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Keeping count of daughters Julia, Anna and Adrian, and son John, is easy for former math teacherJeff Morris of Mahwah. (Photo by Anne-Marie Caruso)
Posted: Thursday June 7, 2012, 11:50 AM
By Adam Keeble

For more than 154,000 dads in this country, every day is Father's Day. That's the U.S. Census estimate of the number of dads who remain home with their kids full time.

There are many reasons parents make the decision to stay home. Sometimes it's a matter of dollars and cents. But for the five Bergen County stay-at-home-dads (SAHD) we spoke to, it's also a matter of sense. These dads are good at the job. So please don't call them Mr. Mom (the title of that 1980s movie about a guy who struggles as a homemaker).

Salvador Sanchez of Allendale is the primary caregiver to his three children: Max, 9, Luca, 6, and Cordero, just 17 months. He worked as a trial attorney before taking over at home. "I worked on a case-by-case basis," he says, "and there was a period of time where it was getting longer and longer between cases. While finding myself waiting again, my wife suggested I quit work and take over looking after the kids full time." (That was before infant Cordero arrived.)

Salvador and his wife, Laura, both worked long hours, so there were obvious benefits to the change. "Before I took this job on, the kids could go a week without seeing me," he says. "I would leave the house before seven in the morning and not get home before 11 at night, six days a week." During that time, Laura's parents and an aunt handled day care.

Keri Southwood-Smith, of Oakland, enjoyed his career as a graphic designer for 17 years before he was laid off.

"I was looking after Konnor [4] and Kaiden [3], and we had figured we were done growing as a family," he says. "Then just a couple of months after being out of work, my wife, Sara, finds out she's expecting again...so we are soon to have three kids, and I'm out of work. It wasn't good timing."

Ahead of the birth of baby Justin, now 15 months old, Keri and Sara discussed the best strategy for taking care of three kids. "Even if I did find another job," he says, "we were guessing it would cost somewhere close to $36,000 to provide day care for three kids, including a newborn. So I took on the job of watching the kids full time."

Jeff Morris of Mahwah is dad to Julia, 12, Anna, 10, Adrian, 8, and John, 6.

When his older children were tiny, he was a math teacher at his old high school in Glen Rock.

"My wife was working part time," he says, "but right around when we had our third daughter, they asked her to work full time." One particular memory sticks in his head from that time. "I was driving to work and stopped at a deli for breakfast. It was still dark, and I saw a guy pull up next to me getting his coffee, and in the back seat was a young child sleeping – clearly he would be dropping him off at day care before he headed to the office. It just broke my heart.

"I know those kids all turn out great," Jeff says, "but it helped make the decision to stay home with the kids."

Joseph Abou-Daoud ran a successful men's clothing store and even started the Chamber of Commerce group in his hometown of Westwood. Both he and his wife, a pharmacist, worked in tandem to care for their children, Theresa and Isabelle. When their third child, Sophia, arrived, the couple made the decision that Joseph would quit work and stay home. Five years on, the plan has worked out very well. "We had to decide what to do to make the best future for our family," he says.

James McGill considers his life to be doubly blessed. "I have been making a living as a musician for 10 years, which is remarkable in itself," he says, "but now I get to spend time with my kids too, which leaves me feeling bad for other dads who don't get this chance."

James still plays regular gigs with his band, Lifespeed, sometimes traveling across state lines to perform. When he met his wife, Elizabeth, and then married and had kids, they reached the now familiar situation shared with the other four dads. "We had moved to Fair Lawn," he says, "and we would either have to pay for expensive child care, or I would have to incorporate looking after them with late nights with the band."

Despite sometimes functioning on very little sleep, he manages to juggle his dual passions with a little help from his close family. "Some days I will watch the kids all day, leave when my wife gets home, then not get home until 4:30 a.m. the next day," he says. "I grab a couple of hours' sleep, then take over with J.P [4] and Jackson [2], with some help from my mother-in-law."

Stereotypes

The group has mixed feelings about how outsiders see them (consider stereotypes such as Mr. Mom), though they all agree any trade-off is worth it. "Of course, it was difficult at first, but I'm settled in now," says Keri, a two-year SAHD veteran. "I've found routines, and Konnor is now in pre-K five mornings a week, which means I'm down to two kids for half of the day."

"Any stigma or feeling less of a man for doing this has long since gone," he says. "It is what it is. But more than that, it's such an opportunity that most dads never get. To be home with a child as young as Justin, to groom him and watch him grow, is a big deal. I was there for his first steps and watched him learn to crawl and now to walk. Those are big moments."

Salvador agrees. "I like to think of myself as worldly wise and sophisticated," he says, "but very early on, I gained a new level of respect for anyone staying at home raising the kids. That's not to say I didn't struggle with the traditional view of society that I was a man doing a woman's job. My ego and pride took a hit. I knew it was a good thing, but it took some soul-searching and emotional growth to be where I am now, as comfortable as I am.

"There is still certainly some conflict, particularly when it comes to money," he says. "In a family, money is power, and I would appreciate the chance to contribute more on that front. But that is offset by the time I get with the children. I would rather be doing what I'm doing than have a stranger raise our kids."

Jeff, who had tenure at the high school when he made the change, asked for a year's leave to stay home with the kids. He found himself at home with a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and an infant.

"I was thrilled," he says. "I was 34, and the guys I knew and my peers were all doing well and in similar places with their young families. I was suddenly given this opportunity. My ego was completely comfortable with it."

After requesting and receiving another year off, he knew a third year of leave would not be an option. "I had been teaching for 10 years and was headed toward being a principal," he says. "I had taken my master's degree and was ready to take the next step forward into administration, but was just as happy to take a step in a different direction and take on being the primary caregiver." At that point, baby John had arrived and Jeff was watching four children.

He is now looking forward to another change. He plans to get back into the workforce now that he has guided his kids into elementary school. "My tenure as an SAHD is over," he says.

Joseph, meanwhile, found the transition to staying home came easily. "Having the two older kids helped me cope with the third," he says. "They really wanted to help with their little sister. People asked how I coped, but honestly I found it easy. Some people would get upset when I told them how smoothly it was going.

"Everything the kids learn from me, I learn more from them," he says. "I have become a better dad and even a better man in doing what I do. People might judge me staying home with the kids, but I can't and don't care what people might think – and that includes my male friends. When they call and ask if I'm free for a boys' night out, I tell them the next free night I have is in a month – and if they can't commit that far ahead, it's going to be another month after that before I will be free again. That's just how it is."

Between after-school plays, sports and gymnastics classes, free time is at a premium, but Joseph wouldn't have it any other way. "I was raised to be responsible," he says, "and I am responsible for the three most beautiful girls in the world. That's what matters."

For James, the situation works because of his supportive wife – but also because there is no alternative. "All parents function through levels of sleep-deprivation," he says with a laugh. "I paced around holding my son at 4 months old, just walking and walking at all hours of the night, and I got through it just fine."

 

On-the-job wisdom from these dads:

• Embrace the challenge but don't lose yourself. Satisfy your ego by taking up running or another sport, or by volunteering as a coach for your kids' teams.

• Don't wish any of it away. The diaper days will be gone in the blink of an eye, and you might miss them.

• Cut coupons.

• Coordinate with your wife to make it work. Accept that she is still the mom.

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