Modern Mr. Mom
Sometimes being Mr. Mom means taking on Charlotte's hard and fast traditions
Written by Blake Miller
Photographs by Chris Edwards
“The women tend to think he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he does,” says Allen’s wife, Valerie. Allen often takes his four-year-old twins, Quentin and Ainsley, to a playgroup he organized in his neighborhood.
It's an early Thursday morning in August and Jon McPherson has just baked some chocolate chip cookies, fanned them onto a white plate, and laid them on the kitchen counter next to the fresh pot of coffee and creamer and sugar bowls. The cookies look perfect, almost too perfect.
"I didn't really make them. They're the slice and bake kind," Jon smiles as he pops one in his mouth before turning to open the door for his first guest of the morning. Celeste walks in with her fifteen-month-old son Dean, who immediately runs over to Jon's twenty-three-month-old, curly-haired daughter, Jane, who must've inherited her dad's curls minus the red color.
"I made us some muffins," Celeste says as she pulls them out of her bag and lays them on the counter next to the cookies.
Soon, the rest of the crew arrives. There's Jocelyn and her daughter Norah, with her white-blond, bouncy curls. And there's Angi and her daughter Riley, a mini-me of her mommy. The play date has begun — a romper room of toddlers pulling books off shelves, trying to yank the dog's hair, and climbing onto a rocking horse too big for them while their moms run after them before they fall and hit their heads. And no one could be more at ease than thirty-four-year-old Jon, who is standing behind the kitchen counter in his Fourth Ward trinity sipping his third cup of coffee and watching the mayhem ensue.
"I call Jon when I need advice," says Celeste. "He just always seems to know what to do." The rest of the women nod in agreement. "I just don't see him as being any different than us."
Across town, southeast of Charlotte in Indian Trail, Allen Miller feels the same way—he is no different than a stay-at-home mom, whose job is to rear her children and maintain a home. A stay-at-home dad of four-year-old twins, Quentin and Ainsley, forty-two-year-old Allen sees himself not as a token stay-at-home dad, a man among dozens of stay-at-home moms in his neighborhood, but rather a parent who stays home to raise his kids while his wife, Valerie, works a 7:30-to-4 day as a physical therapist.
"Ideally, it would've been Valerie staying home when they were babies," Allen says as Ainsley and Quentin pull out their Fisher-Price mini golf set. "I think that's better for the kids. I think it's better for the mom to stay home when they're very young. … But I got along fine. Obviously."
Jon and Allen aren't alone. In 2006 there were an estimated 160,000 stay-at-home dads (SAHDs) in the U.S., up 60 percent from 2004. Like the majority of dads who post on RebelDad.com or AtHomeDad.org — the staple SAHD Web sites — Allen and Jon say they're content with their stay-at-home gigs, even in Charlotte, which, in spite of its modern look and feel and countless transplants, is still, above all, traditional. Dad goes to work; Mom stays at home and cares for the family.
You can see that traditional skew on MomsCharlotte.com, the Observer's mommy site, where few dads participate on the message boards, which are dominated by posters with user names like "SouthPark Mom" and "tattooed mommy." Or ask Jon, who applied to be a guest blogger on the site. "They sent me this e-mail back telling me they loved my comments," he laughs. "But then told me that they already had a dad and didn't need another. It was as if that one token dad was enough."
But in spite of Jon's and Allen's insistence that being a SAHD is just like any other job, that there are no stereotypes today, that their situations are not like Mr. Mom and they are not Michael Keaton playing the role of Jack Butler, the truth is, it is different and there are stereotypes. Jon and Allen are often asked while in the Harris Teeter checkout line if they're giving Mom the day off. Or better: the exterminator working on Jon's home asked him, "So, you expect your wife to support you while you play all day?"
Even now, people respond negatively to men and women who don't conform to traditional gender roles, and Jon and Allen see that. But as the growing city welcomes more and more people, the opinions on how moms and dads should function in a family are changing. No matter how much Jon and Allen say that the stereotypes and the unease simply do not exist, there's a bit of that Charlotte tradition that continually plays on their minds.
"Ready? Set? Go!"
A trail of five kids zigzags across the front yard. Some get dizzy from the weaving in and out and fall to the ground. Quentin, though, always finishes first. "Good job, Quentin!" Allen shouts at his son. "This is what Quentin loves," he says. "There aren't many boys his age on this street. But when he has the chance to run or compete, he loves it."
It's two days before Halloween, and the air is cool. As the sun slowly sets behind the homes in Allen's Indian Trail neighborhood, it seems as though the kids are slowing a bit. Except for Quentin and Ainsley. The four-year-old twins never tire, really. Neither does Allen, it seems. There are no dark circles under his eyes. No deep yawns. Not even deep lines along the creases of his eyes and brow. There are just a few patches of gray in his beard and on his head, though much of the time you can't tell, especially when he's outside, when he's nearly always wearing a faded baseball hat.
