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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Stay-at-home dad Jeff Thomas helps his children, Jasper, 5, and Jaden, 2, cross a street with their dog, Moki, in their neighborhood in the Daybreak development.

After he bows, 5-year-old Jasper Thomas practices karate kicks in the morning before he dresses himself, makes his bed, feeds his dog, Moki, and lets him outside.

Then he wakes his parents.

"His karate teacher told him it's a privilege to be here," said Jasper's mother, Julie Thomas. She said her son wants to prove that he's responsible enough to earn the right.

"His chores are like his work," Julie said. "He wants to be like his dad."

He is well on his way.

Jeff Thomas, 33, has a full-time job unlike many fathers in Utah.

"I'm a stay-at-home-dad," Jeff said.

"My main priority is these guys," he said, pointing at the two blond children on playground equipment at the park. The kids were trying to get Moki to go down the slide.

"I grew up in a career-oriented home among socialites," Thomas said. "I was really neglected because of that."

By the time he was 7 years old, Jeff Thomas was basically taking care of himself. He wants a different childhood for his children.

"When you get neglected," Jeff said as tears came to his eyes, "you struggle because you want to be loved. I don't want them to have the same feeling as I had when I was growing up."

After his parents divorced, Jeff said, his family situation reached a point where he was almost placed in foster care. Instead, he went to live with his sister in Boise. There, he helped raise her family. By the time he was 13, he was reading books with titles like "Circle of Life."

"She had child-development books lying around everywhere," Jeff said. "I was a teenager and was reading those books. It prepared me for this."

Julie said her husband has wanted to be a stay-at-home dad from the beginning.

"On our first date," Julie said, "we said if we ever stayed together, he'd have to be a stay-at-home-dad and I'd work."

Thirteen years later, the couple is living that goal in the Daybreak development, where they live with their children, Jasper and a 2-year-old daughter, Jaden. Each morning, Julie, 30, awakes about 6 a.m. to start her telecommuting job in their basement, where she works until the afternoon. Jeff takes care of the children, and in the evening he works part time from home as an airline reservation agent.

"I never imagined that we would luck out and I could work from home," Julie said.

On a wall in their home hangs a collage of family photos surrounding the words, "No ordinary moment."

"As a parent," Jeff said, "the situation is always changing. You have to deal with new scenarios."

He said that some men, when they find out he is a stay-at-home dad, assume it's an easy job.

"Dude, you need to have more respect for your wife," Jeff said of his response. "They have no clue."

With an acronym that sounds like "sad," it is no surprise stay-at-home dads (SAHDs) may battle for a better image.

Or, in Utah, any image.

"I think Utah is just very unique," said Jeff, who has a registered Web site for SAHDs in Utah. He said he occasionally meets up with another SAHD he knows in Layton. "It takes a lot to motivate dads to get out together."

Despite Utah's limited numbers, SAHDs are increasing in the United States. Of the estimated 64.3 million fathers in 2006, according to the Survey of Income and Program Participation, 159,000 were SAHDs, according to America's Families and Living Arrangements.

The study defines SAHDs as married fathers with children younger than 15 and who have remained out of the labor force for at least one year primarily so they can care for the family while their wives work outside the home.

On blog sites such as AtHomeDad.org, RebelDad.com or Fatherville.com, stay-at-home dads all over the country discuss child-rearing issues like potty training, personality problems, dressing a child modestly or dressing a child's wounds.

Who are these dads?

"Forget the buttoned-down, three-piece-suit-wearing fathers of yesteryear," authors Ron Rentel and Joe Zellnik say, "who arrive home from work just in time for dinner and who left nurturing strictly to mom."

In their book "Karma Queens, Geek Gods and Innerpreneurs," Rentel and Zellnik wrote that these 25- to 40-year-old "Denim Dads" were raised during the '70s when feminism was in "full force."

"Girls of the time were told they could grow up to be anything they wanted to be," Rentel and Zellnik wrote, "and the first generation of Denim Dads was taking it all in."

