At home, men are taking on new roles While more family time is a plus, it can be a tough adjustment
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sunday, May 10, 2009
In the past few months, Kipp Mullis of Winder has developed skills he never expected during his 15 years as an advertising executive.
He’s learned to judge a spelling bee, to tutor young children in reading and how to stretch a spiral ham into a week’s worth of meals.
In December, Mullis was pink-slipped into the role of stay-at-home dad. Wednesday is no longer the day reserved for meetings to discuss creative ad strategies for grocery stores and other clients —- it’s laundry day. He makes dinner every night. He schedules doctor’s appointments. He helps map out the middle child’s solar system school project —-and does the dishes.
“It has been good in some ways to have this time with my kids, and I am trying to make the most of my time at home,” said Mullis, 41, father to 12- year-old Grayson, 10-year-old Connor and 7-year-old Drew. “But there’s always this background noise. … I am hard-wired to think I am supposed to be working and making money, and instead I am thinking about new things I can do with a ham.”
On this Mother’s Day, Mullis is far from alone in the role of Mr. Mom. With men more likely than women to work in such distressed industries as construction and manufacturing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ranks of out-of-work fathers are growing.
In fact, about 80 percent of U.S. job losses since December 2007 have occurred to men, according to the government, a statistic that’s spawned the buzzword “he-cession.” But crushing financial blows can upset more than the pocketbook.
When Dad loses his job, it can signal a seismic shift in the family dynamic. Dads accustomed to being hooked to their BlackBerries are now cutting coupons and going to PTA meetings. The meetup.com online networking site boasts 171 assorted dad groups across the country; nearly half of them took root during the past six months. (There are five in metro Atlanta.)
Adjusting to new roles
For Mullis, being home takes some of the pressure off his wife, Susan, who works as a physical education teacher. She’s come to expect the extra hands around the house.
“She sometimes comes home and she’s like, ‘What did you do all day?’ And I’m like, ‘Spent the day applying for a job. Remember: We can’t retire on nothing.’ “
He terms the stress from his job loss “the sixth person in the house,” and says even the homemade biscuits he whips up can’t offer much comfort.
“My wife wants to help, and sometimes it’s like, ‘There’s nothing you can do.’ It’s tough because I want her to be supportive but not motherly,” he said. “It’s a hard little path to walk, but you walk side by side and stick together.”
For her part, Susan Mullis says she’s appreciative of her husband taking on more parenting tasks, and says he does them all very well —- if a little differently than she would.
“When it’s me and the kids, I’m like, ‘We can goof off and play till 5 and then get to chores and homework,’ ” she said. “And he’s more like, let’s get it done the moment they walk in the door.”
Take laundry, for instance. “I come home and he’s done everyone’s laundry. They are in individual baskets with our names on it.” When Susan recently did some of her own laundry on the weekend, it nearly caused a row.
“He was like, ‘Why are you doing laundry today?’ And I was like, ‘Hey, I needed clean underwear!’ “
Staying home by choice
For some dads, a temporary shift to staying at home has become a permanent gig, by choice.
After Rhett Rhame of Decatur lost his sales job with a fire sprinkler company about two years ago, he slid into a Mr. Mom role. As the economy soured, he knew his job prospects would be slim. Even so, he didn’t want to go back to a 9-to-5 job —- ever.
“This works for our family,” Rhame says proudly as he watches his two daughters, 8-year-old Skylar and 10-year-old Sydney, complete their homework. On this recent Tuesday afternoon, Rhame took his younger daughter to a doctor’s appointment and then picked up a movie and ginger ale on the way home.
The rest of the afternoon went like this: Meeting his older daughter at the bus stop, spelling out the chores on the family’s color-coded “scoreboard,” and starting dinner —- spaghetti, salad and garlic bread.
“I am not a cook, but I do OK,” he says as he grabs a jar of sauce and onions to “doctor it up.”
Rhame’s wife, Julie Rhame, is senior director of media relations for DeKalb County Schools and a member of the City of Decatur School Board, meaning many long days and night meetings. So, Rhett said, it simply made sense for him to pull back on his career and do more household tasks.
“I have no problem with picking up my wife’s dry cleaning,” he said. “I just do what needs to be done. … And quite honestly, I feel really lucky to have this time with my kids.”
Julie Rhett said she has developed a deep appreciation for her husband’s dedication to the home and kids —- even if he doesn’t always live up to her high standards.
“At first, I didn’t like the clutter and his housecleaning, and sometimes he’ll pop a pizza in the oven. I am one of those people that believes it eating all of the major food groups,” she said. “But I learned to let those things go. He is a great dad and he keeps things in balance.”
‘For better or worse’
Kipp Mullis says he’s trying to make the most of his time away from the work world. In the past few months he’s refinanced the mortgage, had a more efficient and economical heating and cooling system installed and started a high-level (though unpaid) internship for an online startup, eWise communication, to learn more about social networking.
Susan Mullis says it pains her to see the emotional toll of the job loss on her husband. “Your day might be so busy and he’s been rejected all day. … I keep thinking about the wedding bells and that this is for better or worse.”
Of course, there have been some bright spots. Kipp Mullis said he enjoyed joining the family early on a recent Friday to go camping instead of rolling in late after a long commute from Atlanta. But he still misses being a working dad.
“You don’t want to get set into this wonderful fuzzy opportunity,” he said. “Because you are not bringing in any money and you are not saving for college and I am realist. Ultimately, I have to provide for my family.”
For dads, moms dealing with change
Debbie Mandel, a stress expert and author of “Addicted to Stress,” said over time, many men who take on more of a homemaker role become comfortable with it. She added that some make family time more of a priority when they return to work.
Still, Jan Ligon, associate professor at Georgia State University, said changing long-established family roles can be stressful, particularly for couples in strained relationships. He offers these tips for dealing with the situation:
Talk about things. Be honest and candid with your spouse about your feelings and concerns.
Seek out support. Consider joining a dad’s group or online forum; or consider therapy or see a church counselor.
Put together a plan. Discuss who will do what jobs around the house. Try not to make decisions based on gender stereotypes but on what makes the most sense.
Take time out. Make time regularly to take a break from talking about money woes and job searches.
Have some fun. Romance doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution