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New At-Home Fathers Face Challenges

Tribune Media Services

Fathers looking to strengthen their bonds with their children often find that becoming a stay-at-home dad is a step in the right direction. Still, whether they do it by choice or are forced to after losing a job, most fathers learn that it takes time to make the adjustment to this new lifestyle.

"Dads adjust to being home the same way moms do, and the same way anybody does to a new job: slowly," says Julie Shields, a McLean, Va.-based author of "How To Avoid The Mommy Trap" (Capital Books, $26.95). "It may be a little tougher for at-home dads, particularly if they are home as a result of losing their job, as they may feel stigmatized and as if they are not performing as 'real men' or 'good fathers' do."

Respect the Routine

If a working father loses his job and becomes the functioning parent at home, it's important for him to be cognizant of the way things were run in the house prior to his new lifestyle, whether it was with two working parents or a stay-at-home mom.

"Have an open mind about what's been done by your wife," says Jonathan Pochyly, Ph.D., a staff psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "You can have a healthy mix, but at least start off with trying to adjust to the system in place."

If you've lost your job, don't be afraid to address the situation with your children. Although you may think it might upset your children to hear that you're out of work, taking the time to talk about it gets the dialogue started.

"Explain to them in a way that's appropriate to their age," says Pochyly. "Prepare them for the change and be open about your feelings. Try and be consistent."

Ultimately, the psychological impact of being a stay- or work-at-home father will depend on how the father deals with the perceived and real stigmas attached to the situation.

"I have interviewed hundreds of at-home dads and found them all proud of the job they are doing and happy to be doing what they value as important," says Shields. "The benefits of being involved as an at-home father are enormous as they range from a close relationship between father and child to happier marriages."

Work From Home

Some fathers find the perfect compromise by creating their own work-at-home environment. By combining a new career with more responsibilities at home, these dads find that they can accomplish much on both a professional and personal level.

Planned in Advance

When Mike Paranzino found out a baby was on the way three years ago, his wife made it clear that she was going to be returning to her line of work.

"We both always expected that. We had talked about it," says Paranzino. "I decided to give staying at home a shot. I had nine months of warning to start planning."

Paranzino spent the time before the baby was born starting his own Bethesda, Md.-based consulting business. Once his son was born, he was able to be a stay-at-home father by working out of his home office.

"I was able to have somewhat of a part-time work situation instead of walking away completely from my career," Paranzino says. "Now I'm working during naps, at nights and on weekends because all I really need is a phone and a computer."

Adjusting to life as a stay-at-home father was not easy at first for Paranzino.

"It took me about a year to feel comfortable," he says. "My first year was a big adjustment. Sometimes being the only dad walking their kid in a stroller is tough. I guess there's probably a self-conscious element to it because it's considered unusual, but I love it. I have the ability to shape my child's life."

Quick Change

After losing his job in January of 2003, Robert Smith of Rockford, Ill., found himself at home with his family of four young children. With bills to pay and little luck searching for jobs, Smith decided to start his own mail order business and become a stay-at-home father.

"My wife wasn't for it at first before I started the business," says Smith. "But once I started making some money, she stopped. She became a believer."

Yet before his business took off, Smith struggled with his new situation of not being the main provider for his family.

"It was definitely a blow to the ego because I've been the breadwinner since we got married eight years ago," he says. "I was stressed and I needed to feed my kids."

Now with his new line of work, Smith gets to concentrate on the most important responsibility in his life -- his children. But along with that comes the challenge of getting used to the daily schedule of being a working stay-at-home dad.

"It helps to get up and get dressed like you're going to work," Smith says. "You need to program yourself for success. I'll wear a suit when dropping my kids off at school."

New Responsibilities

Two years ago Paul Kidwell was laid off from his job at a Boston, Mass.-based biotech company. With little brewing in the local job market, he looked toward freelancing but soon realized his best bet was in starting his own business. Around the same time, he found himself in a position to help raise his 12-year-old stepson.

"By default, a lot of the responsibilities fell to me," says Kidwell. "I was really willing because I had a marriage that did not do well and part of that was the loss of a son. So I had a piece of my heart that was still empty. The prospect of taking on the responsibility of a 10-year-old boy was something I was more than willing to do."

Now Kidwell gets to spend time doing everyday activities with his son - an element of being a stay-at-home father he really enjoys.

"To me the best thing is being to participate more with my family," Kidwell says. "The fact that I can make him breakfast, drive him to school, go to the grocery store -- it's all really enjoyable. It allows me great flexibility."

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