Rentel and Zellnik wrote that a full third of this generation had divorced parents, and though not all Denim Dads turned out to be SAHDs, they were "determined to do things differently."

"I've never been one to hold to conventional wisdom anyway," Kenn Johnson said.

Johnson, 35, is a SAHD. He and his wife, Jolene, 31, live in Bountiful. Kenn works part time with KSL and Jolene is a nurse practitioner.

"She makes more than I ever could in radio," Kenn said. He said that his being at home with the kids "just made sense." Jolene works a 12- and 24-hour shift during the week, and Kenn works a couple hours each morning from home. The rest of the time the family is free to spend time together.

"We just went to Disneyland," the couple said.

Kenn's new favorite pastime is playing catch with his daughter, 11-year-old Alexa.

"She decided she likes softball," her dad said.

But the life of a SAHD is not all fun and games, and it doesn't affect only the dad.

"It's kinda hard," Jolene said, "especially in our neighborhood where it's mostly stay-at-home moms and the dad is working."

Jolene said she does not have much in common with the other moms and, unless someone needs her husband to lift a heavy box or open a jar, Kenn does not really hang out with the neighborhood women during the day.

"Now if they wanted to talk baseball," Kenn said, laughing.

The couple said they are happy with their situation, although it took a couple of tries to get it down. Back when Jolene was getting her master's degree, Kenn stayed home with the kids for the first time.

"I got antsy," Kenn said. "I thought I had to go back to work again. I went back. By the time I quit again, that feeling had worn off."

Kenn did what 40 percent of working fathers said they would do on a Careerbuilder.com survey if their spouses earned enough money for their family to live comfortably — leave their jobs.

And, according to America's Families and Living Arrangements, of the 159,000 stay-at-home dads, 40 percent had an annual family income of $50,000 or more in 2006 and 60 percent had two or more children.

But these men don't see it as doing their wives' jobs. Or as an alternative to working. Kenn said if his son wanted to be an SAHD out of laziness, "then I would kick his butt and tell him to get to work."

"People think dads don't actually do anything," Kenn said. "I'm busy. I'm actually taking care of these kids."

More and more dads are finding this out.

Modern-day dads spend twice as much time with their kids as dads of 25 years ago, according to Rentel and Zellnik. On the other hand, they said mothers today spend about the same amount of time doing things with — and taking care of — their children.

Jeff Hunter, a 43-year-old SAHD in Salt Lake City, said his mother is a big influence in his life.

"I was raised in a pretty liberal family," Jeff said. "My mother was recycling in the '70s before anyone knew it existed. My father was the banker type. Very patriarchal, but he didn't enforce it.

"The result is, we run this family equally."

Jeff and his wife, Wendy, have two kids — Duncan, 7, and Molly, 5. Wendy works as a chef in Provo, Jeff works part-time as a bartender.

"I've been doing this almost a year now," Jeff said. He said he had worked several different jobs in his life. And one day, he said, "I got tired of corporate America and said, 'I'm done."'

But his wife was unsure he could handle being a SAHD. Jeff agreed that it is challenging.

"I approach things very differently than my wife," Jeff said. "Many moms will take a day and do housework. I don't have the attention span. I have to break it up."

Jeff said his favorite part of being a SAHD is watching his children grow up.

"She is self-taught," he said about Molly. "She changes everyday. I wish I were with her more when she was younger."

Whether it is self-taught or not, 283,000 children, according to America's Families and Living Arrangements, are learning lessons from parents who have chosen to cross barriers. Stay-at-home dads are influencing future generations.

And it shows.

While riding her tricycle to the park in Daybreak, 2-year-old Jaden Thomas told her dad he was walking in her space. "Well, excuse me, little Miss Independence," Jeff Thomas said. He paused as she rode ahead.

"Independence," Jeff said. "That is really great."


E-mail: MBennett@desnews.com