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Family photo
Hogan Hilling, center, hugs his son and his son's coach after Matt Hilling was named MVP at a recent sporting event. Hilling spent 20 years as a stay-at-home dad and is now on the board of a national advocacy group.

ROBBINSVILLE, N.J. — Scott Benner was shopping for day care when he witnessed a scene that would change his family. A little boy was clinging to his day-care provider. What struck Benner was the sorrow in the eyes of the father who was trying to pick up the boy.

He rushed home to tell his wife, Kelly, that he thought she should quit her job and stay home to raise their new baby, Cole.

"How's that going to work?" she asked him with a laugh. He was a graphic designer at the time, while she was moving up in a pharmaceutical company. Her career path and earning potential were clearly better than his.

Thirteen years later, Benner is part of what is now a growing trend, though the numbers are still comparatively small. The Census Bureau says 189,000 dads stayed home to raise their children in 2012. That number included married fathers with children 14 and younger who have been out of the labor force for a year or more so they can care for children while their wives work outside the home. Between them, those men cared for more than 369,000 children. Eighteen percent of preschoolers in 2011 were regularly cared for by their fathers while their moms worked.

The New York Times recently asked the Census Bureau to expand its estimate to include men with freelance or part-time jobs who serve as primary caretakers for their children. The bureau estimated around 626,000 men would fit that bill.

The National At-Home Dad Network believes the Census Bureau seriously undercounts how many there are because it only counts those not in the labor force. It excludes some caregiver dads counted by 2009 research from Appalachian State University — part-time workers and those who work opposite shifts from a spouse so they can be primary caregivers to their children. That number exceeded 1.4 million five years ago.

Finding a groove

For many families, a failing economy led dad to stay home and care for the family while mom worked. Eve Tahmincioglu of the Families and Work Institute points to both gains in women’s earning power — in 27 percent of dual-income families, women earn more than their husbands — and the challenges men have faced with higher unemployment during the recession.

Men and women are making a complicated set of decisions about how their families will function against a backdrop of many different factors, each somewhat unique. They are finding that attitudes about those decisions are changing, too.

In its 2008 "Times Are Changing" report, the Families and Work Institute noted that "both men and women are less likely to agree in 2008 that men should earn the money and women should take care of the children and family than they were in 1977." Back then, 64 percent felt men should go to work and women care for home and family. That had fallen to 39 percent in 2008. But the report also noted that 2 in 5 employees still endorse traditional gender roles. What has changed is that the two genders now have virtually identical views on the question, not the huge chasm between the sexes that existed in 1977. Then, men overwhelmingly felt women should be at home while they supported the family. Women were nearly divided on the question, with 52 percent agreeing.

Economics is clearly a factor for some families. Job losses related to the recession hit men nearly twice as hard as women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most recent data shows female job losses outpace slightly those of men, but that wasn't true in recent years when the workplace was shedding men. In April, for civilians above age 20, 7.7 percent of men were unemployed, compared to 7.1 percent of women.

Still, laying life decisions like staying home or sending children to day care and who will do what solely on economics sells the decisions short, said Hogan Hilling, a board member for the National At-Home Network and a man who left the workplace 20 years ago to care for his children, now all grown. Personality and temperament are very important, too, said Hilling, of Orange, Calif.

He and his wife wanted to have a parent at home. They agreed he was more temperamentally suited to taking on child-rearing tasks. "It fit my personality and I fell in love with it," he said.

Initially, he was going to go back into the workforce after his kids got into school. "I extended my contract," he said. "I made a conscious decision to stay until my youngest was out of high school. ... I think kids need their parents in middle school and high school more even than when they are younger. There are more outside influences."

He worked part time once the kids were in school but raising his family was his priority. It's a myth that you have to be wealthy to do that, he said. His wife was a schoolteacher. It was sometimes tight, but they managed. "We just decided that the quality of our life as a family was more important than the quality of our family's lifestyle," Hilling said.

Not Mr. Mom

Dads who take on a stay-at-home career in 2013 probably get less hassle than Hilling and Benner did initially. Hilling said he heard from a lot of people that he was making a mistake. Men who stayed home were made to feel less masculine, while women who went to work were made to feel like bad moms, he said. "It was a real challenge for dad to be in the home, a challenge for mom not to be."

Now, stay-at-home dads have communities to rely on. Benner learned a lot from stay-at-home moms he knew. Hilling was part of a growing network of men.

The New York City Dads Group is one of many across the nation where men share tips, organize field trips and help each other out. They also hold a popular series of parenting classes for new dads.

The national network hates the "Mr. Mom" image the media present of at-home fathers, who neither fumble nor try to be something they're not — namely female. They don't try to replace moms, Hilling said. They're dads who spent a lot of time parenting. Mr. Mom depictions insult both men and the women who chose them as mates.

Learning curve

There's a learning curve to parenting. When Benner first stayed home, every day was play day. "I'd wake up on a winter morning, 45 degrees outside, a sink full of dirty dishes and I'd be like, 'We're going to the zoo.' We hung out together. I struggled to do more domestic things, to figure out how to make a plan for it to keep them from getting out of hand. But I figured it out." Now it's second nature to throw the dishes in the dishwasher and start a load of laundry as he walks by.

Four years in, Arden was born. Benner figured he'd go back to work when she hit kindergarten, but she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and the two of them manage its challenges during the course of the day with lots of texts and calls.

It led to a blog that has become very popular among families dealing with a child's diabetes, ardensday.com. His first book, "Life is Short, Laundry Is Eternal: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad," became a best seller and just won a 2013 Gold distinction from Mom’s Choice Awards in a contemporary family category.

Launching his stay-at-home career had been purely practical when his son Cole was little. They decided one of them needed to be with Cole and financially it made sense that it would be him. "My wife would have been an amazing stay-at-home mother," he said.

In his earlier days as a stay-at-home dad, he got upset about things he thought a father was supposed to be upset about. Then he decided to just be who he was. He also worried, a few years in, that he was frittering away what and who he was supposed to be by staying home, that there were things in the world he was supposed to be doing. "I was not paying attention to all the stuff that happens — moments that fill you up, if you allow it." If you don't immerse yourself in those moments and allow them to buoy you, he warned, you could resent being at home.

In an informal survey for NPR last year, stay-at-home dads listed among their challenges lingering self-esteem issues. That's something several stay-at-home moms cited for themselves when interviewed for a story last year.

Benner happily spends much of his time showing his kids that life is worth trying. He didn't know if he could raise his kids. It was worth trying. He wasn't sure he could write a book, but that was worth trying, too. The message is especially important for Arden, he said, because diabetes could hold her back if she let it. He doesn't want her to do that.

He's trying to raise the best kids he can — independent, smart, funny and willing to take a chance. "I don't have it in my head that I am raising a little version of me. I'll count it a failure if I look up 20 years from now and they are repeating my life and my wife's life," Benner said.

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