Who’s Their Daddy?

I recently read the angry-mommy treatise by Judith Warner, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, and was shocked that so many of the women profiled were married to completely uninvolved dads. As exasperated as the frazzled moms felt, few wanted more help from their high-powered husbands, who were expected to bring home the bacon so the moms could have the cachet of staying at home. But in some communities, like the funkier neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan, more mothers are going to work while their husbands care for the kids. There is still a cultural stigma in some quarters against men being the primary caregivers. Yet these stay-at-home dads (or SAHDS) are frankly proud of their parenting skills—or lack thereof.

Michael Ahn, 41, is an affable guy who writes the cluelessdad.com blog. A former video-game designer, he now cares full-time for his 4-year-old daughter, Emily, while his wife teaches elementary school.

Ahn has encountered a sizable number of SAHDS in the Carroll Gardens playground he goes to with Emily. He says they fall into three categories: the superrich work-at-home dads, the can’t-hold-a-job unemployed dads, and the arty dads. “The rich ones are doing real-estate deals on their cell phones while they watch their kids. The scary unemployed dads are filled with self-loathing, really sad and emasculated. But the coolest ones are the artists and writers, who are doing it out of expediency but have something else going.”

Ahn’s main reason for becoming a SAHD was a desire to be an involved father, unlike his own. “My father came home exhausted and had to be left alone,” he says. “But my kid considers me a father who will engage and share things with her. I used to be able to negotiate million-dollar deals; now I know my kid’s favorite color and who her best friend is. That’s a pretty phenomenal thing.”

As for other job perks, Ahn says there aren’t many. SAHDS are not automatic chick magnets. “The moms keep away from us,” he says, “the same way they keep away from the Caribbean nannies. A mom friend of mine says it’s because they think we’re hot, being so nurturing. They’re scared they’ll flirt uncontrollably.” He thinks interparent affairs are the stuff of Tom Perrotta novels, not reality. “If you’re the kind of dad who needs validation from women when you’re walking around with your kid, you’re probably a shitty dad.”

As far as his relationship with his own wife goes, Ahn says his sex drive actually increased once he quit his job. “You hear that it’s emasculating and bad for sex, but I’m less distracted than when I was working.” Still, it takes two: “Now she’s stressed out, and I’m the one who’s relaxed.”

Because he spends so much time with Emily, Ahn sometimes finds himself more in the loop than his wife. He recently had to explain to her who one of Emily’s friends was. “It’s a little spooky when you’re in a position to correct the mom,” he says, “but I don’t give her guilt, because she gives herself enough already.”

Nate Shaw, 35, a jazz musician and SAHD in Boerum Hill, cares for his daughters, Pearl, 2, and Josie, 4, while his wife, Jessica, works in advertising. Lately Jessica’s been working longer hours and going on frequent business trips, which has been a strain. “It’s weird when you call your wife in her hotel room at midnight in Vegas, and she’s been drinking all night with clients and watching a pay-per-view movie in her suite, and you’re ripping tired from a day with the girls.”

Still, the payoff for these men is clear: They get quality time with their kids, something they’re not willing to give up. And because they’re dads, they feel a built-in permission to be bumbling, which gives them freedom to relax in a way hyperachieving moms seldom do. “I call my blog ‘cluelessdad,’ ” says Ahn, “because the most important thing is just to hang out with your kid and have fun. If you watch The Three Stooges with your kid and love it, even if they’re getting no useful knowledge, they’re happy. And I feel it’s perfectly acceptable to yell at my kid if she’s making me mad instead of explaining every little thing to her.”

“The chaos of child rearing just doesn’t affect us the way it affects moms,” says Shaw. “A child screaming hysterically and crying doesn’t upset me that much. I can roll with it.”

Their real disdain is reserved not for stay-at-home moms but for uninvolved dads. “We feel sorry for the guys who take the kids to the Heffalump movie and act like they deserve a medal of valor,” says Ahn. “Those are the guys whose daughters will be on Girls Gone Wild some day because Daddy wouldn’t pay enough attention.”

Who’s Their Daddy?