Jeff Sieglen quit his marketing job to stay home and raise two sons while his wife works as a doctor. But try telling that to his old pals at work.
"Even now," he said, "the guys I used to work with ask me, `So what are you REALLY doing?' I keep telling them I'm staying home with the kids. That's my job. That's what I do."They say, `Uh huh. But what are you REALLY doing?' "
Small wonder his friends are confused. Though Sieglen is one of about 257,000 men aged 25 to 54 raising children while their wives work, stay-at-home dads make up less than 2 percent of married parents of children under 18, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
And though the number of househus-bands has increased about 50,000 over the past two decades, most companies still have made few or no provisions for fathers who want to take time off.
Unlike the Mr. Moms of the '80s recession era, it is economic opportunity rather than disaster that has landed many of these latest converts cribside - economic opportunity for their wives, that is.
While women's overall earnings still lag behind men's, the number of women in $50,000-plus jobs has quadrupled over the last decade, the U.S. Census Bureau says. The fastest-growing segment of the work force today is married mothers with children under 2 years old, according to 9 to 5, an organization that tracks working women's issues.
"Being the provider is no longer a mandate for a man," said Ronald Levant, a Brookline, Mass., family psychologist who gives parenting seminars and co-wrote "Between Father and Child."
"It is now possible for men to consider themselves a primary care-giving parent and not suffer any loss of their sense of masculinity or worth," he said.
Marcelo Seabra said he hopes his decision to stay home will actually enhance his image in his son's eyes.
"I want Luke to feel proud of his father - and close," said Seabra, a self-employed contractor whose wife went back to her $50,000-a-year job as an architect at a Manhattan firm eight months after giving birth in February 1990.
Sieglen, whose wife earns four times as much as an anesthesiologist as he did marketing pharmaceuticals, said he already can see a strong bond between himself and his two sons, aged 7 and 4.
"As much as they love their mother, when things go bad, they look to me. I'm the one who's here all the time. I'm the steadying influence," he said from the couple's Princeton, N.J., home.
While many mothers would love to stay home themselves, their ample salaries or substantial health insurance packages force them to kiss their babies and husbands goodbye in the morning and head for the office.
For the husbands who watch them drive away, there is sometimes lingering guilt.
"My wife is sacrificing her motherhood so we can do this," said Peter Candela, whose wife, Mary, went back to her $30,000-a-year job testing cosmetics for Avon Products Inc. 13 weeks after the birth of their son last winter.
Candela has put his career as a music composer on hold and is committed to staying home in Wayne, N.J., until their son goes to school.
Economics dictated the couple's choice, but it was much easier to accept before her son was born, Mrs. Candela said.
"You don't want to send them to day care so you think `We'll have the baby stay home with a parent. Why should it matter which parent?' When the baby is actually here, it's really hard," she said.
David and Sarah Burris of Zanesville, Ohio, wanted their daughter, Alexandra, to be raised by a parent. Determined to keep her health benefits, Sarah returned to her $20,000-a-year job as program director for the Girl Scouts of America three weeks after giving birth last autumn. David, a stage manager, stayed home.
"My wife feels she misses out on the little things, like the first time Alex rolled over and the first time she sat up. But it would upset us even more if it happened at day care," he said.
If Mom at work and Dad at home is an economic equation for some families, for others it is a way to satisfy personal needs.
"My wife wasn't interested in staying at home. She wanted to get back to work as quickly as possible," said Philippe Henri of Berkeley, Calif., whose wife, Carol, returned to work as a computer analyst with IBM eight weeks after giving birth to Natalia in September 1989.
"Her career is very important to her. Very, very important," Henri said.
A high school math teacher whose $30,000-a-year salary is about half what his wife earns, Henri said he needed a break from the working world. He took a 10-month paternity leave and, when it was over, said he felt confident Natalia was "ready" for day care.
"My year was filled with fun," he said. "So few fathers have the chance to spend time with their kids at that stage and get to know them in a way that most men don't."
The Small Business Administration found that most companies offer some kind of maternity leave, but less than 8 percent offer paternity leave. And when it is available, paternity leave often is brief. A 1988 Conference Board survey of 521 large companies found the maximum length of leaves was an average 56 days for mothers and 18 days for fathers.
Even corporations that have lengthy paternity leave policies don't always encourage their employees to take it. In fact, most discourage it, according to a forthcoming study by James Levine, author of "Who Will Raise the Children?" and director of The Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in Manhattan.
"We've actually encountered instances where a supervisor has recommended a guy use his vacation instead of the official paternity leave because it will `look bad,' " Levine said.
This summer, Congress is expected to vote on a bill that would require companies with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leaves for men or women for important family developments, such as the birth of a child. A similar bill was passed last year but vetoed by President Bush, who is threatening to shoot it down again.
For many men in the corporate world, the only way to spend more time with their children is to do something drastic - like quit. That's just what Sieglen did.
"My family has always been the most important thing to me. I was making decent money, but not enough to have everybody suffer," he said. "The children were feeling the pains of our two demanding careers. In the morning, they would come to us and say, `Well, who's going to be home tonight?' It didn't make us feel too good."