Pleasures and pitfalls of being a stay-at-home dad

abredeson@islandpacket.comDecember 9, 2013 

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Bluffton resident and stay-at-home dad Nate Ulmer holds still while daughter Jorja, 5, and son Hunter, 3, chalk outline him, as niece Krystal, 5, and his wife Cathy watch.

SARAH WELLIVER — Staff photo Buy Photo

When Nate Ulmer takes his children to the playground during the day, he is usually the only father there.

If there are mothers around, they don't talk to him, which makes him feel a little out of place -- but he doesn't let it bother him.

"I'm not going to bring up Tupperware or anything like that," he said with a laugh.

Ulmer, a Bluffton resident, is one of many men who have taken on the role of stay-at-home dad. He cares for Jorja, 5, and Hunter, 3, while his wife, Cathy, goes to work as a pharmacist. They're expecting their third child in May.

Most people Nate knows say it's pretty awesome that he gets to stay at home with the children. His buddies pick on him sometimes, but he doesn't care. He knows they're just messing with him.

"I just enjoy being a parent," he said. "I've witnessed a lot of dads (who) just don't like being a parent at all."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 about 189,000 fathers stayed at home with their children while their wives worked.

Professor Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, said there are two main reasons fathers decide to stay at home to care for their children: First, they like the idea of having one parent at home to raise the children if possible. Second, the decision about who should stay at home depended on who made less money. In most cases, Harrington said, the mothers made significantly more money or had the potential to make more money than the fathers.

Those reasons were the most common given in the center's 2012 national study of 31 men who stay at home with their children.

The study found that many stay-at-home fathers do worry about how others perceive them, though. The survey asked the men how they respond when they meet new people who ask what they do for a living. Most said they were stay-at-home fathers. Some said they would answer the question with what they used to do and add that they are home with the children for a little while.

"Once they get past that, a lot of the guys said that what they're doing now is tremendously meaningful," Harrington said.

Dave Scheifele of Bluffton has been a stay-at-home dad since his daughter, Elizabeth, was born four years ago.

A retired firefighter, paramedic and psychiatric nurse, Scheifele is not able to work a full-time job because of injuries sustained on the job. He does work part-time from home, doing IT consulting while caring for Elizabeth.

Scheifele said he doesn't really get reactions from people when he tells them what he does.

"I think society has changed to where there's a lot more women in the working world and there's a lot more stay-at-home dads," he said.

In the Boston College study, the wives of stay-at-home fathers were also surveyed. What they found was that most of the men are married to ambitious, well-educated professional women. The wives were incredibly positive about their husbands raising the children. In all cases except one, the women couldn't say enough about how grateful they were for having one parent at home. They said their own careers could flourish because of it. They also said they couldn't help but feeling they should be the one at home.

Scheifele's wife, Alison, is a security clerk at Wexford Plantation on Hilton Head Island. She stayed home for about six weeks after the baby was born. Then Dave took over.

"Who doesn't want to be home?" she said. "But then again, after two days home on the weekend, I'm kind of ready to go back to work."

Nate knew for years he would be the primary caretaker for his children. When he and Cathy were dating more than a decade ago, they knew they wanted to have kids. Cathy was in school to be a pharmacist, and Nate worked many jobs, including surveying land for about 10 years. He said he never found a job he enjoyed. So they decided then that Cathy would be the breadwinner, and Nate would stay at home with their future children.

"We planned a lot of stuff out," Nate said. "(We) wanted to make sure everything was just right for our children."

Neither Dave nor Nate had dreams of being stay-at-home dads when they were growing up, but such a title probably didn't even exist back then.

When Nate was a child, he thought he would end up working in a factory when he grew up. He does work one day a week at Messex One Stop Service in Bluffton. But he never imagined he'd be spending six days a week caring for small children.

Meanwhile, Dave dreamed of becoming an astronaut. His plan was to join the Air Force because that was the first step to get into the astronaut program. Unfortunately, he was turned down because of a bad knee.

As far as going back to work full-time, Nate said, "I keep myself busy enough to not worry about that."

Dave said he does miss work at times, but he can't return because of his disabilities.

"I always like helping people," Dave said. "It's always been in my nature to help people. I'm still one of the guys that will see someone with a flat tire and pull over. Saving lives meant a lot to me."

Dave admits that sometimes he feels isolated not socializing with other adults much during the day.

According to the Boston College study, this is a common sentiment. There are plenty of play groups for at-home moms and their children but few for fathers. And fathers who have attended playgroups often did not feel welcome. One father was even told that the bylaws said men were not allowed.

"I think that men struggle more because there are so many fewer of them in the situation," Harrington said.

But Dave said the benefits of being a stay-at-home dad far outweigh the pitfalls, and he wouldn't trade it for the world.

He has a 17-year-old son, William, from a previous marriage and worked a lot when William was a baby. So when Elizabeth came along, he really wanted to be at home with her.

"I jumped at the chance," he said.

"I get to have the first years of molding my daughter."

Although Nate isn't yakking it up with the moms on the playground, he does make time to hang out with his buddies so he's not missing out on a social life. He doesn't get together with other stay-at-home dads, but he is surrounded by family. And the kids have instant playmates in their cousins right next door.

But honestly, he said, he is just fine not hanging out with adults. He has fun playing with the kids. More importantly, he likes knowing that his children are safe and happy.

"You have a job to do," he said.

Follow Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.

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