a group just for primary-caregiving fathers called the National At-Home Dad Network, which holds an annual conference for stay-at-home dads. Called HomeDadCon, it's coming to Minneapolis for the first time this month.

Belonging to these organizations has helped Nagel, Sabatke and other local dads find play dates for their kids, discover the best indoor playgrounds in the metro area and swap advice on must-have family camping gear. But it's also helped them fight the isolation and the lingering stigma of being a full-time father.

"I just think we're out there, quietly, being good parents," Sabatke said.

Much of what Americans take for granted about parenting, fatherhood, gender roles and family life has shifted over the past few decades.

In the majority of two-parent families in the country, both parents now work outside the home. And while the bulk of child-rearing still falls to moms, according to the federal American Time Use Survey, dads spend more time caring for their children than they used to. On average, dads spend 5½ hours more on child care each week than they did in 1965.

In some circles, father-as-caregiver is gaining acceptance — and even has some high-profile proponents.

After his daughter was born last month, Chance the Rapper used Instagram to announce that he was postponing his tour to take paternity leave. Father of two and actor Dax Shepard recently launched a line of baby products including "diapers for cute butts" with his more famous actor wife, Kristen Bell.

Still, we can't seem to shake the image of the distant, distracted or inept dad.

The fumbling "Mr. Mom" whom Michael Keaton played for laughs in 1983 feels like an outdated throwback. Yet the streaming service Vudu is bringing back "Mr. Mom" as a TV series. And it's still a fairly rare move for fathers, not mothers, to stay home and be primary caregivers, even as the ranks of stay-at-home dads have grown.

Against the norm

"Overall, stay-at-home dads are still a relatively small share of all stay-at-home parents," said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center who focuses on fertility and family demographics. "But if you look at the data a little differently, if you look at the number of at-home dads, that number has pretty much doubled in the past 25 years or so."

Pew's analysis of U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data put the number of stay-at-home dads in the U.S. at about 2 million in 2012, up from 1.1 million in 1989. Of all stay-at-home parents in the U.S., about 17% are fathers, according to Pew's analysis of 2016 data. In 1989, only 10% of all stay-at-home parents were dads.

Even though they are increasing, there are many reasons the number of stay-at-home dads hasn't mushroomed, said William Doherty, a professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development.

"It still goes against the cultural norm," he said. "These things change very gradually, because they are deeply embedded in our psyches. The change requires patience and support."

Stay-at-home dads, he said, "need community, need a culture, a subculture. Very few of us are able to stand completely on our own and not give a rip about what people think about us."

And while moms who leave the workplace to be full-time caregivers may face isolation and identity struggles, they don't suffer the social stigma that a stay-at-home dad may experience.

"A lot of men feel they have to explain themselves, they have to justify it," Doherty said. "It will be interesting to see how gay male couples navigate this" as the numbers of two-father households rise, he added.

If a couple decide that one parent should stay home with the kids, it would seem to make sense that the highest-paid spouse would be the one to continue working and that the gender of that spouse wouldn't be a consideration. But parenting decisions aren't purely rational, Doherty said.

As Ellsworth, Wis., father Chris Brandenburg put it, "Our society tells people to work. It's double so for men."

For the family

Plymouth stay-at-home dad John MacKenzie said he sometimes gets asked, " 'OK, well, what else do you do?' As if it's not enough," he said. "But it's enough for a woman to do it."

He's experienced the isolation that can come with the job. "I'm the lone wolf," he said. "Of all the friends I've had in my lifetime, I do not know any other stay-at-home dads."

It's not enough to deter him, however. MacKenzie, who spent a decade as a materials manager for a food service company, plans to be a dad full-time until his kids start school.

"There's still a stigma, for sure. But I'm not going to let that change what we're doing," he said. "I just wanted to spend as much time as possible with my son. I'm really excited to see how he grows, and the ways I can help him grow, and enrich both of our lives, and our family's life."

Sabatke, too, shrugs off the comments he occasionally gets, like when he takes his kids to the hardware store and hears, "Oh, must be Dad's day today."

He's confident about his decision to make every day "Dad's day."

"It's all about our family," said Sabatke, whose wife works as a college administrator. "Right now, my wife has a higher education. And she's got a good job that's allowing me to do this. So whatever I can do at home to make her more successful, I've enjoyed stepping up and doing some of that."

Just for dads

Nagel, who was a zookeeper before he and his wife had kids, isn't worried about a comment here or there. He is concerned when his role isn't taken seriously.

"It's more things like, at the nurse's office, you put yourself as the primary contact, but they never call you first."

That's part of the reason he's become so active in the dad networks and conventions, which he views as professional development. At conventions in Orlando and Portland, Ore., he learned how to make balloon animals and what games to bring in his dad bag.

More important, talking to other dads helped him realize how much he wanted to focus on parenting while his kids are young, instead of developing a side business.

"I can do that when they go to school. There's no reason to do it now," said Nagel, whose wife works for REI.

The 24th annual HomeDadCon is coming to Minneapolis Sept. 26-28. Brandenburg, who founded the Twin Cities Dads Group, is the event's chairman. Both Nagel and Sabatke have been involved in planning efforts — bringing in speakers such as local singer and dad Joe Mailander from the Okee Dokee Brothers and Anna Machin, a British evolutionary anthropologist who argues that dads taking an active role was key to our survival as a species.

The convention isn't the only one for fathers. There's also a national gathering geared toward dad bloggers and influencers, called Dad 2.0. But for Brandenburg, whose daughter is now in fifth grade, HomeDadCon is special for being "the place where no one asks you what you do for a living."

The activities are just for dads — no kids allowed. "It's a getaway for the guys," he said. "Our dads have that opportunity to decompress, to step out of the pressures for a few days."

Nagel has the perfect T-shirt for the event.

"It says, 'Dads don't babysit — it's called parenting,' " he said.

Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726