CEDAR RAPIDS — He’s the guy shopping with a 2-year-old on a Monday morning at Hy-Vee. He’s the dad bouncing a baby while watching his toddler climb the giant plastic broccoli at Lindale Mall.
Jason Alberty, 42, of Cedar Rapids, is your average stay-at-home dad, and with the economic instability, rising day-care costs and a surging female workforce, his is a growing fraternity.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 32 percent of fathers with a working wife regularly care for their children younger than 15, according to data collected in spring 2010. That is up from 26 percent in 2002.
When comparing households with working mothers in different regions, the Midwest — with 33 percent — had the highest percentage of fathers serving as primary caregivers for preschool-aged children, according to the census. The South had the lowest with 24 percent.
Family demographics experts credit the rise in stay-at-home fathers to an increase of women in the workforce and the floundering economy that has left more people out of work and facing steep day-care costs.
Alberty said he left his job as a language arts teacher at Cedar Rapids Washington High School more than two years ago because he was burned out and wanted to pursue writing. When his wife became pregnant soon after he took leave, Alberty said, it made financial sense that he provide the child care.
“Felix was our first, and I have a 6-month-old on my knee right now,” Alberty said.
Felix and his brother, Oliver, spend their days playing, eating and running errands with their dad. Alberty said he finds some time to write in the afternoon while the boys nap. He often cooks dinner but leaves the cleaning for later.
“It’s usually too chaotic during the day,” he said. “Right now I’m standing in the middle of a living room that I had picked up two days ago. Now it’s hard to walk.”
Alberty said his wife, a Japanese language teacher at Washington High, supports his role as a stay-at-home dad. He conceded that some stereotypes persist for fathers who spend their days watching the kids, but Alberty said he didn’t have to overcome any personal reservations in making the decision.
“I have never been one of those traditionalists,” he said. “I’m not one of those ‘bring home the meat’ kind of guys.”
The transition wasn’t as easy for Nick Vloes, 36, of Cedar Rapids. He became a stay-at-home dad about a year ago when he lost his job as a manager at Hy-Vee. He stays home with his 4-year-old daughter while his 10-year-old son goes to school, and he’s preparing to care for their third child due in February.
“It just seemed more financially viable for me to stay home and not worry about day care,” said Vloes, who is taking evening and night classes at Kirkwood Community College for respiratory therapy.
Vloes’ wife is a nurse who spent six years as a stay-at-home mom. Now that the roles are reversed, Vloes said, he finally appreciates all the work she put in.
“I took for granted everything she did and how hard it is,” he said. “My wife would complain, and I’d think, ‘Come on, you’ve been sitting around watching TV all day.’ ”
After spending the last year chasing his daughter, Vloes said, he has a different perspective of the amount of attention a small child demands.
“It’s non-stop,” he said. “She is constantly needing something.”
Vloes said he did have some esteem issues to overcome when first deciding to stay home. He was concerned about what family members and friends might think.
“You don’t feel like the main provider,” he said. “There’s a stigma involved. So many people are stuck with the ’50s and ’60s mentality.”
The growth of his relationship with his daughter has made the sacrifices and personal concessions worthwhile, Vloes said.
“It’s strange the bonding that has happened over the past year,” he said. “Now, when she gets hurt, I’m the first one she runs to.”
Fathers unequivocally are as suited to be primary caregivers for their children as mothers, said Kristi Cooper, family life specialist for Iowa State University Extension. When they take on that role, everyone wins, she said.
“When dads are at home and when moms share the responsibility … kids are better off,” said Cooper, who holds parenting classes and has seen more fathers attending with mothers in recent years.
An increase in co-parenting, she said, is a good thing for kids, because fathers provide a different perspective on life.
They generally are bigger, a bit more playful and have stylistic differences that can impact a child in significant ways, Cooper said. For example, she said, mothers typically hold their babies facing toward them, and fathers more often hold the babies facing out.
The rise in stay-at-home dads, said Cooper, is driven not only by the weak economy and rising unemployment rate, but a generation of fathers that is more open to the idea.
“I really feel that it’s more normalized and that fathers can take on a more nurturing role,” she said. “Our culture is allowing that more now than in the past, and that is a very exciting thing for children and families.”
Bill Ekhardt, 41, of Des Moines, said he runs the only play group for stay-at-home dads in the state. He said the rise in at-home fathers hasn’t necessarily been good for the group’s numbers, because they don’t need a mechanism for finding peers now.
“As there are more at-home dads, they are not so unique,” he said. “They don’t feel as isolated or obscure.”
Ekhardt, a stay-at-home father of four children ages 7, 6, 4, and 2, said most men his age didn’t have fathers or men in their lives who stayed at home, and the recent surge is something he’s proud to be a part of.
“In that way, we are trailblazers,” he said.
Fathers who provided care for preschool-aged children in households with working mothers, according to the 2010 study:
Source: U.S. Census Bureau