MINNEAPOLIS - Right before Christmas, Jamie McConnell arrived at the Lake Country School here, as he does most days of the week, to pick up his son, Ben, 3. Hardly short on spunk, Ben made his way out to the snowy playground, and Mr. McConnell, as parents have done since the dawn of swings and monkey bars, trailed behind.
Mr. McConnell had plenty of time to watch Ben romp and to invite one of his classmates and his mother home for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
For years, Mr. McConnell ate very different lunches. He was a corporate litigator at Dorsey & Whitney, among the country's most prestigious law firms. But since he and Dr. Bill Atmore, an anesthesiologist, adopted Ben as an infant, taking care of the child has been his full-time job. Dr. Atmore, his partner of eight years, works full time.
In assuming those roles, demographers say, the two are part of an emerging population of gay men who are not only raising children but are also committed to the idea that one parent should leave the workplace to do it. Of 9,328 same-sex couples with children whose census returns were randomly selected for analysis by the Census Bureau, 26 percent of the male couples included a stay-at-home parent, said Gary Gates, a demographer with the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington. That figure is one percentage point more than for married couples with children and four percentage points higher than for female couples, said Mr. Gates, who performed the analysis for this article.
The percentage of men who stay at home is significantly smaller among married heterosexual couples, Mr. Gates said.
The obstacles of finding surrogate mothers and of discriminatory adoption laws that favor heterosexual couples have led some gay men to pursue parenthood with fervor.
"Being a planned gay father is such a project in itself," said Judith Stacey, a professor of sociology at New York University and a senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families, a research organization. Often, Professor Stacey said, gay fathers or those aspiring to be "remain very judgmental of parents who don't stay home."
To some gay men, the idea of entrusting the care of a hard-won child to someone else seems to defeat the purpose of parenthood.
Ray Friedmann, of Portland, Ore., gave up an accounting job at a credit union after he and his partner adopted their daughter, Ceriwen, now six months old. Unable to join his partner's medical plan because it does not provide for domestic partners, Mr. Friedmann, like many other gay fathers, pays for his own health insurance.
"We never thought we'd even be able to have this child," Mr. Friedmann said. "When we had the opportunity to do it, we wanted to give her the best attention and love."
Four years ago, after Bernie Cummings and his partner, Ernie Johnston, a marketing executive at Warner Brothers, had a baby girl, Caelan, through a surrogate mother, Mr. Cummings left his job as a managing director at Ogilvy Public Relations. Since then, they have added twins to their family, also through surrogacy.
"I've taken myself out of an industry that moves pretty quickly," said Mr. Cummings, who lives in Los Angeles. "But if I were working, I'd miss that moment when Caelan was just getting up from her nap, grabbing and holding on to me."
Same-sex couples with a stay-at-home parent are doing this even though census figures show that their median household income, $35,000, is lower than the $45,000 for a heterosexual married couple with a stay-at-home parent, Mr. Gates of the Urban Institute said.
The 2000 census found that there were some 60,000 male couple households with children in America, and close to 96,000 female couple households. Those figures are about 20 percent of all male couples and a third of all female couples.
Rob Calhoun and his partner refinanced their home in suburban Atlanta when Mr. Calhoun quit his job as a social worker to stay home with their baby daughter. "We really couldn't afford it," Mr. Calhoun said.
Sociologists, gender researchers and gay parents themselves say that because gay men are liberated from the cultural expectations and pressures that women face to balance work and family life, they may approach raising children with a greater sense of freedom and choice.
They may also not fear stigmatization in these new roles, said Ellen Lewin, chairwoman of the women's studies department at the University of Iowa. Professor Lewin is the author of "Lesbian Mothers" (Cornell University Press, 1993) and is working on a study of gay fathers.
Conversely, feminism's legacy may leave lesbians more ideologically committed to equality in their relationships, said Christopher Carrington, a professor of sociology at San Francisco State University and the author of "No Place Like Home" (University of Chicago Press, 2002), which examines how gay and lesbian couples divide household labor.
That staying at home constitutes the just and noble course of parenthood was a sentiment echoed again and again in more than a dozen interviews with gay fathers.
Mike Farina, 40, left his job as an engineer in Anaheim, Calif., after adopting twins with his partner in 1998.
"In the beginning, I was even pig-headed about it," said Mr. Farina, who now has four children with his partner. "I wanted the kids to bond with us. I didn't want any help. In those first few years, I didn't even get baby sitters. I thought, `That's my job.' "
Though many gay fathers may enter into domesticity with few conflicts or reservations, the pressures of starting a new life stripped of professional status can mirror those faced by nonworking mothers. The transition may be even rockier, given that male identity is largely defined by achievements outside the confines of nurseries, mud rooms and kitchens.
Professor Carrington said some of the domestically oriented men he observed struggled with self-esteem. "Men who make these choices really grapple with how to portray their lives to their friends, families, to service people and repairmen," he said.
For Tom Howard, a stay-at-home father of three adopted children, all younger than 4, the consequence of his decision struck two years ago, just before April 15. "I was filling out our tax returns for the first entire calendar year I was not working, and my occupation went from `professor' to `homemaker.' I felt like someone had put a knife in my stomach and twisted it."
For the preceding 10 years, Mr. Howard, who has a doctorate in microbiology, had worked at the University of Southern California, first as a researcher at its virology laboratory and then also as a professor at its medical school. "I can truly empathize with the women's movement now," Mr. Howard said. "I know that I've committed career suicide."
After the birth of his first child, Emma, Mr. Howard, now 47, took a three-month paid paternity leave from the university, returning to work in February 2000. At the same time, his partner of 17 years, Ken Yood, 40, was working his way to a partnership at a Los Angeles law firm. "We realized pretty quickly that Ken's pay scale was going to support the family," he said.
No matter how fair-minded the intentions of partners may be, the myriad obligations of home stewardship invariably fall to the partner who remains at home.
After Tom Seid, 47, and his partner, Howard Ronder, the creative director of Gaiam, a lifestyle company in Boulder, Colo., adopted their son, Matthew, four years ago, Mr. Seid left his career as a feature-film editor. Their shift to a single income meant that they could no longer afford a housekeeper. Now, Mr. Seid's day consists of shopping, cleaning and dropping off and picking up his son from school.
The choice leaves many facing a loss of financial independence that may result in a suddenly dismal credit rating or strong feelings of guilt about buying a CD or sweater.
"I have a problem asking for money, and I have to ask for money every time we're paying the bills," said Bill Koch, who stays home with his 4-year-old son, Frankie, while his partner of eight years, Paul Lennander, works as an investigator at a children's social service agency here.
Mr. Koch, who previously worked in internal technology at General Mills, said that a lack of income had left him feeling invisible.
"After I'd been home a few months, we went to lease a car," Mr. Koch recalled. "We'd sold my car to come up with the money, and the whole time the salesman is only talking to Paul. The guy just looked right through me. Only Paul's name could appear on the lease, and I was just sitting there the whole time twirling my pearls, so to speak."
Still, Mr. Koch, like many of the other gay fathers interviewed, did not betray any eagerness to return to the work world soon.
As Peter Vitale, a gay stay-at-home father in the Twin Cities, put it, "If I were honest, I'd say that I want to do an excellent job at this because I know the world has me under a microscope."
by Ginia Bellafante
Published: January 12, 2004