Steve Deffe calls himself one of the original stay-at-home dads. Two decades ago, when his first child was born, Deffe and his wife decided to take on nontraditional parenting roles in which she would be the primary breadwinner and he would take care of all things domestic.
"My wife is a CPA and she started her own business," said the 56-year-old Ketchum resident. "She loves kids, but she also loves work. I love kids, too, and it's not that I don't like work, but I suggested that when we had children, she could work and I would raise them."
Deffe and his wife have two children: Madison, the first, is now 20, while Drew, 17, is still in high school. While Deffe's wife is happily bringing home the bacon, Deffe is in charge of cooking it—and doing yard work, grocery shopping, home repairs and much of the child rearing. For the two of them, this arrangement works beautifully.
"I never really gave it any thought," he said, referring to whether he stuck out as an oddity among the usual gathering of mommies at school, in the grocery store or at the doctor's office. "It wasn't like the movie 'Mr. Mom,' where all the ladies came over and played cards," he said with a laugh.
"I'll tell you what was really interesting," he added. "I was also building our house at the same time, from the ground up. I remember so many times standing looking out the window at the bike path with a kid in my arms feeding her a bottle and thinking, 'I'll never get to do that again.' But it all worked out."
Being Mr. Mom
In decades past, men were looked at as more of a "paycheck" rather than nurturing and caring parents. Today, out of both necessity and desire, dads like Deffe are becoming more hands-on participants in raising young children.
According to the 2010 census, an estimated 154,000 stay-at-home dads in the U.S. care for 287,000 children. These married fathers remain out of the labor force so they can care for the family while their wives work outside the home.
From the very beginning, Deffe was the one to get the kids up, get them dressed and fed and get them to school every day, duties that he acknowledges have been performed by single or stay-at-home moms for generations.
"Every time I look at the legal section of the paper and see people getting divorced and seeing single moms juggling a couple of kids, I think, 'I don't know how anybody can do that—raise kids and hold down a job and keep a house by themselves.' It's a full-time job. Talk about super Moms!"
Deffe said he doesn't remember many instances of feeling left out because he was a dad stepping into a traditional mom role, except perhaps one.
"I never got to learn to swim with my kids because it was always 'mommy-and-me' classes," he said. "Now I don't know how to swim, but the kids do."
Deffe said he met with more resistance from other men than from the moms he encountered on a daily basis.
"There were so many men who couldn't believe I would allow my wife to be the breadwinner or make more money than me. I would look at them and go, 'Huh?' Are you kidding me?' I just don't understand how anyone can think that."
Single dads sharing custody
Mike David, 45, of Ketchum, juggles three jobs and cares for his three children at least three days a week, a responsibility he splits 50-50 with his ex-wife, Sarah. He admits that it often is a challenge to find balance with so many jobs and so many variables.
"I try to condense as much work into the time when the kids are at school so we can keep the evening hours for the family," he said, adding that he works well over 50 hours a week and hasn't taken a vacation in years. He consults for the Blaine County Housing Authority, substitute teaches for the Blaine County School District and manages accounts and producer relations for the nonprofit food cooperative Idaho's Bounty.
In 2009, there were 11.6 million single parents in the U.S. living with their children. Of those, 9.9 million were single mothers and 1.7 million were single fathers.
At ages 15, 13 and 10, David's children stay busy with sports and other activities after school. But there are still times when their schedules don't align.
"There's a little bit of the latchkey thing going on, but they've got a lot of great friends with parents who let them hang out at their house until I get home," he said. "You really need to have that kind of support system to make things work."
He said raising two young daughters has been "a bit more complicated," especially now that his eldest daughter is a teen.
"She doesn't let me go into Victoria's Secret but makes me stand outside, then she calls me in to help pay for it," he said.
"Female" topics such as buying a first bra and shaving legs were discussed with her mom first, David said, but added that he and his daughter have talked openly about boys, sex, drugs and alcohol.
"I usually tell her no boys. Stay away from them until you're 21—or forever," he said with a laugh.
David also has had the opportunity to serve as president of the Parent Teacher Association, a position that a male had never taken on before.
"It was kind of a gender role reversal, but it was cool," he said. "A lot of dads in the past haven't had the experience to really get involved with their kids' education like that, so I felt lucky."
He believes there are many men like him who are raising children either full or part time, and hopes it leads employers to be as flexible with single fathers as they have been with single moms. He recalled that when he managed the Valley Club, it seemed that it was more natural or expected for female employees to take off work for child-related issues.
"I don't think the men would have ever used that (reason)," he said. "Some of it could be because male employees are guilty of thinking they need to make it work out, because that's the way it's always been. But that's to the detriment of the kids. If a kid is sick or has a day off, you should be able to spend it with them."
He acknowledges that he hasn't really tested his current employers' flexibility.
"I'm almost hesitant to say, 'Hey, I gotta take time off to go do this or that,'" he said.
Like Deffe and many other single and stay-at-home fathers, David has found the role reversal to be rewarding and worth the challenge, and said it has created a closer relationship with his children.
"I also think that I've been able to be a role model and show my kids that it's OK for dads to be in this role. That is so important to me."
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org