Keeping Home Fires Burning

Many female executives can identify with the life Dana Gage used to lead. "My husband left at 6 a.m. and I was up at five. I was like a madwoman, cleaning like crazy so the nanny wouldn't think I was a total loser," recalls the vice president of sales and marketing for Tribune Media Sales's TV publishing division.

In addition to her child-care duties, Gage would swing by the home of her elderly, legally blind Dad on the way home from work to check on him and see to dinner.

Then she started traveling consistently for work — and realized things had to change.

"Brett and I sat down and we realized we weren't giving it our best shot," she recalled, referring to herself and her husband. "The kids were getting the leftovers."

So, like a growing number of their peers inside and outside the cable TV industry, the Gages made a lifestyle change. Brett left his job to become the chief domestic engineer, while Dana brought home the bacon.

Or, as Dana jokes, he's still a teacher. "His class just got a little smaller, that's all."

According to researchers, the couple is representative of a lot of time-pressured, two-income households. They are re-evaluating just what they are working for when putting in all those hours. The household income may be growing, but child-care providers get to enjoy the precious moments in the working couple's life. And in some households, the second paycheck is totally devoted to childcare, a rising cost, according to statistics.

Couples are re-evaluating their lifestyles and, according to anecdotal evidence, more each day are deciding the man should stay home. The number may be as high as one in 20 married couples, according to support groups for stay-at-home dads.

Estimate: 1 in 20

It's hard to quantify exact number of those who choose to stay home, as opposed to those at home due to layoffs or other reasons, said Bob Frank, an associate professor of psychology at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill.

A former stay-at-home dad himself, Frank has been researching the issue since 1996. Hard numbers on the trend are difficult to come by, he said, because the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau haven't crafted questions on the reasons why a husband is home caring for the kids.

One thing is sure: wage-earning capacity — and opportunities for advancement — are chief reasons couples weigh in determining who will stay home. Because more women are earning advanced collegiate degrees, the chief wage earner is the woman more frequently than in the past, Frank said.

Attitudes toward traditional family units are changing as well. A recent Newsweek
poll indicated that 34% of men would quit their jobs, or at least reduce their work hours, if their wives were the superior wage earners. Acceptance of a role reversal increases as the respondents age and become more financially independent, according to polls.

Peace on the home front is becoming more important to all workers, according to another poll by the Society for Human Resources Management. Jennifer Schramm, the society's manager of workplace trends and forecasting, said recent polls on job satisfaction have identified balancing the home and workplace as the top issue cited by employees, beating wages and other benefits.

Cable connection

Several cable executives said their choice of career both contributed to their need to change their domestic arrangements, and also gave them the upward mobility to afford it.

The cable industry is relatively young, unlike the banking or insurance industries, for example, noted Cynthia Carpenter, vice president of affiliate marketing at AMC Networks.

Cable's pioneers include strong female executives like June Travers and Betsy Magness, and the industry was getting off the ground at the peak of the women's movement, so "no one batted an eye when women said they wanted to advance," Carpenter said.

Carpenter's husband, Daniel, left a career as an executive chef seven years ago to become "King Daddy," as Carpenter playfully calls him. Money was not the primary determinant in this household, Daniel noted, as both had comparable salaries. But the couple decided that Daniel could leave his career and not lose ground.

Cynthia has a more linear career track, and would lose traction if she took several years out to raise Claire, 6, and Katharine, 4.

Not that it's been easy for Daniel.

"I long for the days when I had a staff who did what I told them. I told them what to do and they said, 'Yes, chef.' Now I have two bosses, and they don't always do what I say," he said.

"At least when I hear my daughters say something, uh, sassy, at least I know they heard it from my mouth," he joked.

Getting a chance

Gage agrees with Carpenter's assessment of the industry as a breeding ground for less-traditional domestic arrangements.

"There are opportunities that exist in the cable industry that don't exist elsewhere," she said. "When you've taken care of the home front, you can move up and explore horizons in cable in part because there's a terrific support network.

