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Work-at-home dads learning to balance kids and career

If you think every day is Father's Day for work-at-home dads, think again. The guy down the street who traded a lunch bucket for a diaper bag is not unique, and his situation is no holiday.

"There's a lot of us out there," says Jay Massey, father of a young son and co-founder of Coco Design Associates Inc., a Web design firm he helps run from his Pensacola, Fla., home.

The numbers back him up. According to estimates from the market research firm IDC, more than 14 million households have at least one home-based business. U.S. Census data show that the number of children living with stay-at-home dads has jumped 70 percent since 1990, to 2.5 million.

The bottom line is that more men are joining women in juggling career, kids and home. Their conclusion: It isn't easy -- but it is worth it.

Help crucial for home -- and work -- success
"It's been huge to be with the kids," says Todd Landrum, who is home with his two youngsters while also running Paladin Programming, a software design firm, from his Evergreen, Colo., home.

But he admits he couldn't do it without help.

First, of course, there is mom. His wife, Tish, is a doctor and schedules appointments on just four weekdays, freeing her to look after the kids on one day. They also hire a baby sitter when needed to give Todd extra time to meet with clients and they trade off, so each can have a little time off to see friends or just catch up on work.

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And the Landrums promised each other from the beginning there would be no working at night or on weekends. "You have to work out how it's going to work," he notes. "If it's catch-as-catch-can, it can be difficult."

Their nap time is your work window
The first thing work-at-home dads learn? Get as much done as you can while the kids sleep.

When Massey started his business shortly after the birth of his son Tucker, it was a struggle. "I was averaging three to five hours of sleep a night," says Massey. "I had to work during his naps and at night."

As Tucker grew, so did the business, creating a tremendous amount of angst for dad. "He'd come to me and say 'let's play some ball' and I'm on the phone," Massey remembers. "There were days when I felt like such a schmuck trying to juggle a growing business and a child."

Once his son reached school age, Massey got more sleep. But he never did housework. He and wife, Joann, a psychologist, hired a housekeeper once a week to handle the worst of it, and they split the rest of the chores.

"Every family has to come up with a routine of their own," he says.

Fathers, unite!
Thanks to the Internet, home-based dads also are networking. They host Web sites, sharing the joys and pains of parenting. They've formed a national network of dad-only play groups for mutual moral support, for their kids and themselves. Dads also meet regularly in Internet chat rooms to discuss everything from last night's game to problems with nap time.

"The biggest problem for at-home dads is isolation," says Landrum. "You get the idea that you're the only one in your area.

"If I go to a grocery store at 10 a.m. or story time at the library, I will be the only guy there among moms who are not overly fond of talking to a guy. Our e-mail group is like your watercooler at work."

Landrum also started a local dads group, where three or four dads get out to the park with the kids once a month.

Day care dilemma
The information age and the computer certainly have facilitated the at-home movement. But Robert Frank, co-author of The Involved Father: Family-Tested Solutions for Getting Dads to Participate More in the Daily Lives of Their Children, says that most of the dads he studied chose to be at home because both parents didn't want to put the kids in day care.

Such was the case of Gary McGonagill. He opened a small sign shop, Hometown Signs, behind his house in Big Stone Gap, Va., because he loved the work, enjoyed the idea of going into business for himself and he and his wife, Dr. Theresa Dunton, wanted one of them to be at home with their daughters.

One of McGonagill's biggest challenges was making the business fit his family's schedule. "I really changed my schedule a lot -- that's what you have to do," he says. "If you make a commitment to be an at-home dad, that's what you are."

But he almost became a victim of his at-home business's success. When the venture really started to take off, McGonagill moved it to another location away from home.

"I was working 60 hours a week, and we were shuffling the kids back and forth between two offices," he remembers. "Finally, we said 'this is crazy.'"

Tired of the push-pull, he moved the business back home -- to a brand new 900-square-foot workshop in his backyard, complete with second-story playroom for the girls. "You can't go head first into the business and think that the rest will take care of itself," says McGonagill. "The priority has to be the kids."

Work schedule flexibility key
McGonagill also learned to work around his kids' schedules rather than the other way around. He does jobs in pieces, rather than trying to finish one whole job at a time. He squeezes in work in the mornings and evenings when kids are sleeping or occupied.

And he's not afraid to say "no" -- or at least "not now" to clients. "I've gotten better at it," he says. "You have to pace yourself and be flexible."

Marl Gorkin, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in stress, agrees that it's OK to say no, to clients and kids. "N and N -- no and negotiate," advises Gorkin. "Don't just say no and slam the door."

While dads often have a slightly different parenting style, they also tend to be more sanguine about client relationships and deadlines -- and the clients respect that. With a national client base that's grown strictly by word-of-mouth, McGonagill has found that his clients are willing to work with him on deadlines.

"If they want the quality I can produce, they know they may have to wait a little longer," he says.

Stereotypes still strong
But despite the success stories, work-at-home fathers still must deal with stereotypes.

"There really is a stigma," says author Frank. "Society changes very slowly, and we hold on to stereotypes."

Other men don't always understand, either. "My feeling is they don't get it, and they don't respect it," adds Landrum. "You get comments like, 'I'd do it if I could,' then they have a kid, and they take one day off from work."

Sometimes, the pressure comes from within. Buzz McClain was an entertainment editor for the Washington Times when he decided to give up the daily rat race for a freelance career. "I came home really miserable one day and said 'I have got to do something else.'"

Suddenly, the Playboy columnist who just a few years earlier was named one of Washington's most eligible bachelors was changing diapers and watching his wife bring home the big paycheck. "I had to ignore all my masculine aggressive tendencies in the early years," he recalls. "She's making more money than me -- who cares?"

Now McClain has a strong bond with his two kids, plus more work than he can handle.

"It sure beats going to an office, I'll tell you that."

-- Updated: June 9, 2003

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See Also
Nine tips for work-at-home parents
How to cope with the stress of a home office
Deducting your home office
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