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'90s Pioneers: When Mom Works and Dad's at Home

Jennifer Warne always assumed that she and her husband, Steve, would remain a two-career family after their baby was born. She worked days as a project manager for an insurance company. He worked evenings as a supervisor in a packing plant.

But with only 30 minutes together each day, Mrs. Warnesays, "Family life was falling apart. Steve worked six days a week. Sunday he wanted to sleep. I felt like a single parent."

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A year ago, the couple devised a radical solution. Mr. Warne quit his job to care for Jack, now 22 months old, and she became the sole wage-earner.

While stay-at-home fathers have long enjoyed media attention, their breadwinning wives still remain largely invisible. Yet "these women are as groundbreaking as the men," Gwen Nyden, associate professor of sociology at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill.

Issues of budgets, discipline, housework, and the balance of power in a marriage often require couples to negotiate entirely new arrangements. They must also deal with inquisitive comments from relatives and friends who find their new roles an oddity.

To share experiences and concerns, a small group of breadwinner wives accompanied their husbands to the first national convention of stay-at-home fathers, held late last month in Des Plaines.

Only 10 percent of working wives earn more than their husbands, according to Lynne Casper, a Census Bureau demographer. Even fewer wives are the sole wage earners in marriages like the Warnes'. The Census Bureau does not count stay-at-home fathers, but Dr. Casper estimates that in 1993, 340,000 nonemployed fathers provided primary care for children while their wives worked. That figure rises to an estimated 1.9 million when employed fathers are included.

For some couples, it is the husband who proposes the arrangement. Donna Mains of Oak Park, Ill., a technical planner for an advertising agency, explains that her husband left his administrative post at a university two years ago to care for their first child.

"We were looking for day care, but I wasn't happy with what I was finding," Mrs. Mains recalls. "One day Jim said, 'I could stay home.' I said, 'Oh yeah, sure.' I kept looking for day care. A month later, he said it again." Like Warne's, her salary and career potential made it logical for her to work.

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Some wives say that their husbands are more nurturing. "He's better at raising kids," says Lynn Horn of Wauwatosa, Wis., whose husband, Peter, worked for a construction company. For four years he has cared for their four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son while she works as a claims adjuster in an insurance company.

Linda Frank of Glenview, Ill., a hospital administrator, offers a similar reason for the shift she and her husband, Robert, made nine years ago when their first child was born. "He's more patient," she says.

Even so, comparisons with other women inevitably occur. "There are situations where I'm better off, and situations where they're better off," says Mains. "My women friends who work can't appreciate the level of responsibility you feel when you're the primary breadwinner. And the lost salary makes things tighter."

Long-term role reversal

But the primary reward, she emphasizes, is that "one of us gets to be with our children. They're getting the best care we could possibly give them. I never worry about them when I'm at work."

Nor must these women think about certain domestic details. Most of their husbands do much of the shopping, cleaning, laundry, and errands. Some also cook.

"Jim does the cooking and cleaning for the most part," says Mains. She cooks on weekends, pays the bills, and goes grocery shopping alone on Saturday morning so he doesn't have to take their two children, ages 23 months and seven months.

Mrs. Frank's husband cooks three or four nights a week. "I keep saying, 'You can't serve pasta and potatoes at the same meal, if that's all you serve,' " she says with a laugh. "But I see it as a positive because I don't have to worry about trying to get a meal when I come home."

Although role-reversing parents share discipline, some women find their husbands taking a firmer stand.

"When I'm home, I probably let things slide more, just because I haven't seen them do it 10 times that day, and Jim has," says Mains.

Ann Rosenthal, a mechanical engineer and mother of five in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, adds, "If I disagree with the way he's disciplining, I don't interfere. I'll talk to him about it later." Her husband, Eric, a former certified public accountant, has cared for their children for five years.

Yet even pioneering arrangements have their limits. After work, these breadwinning wives, like women in two-career marriages, begin a second shift at home.

"The role reversal is only when the mother is at work - then we switch back," says Robert Frank.

Speaking of his own routine when the couple's children, now ages 7 and 9, were small, he says, "At 5:30, when Linda walked in, I would say, 'Here you go' and hand the kids over."

Based on a national survey he conducted last year of 371 stay-at-home fathers, Dr. Frank, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology, says, "Stay-at-home dads' wives are very involved in the family." He also finds that these role reversals tend to be long-term. Fathers in his study had been primary caregivers for 33 months, on average.

Seeing both sides now

There are clear reasons why couples revert to conventional roles, says Professor Nyden. "In a traditional marriage, I'm not absolutely certain that a husband understands what a stay-at-home wife does all day. He works hard at the office, and when he comes home it may not occur to him that his wife has worked hard and needs a break too.

"But when the women come home, they understand that their husbands need a break, so they take over a lot of playing with the kids and helping with dinner. We're seeing more 50-50 sharing."

Despite the complexities of these roles, Warne finds that tensions arise "very rarely."

"We did have a conversation once, where Steve said he felt I wasn't very appreciative of what he does at home, such as walking in and saying, 'Wow, the house looks really nice,' " she says. "Sometimes when I get my quarterly performance review, he'll say, 'When am I getting mine?'"

Calling their arrangement "pretty normal," Mrs. Horn adds, "We haven't had a lot of conflict about it." And Mains says firmly, "I don't feel at all like I have the power. It's not my money, it's our money."

Financial planning

Even so, Mary Balmer of Waukegan, Ill., an associate scientist at a laboratory, emphasizes the importance of being clear on the motivation for changing roles. When her husband, Bill, proposed the idea during her pregnancy, he was unhappy with his job at a bank.

"I asked him, 'Do you want to do this because you want to stay with the baby, or because you hate your job?' " she recalls. "He thought about it for a week and said he'd like to do it because of the baby." He has cared for their 21-month-old son since he was born. "It's great," Mr. Balmer says. "We're both very happy with the arrangement."

Warne, too, stresses the need to plan. Before her husband quit his job, the couple practiced living on her salary and saving his paychecks. They sold their car and bought a used car. They also scrapped plans to buy a bigger house.

In addition, Mrs. Warne's mother came for three months to help her son-in-law establish a routine with the baby. Mr. Warne admits that his first day alone was "pretty tough," but adds, "I've adjusted real well and enjoy it."

Even with planning, no one pretends that such major changes are easy. Warne sometimes feels "a tinge of jealousy" when her husband tells her what he and Jack did that day.

"But that doesn't take away from the happiness of knowing that this is what works for our family. He's doing a really great job," she says.

How long will these arrangements continue? "We didn't put a time limit on it - this is the decision for now," says Mrs. Rosenthal. "When the kids are older, Eric could start a home-based business or work for a small company. He has an entrepreneurial spirit."

Mrs. Mains adds, "My feeling is, it would be nice if Jim goes back to work when the children are in school. I wouldn't feel such a financial burden. It would also help out for college."

Others worry about their husband's isolation and ability to reenter the work force.

"He's doing me a great service, and I think he's doing what he wants to be doing," says a woman from Michigan who does not wish to be identified. "But I'm concerned about the ramifications five years from now. I think people already view him as being different. That's going to affect an interview."

Yet Mrs. Warne sees many advantages. "We have dinner together now, and we enjoy family time in the evening. I don't come home and have laundry and errands and housework to do."

Echoing the comments of other wives in breadwinning roles, Mrs. Frank says, "I'm always grateful that I have this opportunity. I'm proud that I can do this for my family."

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