Don’t call him Mr. Mom. Or describe what he does as “baby-sitting.”
“I get various reactions, which range from, ‘Good for you,’ to ‘I could never do that.’ And some people are jealous. It runs across the board,” says Jim Karner of Batavia, a stay-at-home dad to Haydn, 9, Harley, 8, Tillee, 6 and Milo, 4.
A generation ago, the comedy “Mr. Mom,” starring Michael Keaton as an unemployed man who bumbles his way through full-time caregiving, defined stay-at-home fatherhood.
Today, three Kane County stay-at-home dads see things a bit differently.
“There’s not a lot of us out there,” says Brian Singer, also of Batavia, a stay-at-home father of two. “It’s becoming more accepted, but in a traditional family, it’s still the husband at work earning money and the wife who is home with the kids.”
A practical solution
According to U.S. Census data, in 2011, about 176,000 American fathers spent at least one year out of the work force to care for their children while their wives worked. Seventeen percent of preschoolers were regularly cared for by their fathers during their mother’s working hours.
While the economic upheaval of the last five years and corporate downsizing caused many mothers and fathers to swap roles, job loss isn’t the only reason dads become full-time caregivers.
For David Amundson of St. Charles and his wife, Jhennifer, it was a matter of making the best use of their resources.
The couple met as architecture students at the University of Illinois, and while David followed a traditional career path, Jhennifer’s goal was to complete a doctorate in architectural history and teach at the university level. She had just started a position teaching at North Carolina State University in Raleigh when she became pregnant with twin sons.
“It was a pragmatic consideration,” David Amundson says. “If she had quit, it would have been very difficult for her to find another job because her field is so specialized. It would be easier for me to re-enter the work force as architecture jobs are everywhere.”
When Jhennifer began teaching at Judson University in Elgin, the family relocated to Kane County, and David continued to stay home with Ethan and Asher, now 13.
Singer was already working from home when he and his wife, Jenifer, who worked in sales, decided he was the best choice to be a stay-at-home parent.
“It was a matter of economics,” he says. “I had a home-based business, but she’d been in sales since right out of school and had a high earning potential. We also felt it was very important for one of us to be at home.”
Karner, a former stockbroker, spent a year juggling work and caring for his infant son while his wife, Melanie, completed her medical residency at Cook County Hospital. When her medical studies ended, she had an opportunity to join her brother’s established dermatology practice, and the couple had a decision to make.
“It was getting harder for me to work and take care of him,” Jim Karner says. “We could have hired someone, but to us that didn’t make sense. As a physician, my wife had decent income potential, so why have someone else raise him when we could do it?”
Eight years and three more children later, Karner is busier than ever, getting his kids to school, sports and activities, as well as handling household responsibilities and coaching soccer.
“Things can get hectic with getting homework done, out to the sports they have to go to, having dinner,” he says. “The biggest challenge is staying on schedule.”
Singer says learning the ropes of being a stay-at-home father was a matter of patience, instinct and common sense.
“You know they need to be fed, clothed, diapered and take naps,” he says.
What was more challenging was the feeling of being the only dad in a mom’s world.
“Some of the moms were comfortable having a guy around; for others, it was a little out of their comfort zone,” he says.
Connecting with another stay-at-home dad helped, as did becoming involved. Singer has served on the PTO board at his kids’ school, coached soccer and softball, and he currently serves as a Batavia Township Trustee.
When Amundson relocated to Kane County, he sought out the camaraderie he’d enjoyed with other stay-at-home parents while living in Raleigh. He found it when he joined the Tri-Cities Mothers of Twins and Triplets.
“I was the first male member, and they changed their by-laws to accommodate me,” he says.
Amundson says having a support network of other stay-at-home parents was crucial.
“Just having people you can go get coffee with and commiserate being in the trenches [is nice],” he says. “The only difference between us is gender. We’re all in the same profession, and our fears, failures, successes and joys all mirror each other.”
Amundson now works about 20 hours a week at Judson University as an adjunct professor and manager of the model studio, but he still has primary responsibility for the boys and the house, though Jhennifer is the primary cook.
“She’s much better at it than me,” he says.
Why they do it
The benefits of raising their children and creating a less stressful family life make the sacrifices worth it, the dads say.
“It’s an opportunity to be with my kids, be at their school, get to know their friends, teachers and other influences,” Singer says.
Karner admits that at the beginning, he wasn’t sure if he could handle being a stay-at-home dad, but he is glad he kept an open mind. He advises other men to do the same.
“Sure, you’ll get the, ‘Are you crazy?’ reactions, but I consider myself lucky to have the chance to raise my kids,” he says. “If you have the opportunity to do it, take it, because it’s a great thing.”