He dusts, he irons, he whips up a mean fettuccine Alfredo. When his four daughters want to play dress-up with their dolls, he's game. But Brian Fogg freely admits that one domestic task stumps him. "I can't do their hair," says Fogg, 34. "I'm hopeless." And just occasionally, his 24/7 work schedule wears on him. "There's no escaping your job here," says the former department store manager. "A certain irritation takes over me every now and then and I have to get away."

His wife can live with that. "I'm the envy of most married women I know," says Jennifer, 34, who loves her 60-hour-a-week job as a construction-company executive—and loves having a husband at home. Brian opted to become a domestic god in 1998, spurred by his boredom with retail management and Jennifer's eagerness to return to full-time work after years of juggling homemaking with consulting. The $50,000 cut in income forced some scrimping—the Corona, Calif., couple recently went on their first vacation in five years—but the setup suits them both. "I could get a job in a heartbeat," says Brian, "but I'm having too good a time." Adds Jennifer, now housework-free: "I come home and I have the luxury of just enjoying the family."

Experts say a growing number of fathers are learning the joys and frustrations of full-time parenthood. According to the first-ever census figures on the subject, last year there were 105,000 stay-at-home dads caring for 189,000 kids under age 15. With many men losing jobs in the economic slump and women's salaries rising, researchers see a trend. "It's still unusual," says James Levine, director of the think tank the Fatherhood Project, "but it's not considered freakish anymore." Therapist Terrence Real, author of How Can I Get Through to You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women, calls SAHDs "pioneers" who are redefining masculinity by choosing "relationships over productivity and competition. This is revolutionary."

Every revolution, though, faces resistance. When Jamie Shrope became Mr. Mom for twins Nicholas and Cassidy, now 4, mothers shunned him at the park. "People treated me like I was a total creep," says the former systems analyst, 33, who left the workforce in the fall of 1999 after a string of insecure tech-industry jobs. "Strangers made me feel defective as a man because I wasn't the wage earner." For the first few months he felt defective at home too. "I didn't have a clue about dealing with babies," he says. Wife Jill, 38, a high school teacher, recalls, "I'd get notes during class saying that the babies had a fever or that Jamie couldn't calm them down. I'd call on my cell phone and walk him through the crisis."

By now Shrope has the hang of it. "Every day it gets easier to get out from under the rubble," he says. With the twins in preschool, Dad has a chance to relieve some stress at the gym. But he also relishes playing with toy trains and swinging on the jungle gym behind the family's Sussex, N.J., home. "I have a bond that most fathers never get. I keep that in mind if I ever feel jealous of my wife for working outside the home."

Wives in this scenario can have resentments of their own. Mary Tang works as an ER doctor while her husband, Bill Wong, cares for their 4-year-old daughter Samantha. "It's hard to have the financial burden all up to me," says Tang, 38. "And Samantha is much more attached to Bill. I feel sometimes that I'm missing out on part of her life." Still, she agrees that her husband is better suited to full-time kid care. Says Wong, 41: "I'm more touchy-feely."

He certainly looks that way as he crawls along the floor with his daughter, acting out a scene from The Lion King in the living room of their Grapevine, Texas, home. But 10 years ago, when he married Tang, Wong was a workaholic management associate for Citibank. "When I got a call that my father had died, I got off the phone and went back to work," he recalls. His priorities changed when Samantha was 6 months old. The couple knew they wanted one parent at home—and Wong, then an IT specialist, was earning less than Tang.

Now he spends his days with Samantha, baking brownies, taking her to tennis and Spanish lessons, planting seeds and staging water-gun fights. "This is the best job in the world," says Wong. "I have the chance to shape a person." He has no desire to go back to his old gig. Besides, "I'm basically unemployable now," he says. His in-laws don't share his enthusiasm. "They think the man should be supporting the wife," says Tang. "I try not to argue, because it's not going to change their mind."

Murvin Enders III feared similar disapproval from family and friends when he left the corporate world last year to stay home with Ian after following his wife from Overland Park, Kans., to Chicago, where she took a new job as a CBS2 news anchor. "All the negative connotations came to mind," he says. " 'You're not doing anything productive, just watching soap operas and game shows.' " When his wife, Tracy Townsend, 37, suggested he give up work, Enders, 38, initially resented it, but he came round—two weeks before Ian was born in February 2002. Now full-time dadhood offers an opportunity to exercise his management skills. "I try to talk Ian through tantrums," he says, "and reassure him there's no problem he can't solve." Those tactics didn't help, though, when Ian worked himself into such a frenzy at the checkout counter that he threw up in the shopping cart.

Bill Beagle has his own take on tantrum control. "He's really calm," says his daughter Morgan, 9. "He doesn't yell." After three years of caring for his three kids, the former financial analyst is over any qualms about living on an "allowance" from his wife, Karen, an electronics-company president. These days Karen's domestic chores are limited to fixing meals on weekends. At home in Tipp City, Ohio, he keeps Morgan, 7-year-old Ryan and Lauren, 4, busy with craft projects and trips to the museum or library.

"It takes a strong man to stay at home," says Karen, 38. "You have to be sure of yourself." To ward off monotony, Beagle, 38, listens to audiobooks while doing chores, comes up with gourmet dinners and gardening projects, and does volunteer work. He socializes with fellow SAHDs in the support group he founded in 2000, whose 15 members hold weekly play groups and breakfasts. "Some of the dads get pretty close, because you're not facing those questions about what you do," he says. But when he's really on the brink, he heads for the computer. "Karen gets e-mails from me at times that just say, 'I quit,' " says Beagle. "But she never accepts my resignation."

Susan Horsburgh
Ron Arias in Corona, Christy Casamassima in New York City, Alicia Dennis in Grapevine, Anne Driscoll in Cambridge, Mass., Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., and Barbara Sandler in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Ron Arias,
  • Christy Casamassima,
  • Alicia Dennis,
  • Anne Driscoll,
  • Macon Morehouse,
  • Barbara Sandler.