"A lot of the people are in the same age range, growing up together in the industry. That is comforting."

But with that opportunity comes sacrifice.

"When my oldest son Riley was in pre-kindergarten, the teacher asked him to draw a picture of his Mommy doing anything he could think of. He drew a picture of me in an airplane," she said. "Guilt! Guilt! Guilt!

"But having Dad home has erased a lot of that."

"Cable takes sacrifice," said Jillaina Wachendorf, senior vice president of marketing with Starz Encore Group LLC. "I've said many times I couldn't have continued my career path [without the lifestyle changes]. I wouldn't have wanted to be on the road two weeks a month. But it's a fun industry.

"You get hooked on the pace and excitement. A lot of other industries are not as engaging. I have a strong desire to not give it up."

It's even better now, knowing she doesn't have to rush off to pick up the kids, she added.

Though work is a place she can thrive, Wachendorf admits she's a little envious of those who stay at home. Missing school craft days "really hurt," she said.

It's not a cinch for her better half, either. Asked what's more difficult — working as a trucking company instructor or dealing with Samantha, 6, and Ethan, 2, Bob Wachendorf said: "The two kids. They constantly present challenges. I'm not a natural-born care giver. I have to work at that.

"I'm challenged by the role at times," he added. "You can lose it if your identity is tied to your profession.

"I've run into this a lot of times when people meet you and say 'What do you do?' You say you're a stay-at-home dad and their look says, 'What's wrong with you?' Kind of negative. But more are saying, 'I wish I could do that.' "

Getting the kids on board with the program is a little easier, especially once you suss out their dietary desires.

"Once you learn mac and cheese, that pretty much covers you," he quipped.

Jillaina Wachendorf is aware of the stress the situation may place on her husband's ego.

"My best advice is absolutely value your husband. Bob and I both earn the wage I'm paid," she said.

No ego problems

Court TV senior vice president of business development Claire Cowart said ego has been less an issue for her domestic engineer. The pair have been married 20 years and met as co-workers at Procter & Gamble.

"Because Bob [Carey] is the man he is, he doesn't base his worth in how much he makes. My career is more important to me than his is to him," she said.

The couple has been together 20 years through multiple relocations and resettlements, including three for her cable career. For part of the marriage, Carey continued to commute to jobs but moved home to care for the kids three months ago and replaced the households de facto manager, the nanny. The couple have a son, Ryan, 12, and daughter Olivia, 10.

For a few husbands, their new domestic roles are an issue of fairness.

"I moved three times for his career," said Allyson Lago, director of promotional marketing for Comcast Ad Sales. John Lago was in the oceanic shipping industry when Allyson accepted her ad-sales job, and the couple moved to New York.

"He looked for a job, but what was available was not worth the $200 left after child care expenses," she said. With childcare out of reach, " I think it felt like his gift to me to stay home, after three moves for his job."

Lago sees evidence of the stay-at-home trend within her own business unit. Of its five workers, three have husbands who have made lifestyle changes for the wife's career, whether it is trailing her to a new job or caring for the children.

Staying in 'pantry'

Though the trend toward stay-at-home dads is growing, the men do still have to fight an undercurrent of negativity, warns researcher Frank. Women in the workplace are lauded for shouldering the economic burden, he said, while men still face some stigma. As a result, some stay-at-homes are afraid to "come out of the pantry," he said.

Another problem with the arrangement: the loss of long-term benefits, such as diminished Social Security or other retirement earnings. The arrangement can also supplant other lifestyle changes, Frank said, such as a change of career.

Most of the executives interviewed for this story said they wished there had been a way to do more financial planning before Dad moved home. For instance, Cowart said her husband would really like to take a job with a nonprofit organization some day, but that will have to wait. On the other hand, Bob Wachendorf is using his domestic time to study for his commercial pilot's license.

But the best results of the stay-at-home dad trend, Frank said, are calmer moms and more nurturing dads.

"It's just another choice you can make — and it's a good choice."