"It's perfect living here. We have the two twin girls next door to us," he says as he nods to the two brown-haired little girls dressed in pink and purple princess gowns and running next to Quentin and the other kids. "We lucked out."
The decision to move from San Diego was simple. The cost of living was cheaper in North Carolina than it was in California. With Valerie's salary as a physical therapist, Allen's gig as an instructor at ITT Technical Institute, and, most of all, their firm decision that one parent would stay home with the kids, they knew they couldn't afford California. So they researched and researched and settled on Indian Trail, where they began building a house months before the babies' arrival.
Three and a half years later, Allen continues to care for the twins while Valerie works, often leaving just after the kids wake up but home before dinner. "It just made sense that Valerie would work. She makes the most money," Allen says. "I'm sure Valerie gets jealous that I spend more time with the kids."
On a normal day, Quentin is the first to wake up, around 6 a.m. with a loud thump, which signals his jumping off his bed. Ainsley, though, can sleep through just about anything and often needs to be woken up. From there, it's breakfast — pancakes, French toast, cereal, or homemade waffles. Then it's outside or upstairs in the play room until 9:30, when they get a snack. Lunch — usually grilled cheese sandwiches, veggie corndogs, or hot dogs — is at noon. And so the day goes.
There is a play group, which Allen coordinates, held at the neighborhood's clubhouse, where he is the only dad among many moms. Which isn't weird to him, he says. Except for when Allen invited one of the neighborhood moms and her kid to go out to lunch with him and the twins. "She looked at me kind of funny," Allen says. And then she passed, making up some excuse. Later that night Allen told Valerie what happened. "Well, you know why she did that, don't you?" she asked. Allen shook his head. "I'm sure she was worried what her husband would think."
Valerie feels the pressure of traditional parenting roles, too. "The women might act a little differently toward me because I'm not the one home with them," she says. "It happened recently at a children's birthday party when a stay-at-home mom asked me in that oh-so-condescending voice if I worked and Allen stayed home. As if it were something horrible. The die-hard stay-at-home moms don't quite get it."
When Sheree left to go back to work after maternity leave in January 2007, it felt as though the last breath had been slowly sucked from Jon's lungs. He'd known the day was coming — when the two of them would be left alone. He'd welcomed it, too. But dread consumed him the minute she left for work.
Sheree was immersing herself back into the real world — the banking world. And yet Jon was here. The man of the house. A biology degree from UNC-Greensboro. A vice president at Wachovia. Sitting on the couch in his home, Jon waited for Jane to become restless, wake up, and wail not for Mommy. But for Daddy.
Sheree and Jon decided early that they'd both go back to work after the baby was born. They toured a half dozen day cares and eventually settled on one in the Fourth Ward. Sheree would take off three to four months, then head back to work as a vice president at Bank of America, something she didn't feel guilty about.
But then Jane was born and things changed. She was born with laryngomalacia, a condition in which the soft, immature cartilage of the upper larynx collapses inward during inhalation, causing airway obstruction. Maybe it was when Jon and Sheree walked cautiously behind the doctor, who carted their newborn down the hospital hallway, with an air mask over her small, still swollen newborn face, IVs in both wrists and right ankle, and a defibrillator in the nurse's hands, a little one special for babies that would be used to resuscitate her, just in case. Maybe it was the week when Sheree and Jon curled up on the cold, hard linoleum floor in the neonatal intensive care unit, changing places eight hours at a time, watching Jane breathe restlessly. Or maybe it was simply seeing his baby in pain that made Jon realize that he would never leave his baby alone.
He certainly wouldn't put her in day care. And he would be the one to stay at home with her. "I guess in the back of my head I kind of thought I wanted to be more involved than my dad was," Jon says, sitting at his kitchen table with Sheree. The seed was planted and Jon began his humble transition from black-suit-and-tie nine-to-fiver to jeans- and sneaker-clad stay-at-home dad.
The dreams started six months ago. First they were spread out — maybe once a month. Then, slowly, they became more frequent. Jon would walk out to his childhood home's mailbox, open the door, and find a letter from his teacher or the school. He had an exam the next day. Panic would ensue. He would brush his perspiring brow, scratch his head subconsciously, the way he does when he's talking about something semiserious, and realize he hasn't been to class. All. Semester. Long.
"I can only imagine it means I don't know what I'm going to do next. What happens when Jane's old enough to go to preschool and I'm left at home?" He knows that he's battling the age-old question of "What's next? Is there life after baby for the parent who gives up everything in order to raise his or her children?" Until now, Jon hasn't given much thought to the next part of his stay-at-home gig. For the past two years it's been as much about finally getting away from his corporate banking job as about immersing himself into Jane's activities — EventfulParents.com (of which he's an assistant organizer), infant yoga classes, mommy-and-me gatherings at Julia's Coffee. There's been no time to think "What's next?" — and he hasn't had to. But it's inevitable. Jane will grow up. Jane will go to school. Jane will move on.
