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Modern Mr. Moms Are Multiplying

The stay-at-home dad played by Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom bumbles through everything from his unruly baby's run-in with a vacuum cleaner to her destructive romp through the grocery store.

That image of the househusband is comical and might have been accurate in the 1980s, when the film was made. But today's stay-at-home fathers -- numbering about 2 million and growing -- are a different breed altogether.

"They see themselves as professional parents; the job they're doing is raising children," said Libby Gill, author of Stay-at-Home Dads: The Essential Guide to Creating the New Family. "The image of Mr. Mom is cute but not very accurate."

Gill, a Los Angeles media consultant, should know -- and not only from the research she did for her book. Her husband stayed at home with their two boys, now 8 and 11, from the start.

"My husband and I decided we wanted a full-time parent," she said. "I had the job with more stability."

She and others familiar with the situation say the trend has grown primarily out of practical and economic considerations -- but also because it's more widely accepted than ever.

Two out of five women today out-earn their husbands, according to Gill. So for families who want one parent at home, having the father stay with the kids is increasingly feasible.

"You see who is the best candidate," Gill said. "You do it by design, not by default … If you consider Dad a viable candidate, you've doubled your options."

Stay-at-home dad and former journalist Seth Agulnick fits this trend. For him and his veterinarian wife, Leslie, the choice became clear soon after their son Aaron was born.

"The initial impetus was simply that I was burned out at my job," said Agulnick, 32, of Raymond, N.H. "The rest was practical: Leslie can make a lot more so if we were going to live on one salary, we could do it better on hers."

Those at BabyTalk magazine have also seen evidence of the phenomenon. In the September issue, the publication ran the results of a "Mom vs. Dad" survey that generated responses from 26,500 parents, 11,500 of them fathers. Four percent of the pops were home full-time.

"I think that's a growing number," said managing editor Sally Tusa. "Certainly this is a growing trend. In the past, there was a stigma, but it's starting to become a lot more normal."

She, too, said the main factors influencing parents' decisions are salary and benefits.

"That's not to say they don't care about being good parents and being with the kids," Tusa said. "But they're very practical."

Agulnick said he loves staying home and wouldn't go back to work, at least not any time soon. But he doesn't buy into the parenting-as-profession theory.

"Anyone who tells you it's like having a full-time job is crazy," said Agulnick. "There aren't too many jobs where you can take a nap in the afternoon or walk in the park."

But just like their female counterparts, many at-home dads feel isolated and grapple with having to justify their situation to family, friends, strangers -- and even themselves.

On the flip side, working moms struggle with guilt and the stigma that they must be bad mothers who have abandoned their children.

"Everyone is getting it from all sides," Tusa said. "I hope some day we get to the point where we can all say, 'you've made the right parenting choice for you.'"

The at-home father/working mother scenario isn't right for every family. Plenty of couples manage -- and need to -- balance parenthood and two careers, and many others find the old-fashioned mom at home, dad at work situation is best for them.

No matter what setup a couple decides on, it doesn't have to be permanent.

"This is not a life sentence," Gill said. "Parents can trade places."

For Agulnick's part, he's happy with his arrangement -- and keeps a sense of humor about it.

"The best part is they're changing so much from day to day that you can literally see the development. It's incredible," he said. "I am having fun. We'll see how long I can stand it."