Robb Tavill had a job. His wife, Gail Tavill, had a career.
They agreed that one of them should stay home when a baby came. So when Gail became pregnant with twins, the west Omaha couple didn't have a lot to debate.
Robb quit work as a collections specialist. He joined the growing ranks of stay-at-home dads.
After nearly four years of tending to twins, he's still glad about the decision.
“I have the pleasure and the luxury that I'm here with them every moment that they're awake,” Tavill said this week as he persuaded Isabel and Sam to eat their lunch of chicken nuggets, mandarin oranges and leftover noodles. “It's the best job you could ever have.”
Which is not to say that stay-at-home fathering doesn't have challenges. It has many, commonly including dealing with isolation and lingering stereotypes about gender roles (along the lines of: man kill beast, feed family; woman watch children, clean cave.)
Today in Omaha, Tavill and fellow stay-at-home dads are swapping stories of joys and woes, while hearing from experts, during the national At-Home Dads Convention.
It's the 14th annual convention, and the first time in Omaha. About 50 men were expected to take part, from 17 states and Vancouver.
The convention will offer lots of in-depth research and practical advice from experts, along with tips and fellowship from fellow dads. Most importantly, co-organizer Al Watts said, it will help men connect with one another.
“The biggest problem actually is isolation with the dads,” said Watts, another stay-at-home father from west Omaha. “Two years ago, we had a really good session (at the convention) in Kansas City on depression and isolation. ... The number one thing that combats the isolation is finding other at-home dads like you.”
Watts and Tavill are active in LinOma At-Home Dads. The Omaha and Lincoln at-home fathers gather for play dates and dads' nights out, and to otherwise network and support each other. The group was instrumental in bringing the convention to Omaha.
No one knows for sure how many stay-at-home fathers there are in the United States. Recently released U.S. Census Bureau survey data estimated the number at 140,000 in 2008.
“Most people think that's a gross underestimation,” said Aaron Rochlen, a University of Texas associate professor who studies stay-at-home dads and other family trends.
That's because the census survey only counts dads who were completely out of the labor force for an entire year. It excludes those who squeeze part-time work — on nights, weekends and via the Internet — around their duties as the primary caregivers in the home. Including such dads probably would push the number of U.S. stay-at-home fathers over 2 million, experts say.
In addition to those dads who, with their partners, deliberately decide to stay home with the kids, thousands more have been thrown into the role by the current economic recession.
Stay-at-home mothers, estimated at 5.6 million, still far outnumber stay-at-home fathers. And the dads remain too few for the Census Bureau to study as deeply as it studies moms.
But Rochlen, who's a featured speaker at the Omaha convention, and a handful of researchers are focusing more on stay-at-home fathers.
Their increasing numbers reflect not only men's changing roles, but also women's changing roles, Rochlen said in a phone interview.
Some of the change is economic. Women's earning power has increased, meaning that an increasing number of wives earn more than their husbands.
Omahans Nick Manhart and Dr. Carolyn Manhart made the decision that he should stay at shome when she was pregnant with their first child.
He had a good job he liked, as a project manager for First National Bank. She was in the residency portion of her education as a doctor of internal medicine. Her medical school class was Creighton's first to have more women then men.
The couple toured First National Bank's then-new Child Development Center. It was lovely. They returned to the car.
“I looked at my wife and said, wasn't that nice?” Nick said. “She started crying. I realized that we had only one choice at that point.”
Six years later, the couple has four children, and Manhart is still a stay-at-home dad. Having worked since age 12, it took him five years to be comfortable in his new role. He has felt isolated at times, but it helps to have extended family help and lots of neighbors with kids in Omaha's Dundee neighborhood.
Guys Manhart's age don't look askance at him. Some say they wish they could stay at home, although Manhart said their visions of watching ESPN or working on their hobbies all day don't match reality.
“Not unless you clone yourself,” he said.
He has endured some cross-eyed looks from men his parents' age.
“Like they were thinking, ‘What's wrong with you, you can't hold down a job?'” Manhart said.
But all in all, “it's working out well,” he said.
Rochlen's research showed that many couples opt for a stay-at-home dad because they, like the Tavills, believe kids should be cared for in the home by parents, not in a day care.
“If anybody's going to take care of my kids, it's going to be me,” Robb Tavill said. “Fortunately, my wife does very well with her career and continues to excel at it.”
She heads ConAgra's sustainability efforts.
Rochlen has written that stay-at-home fathers are expanding the definition of a man providing for his family. Al Watts sees it that way too.
“Money's not the only way you can provide for your family,” he said.
A T-shirt in at-home dad circles reads “Men Who Change Diapers Change the World.”
A generation ago, the idea of dads' changing diapers or pushing strollers was the stuff of jokes. Now, it's commonplace. And it's not only stay-at-home fathers who take a more hands-on role, Rochlen said.
“Most men are doing considerably more than their fathers did,” he said. “Being an active dad is a cool thing.”
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