Before Jane, Jon was "one of those bank guys." His high-paying VP job at Wachovia was certainly a career and not just a job, but it was also the source of serious stress. There were nights when he'd come home angry, tension in his shoulders from the long day. But he'd tried for so long to "get ahead and get ahead that it was hard to let go," he says. "For a while there I lied to people. They'd see me out with Jane and ask me what I did for a living and I'd tell them it was my day to watch the kid and that I was still a VP at Wachovia."
"You did? You do?" asks Sheree. "I didn't know you did that. Why?"
"I don't know. I'd feel guilty as soon as I said it," Jon says.
"It's funny," says Sheree as she strokes the handle on her coffee cup, "people ask when Jon's going back to work. But they'd never ask a mom that. When I tell men that Jon stays at home they say, ‘Oh, man, that's a sweet job.' But when I tell women they say, 'Really? He does the laundry, the cooking, the cleaning?' It's as if they can't get over the fact that a dad really does stay at home with his kids."
"I thought, ‘What am I going to do with them?' after Valerie left for her first day back to work," Allen says of that day in April 2005. But he wasn't worried — this was what he'd been waiting for. Finally, after five months at home with the twins — and nearly a month caring for them on his own while Valerie recovered from her C-section — Allen was about to really, truly become a stay-at-home dad. And he liked that.
Allen is a confident dad. When the twins were a little more than a year old, he took them on a plane to visit his dad in Florida. "When I got on the plane carrying the two babies, there were flight attendants coming up to me, asking me, 'Oh, do you need help?' " Allen says. "It felt like they didn't think I knew what I was doing."
Allen's and Valerie's families supported the decision for Allen to stay at home with the kids. Even Allen's dad, who in Allen's childhood was normally hard and fast in tradition, got used to it. "I remember being pretty young, in the seventies sometime, and on the TV they were talking about this same situation," says Allen. "And I remember my dad saying something about how horrible that was. He was disgusted because he felt a man should be providing for his family. … He was the type of father who would go to work, come home, see his kids for an hour, then go to bed. That's how it was back then."
It is work, this staying-at-home-with-kid thing, say both Allen and Jon. But it's on their terms, something that certainly plays a role in keeping them and all of the other stay-at-home parents happy. Not surprisingly, in a study from the University of Texas, dads who scored low on measures of traditional masculinity said they were happier in their roles as SAHDs as well as in their marriages, with their children, and with their health.
"There's no stress in getting Jane ready in the morning and both of us out the door," says Jon. "There's no stress from work anymore, and I think that all equates to a happier home life."
Allen agrees. "You know, I've never really liked work. Teaching is probably the one thing I really like but it's still work. And I guess this is, too," he says. "But it's on my own terms."
Even though their stay-at-home status means they're not the breadwinners, Jon and Allen say they're comfortable in their positions in no small part because they view this simply as their job, something that may be their consciences' way of putting to rest the traditional view of Mom-stays-at-home-and-Dad-goes-to-work so prevalent in Charlotte.
"I do feel successful," Jon says. "I get the feeling that a lot of these stay-at-home moms don't want to do this whereas the dads, we made this choice. I think now my job doesn't define who I am. I define who I am."
It's an unusually warm October morning, and Jon is standing near a picnic blanket surrounded by Igloo coolers. It's a play date in Freedom Park that Jon orchestrated, and Celeste and Angi are here with their kids and another SAHD, Ben, and his son Ian. The rest will arrive later, but for now the group is small.
Jon walks slowly behind Jane as she walks up to the playground area and sandbox, where she starts scooping tiny shovelfuls of sand into her sand pail. "How could this not be right?" he asks. "I cannot imagine doing anything else right now. Not conference calls. I can't imagine not being here with her."
Jon has gotten to the point, he says, where he's not worrying about missing a meeting or writing a report. It may have taken almost two years, but Jon seems to have finally accepted staying at home with Jane as his job, and he doesn't mind if people aren't OK with it. "There are some stay-at-home dads who get so angry if someone asks them if they're giving Mom the day off," he says. "But I laugh now." Allen feels the same. "The women tend to think he doesn't know what he's doing when he does," says Valerie. "But it doesn't bother him. He's pretty laid back. He knows the truth. And he likes it, he likes being home with the kids."
Plenty of people think that a dad staying at home while Mom works full time is a bad thing. More than a third of women say it's good for society that more fathers are staying at home with their kids these days. But the truth is, in spite of its traditional façade, Charlotte is changing due to transplants with more liberal views or, simply, time. Jon and Allen feel the movement, the change, the acceptance here.
Jon walks a little more. "This," he says throwing his arms out to the sides as if to envelope the 75-degree weather, bright sun, and Jane, "is awesome."
Blake Miller is senior editor of this magazine. E-mail: email@example.com