The first time one of his friends called him Soccer Mom, it was like a knife in Troy Kreutzer's side.
"What have I gotten myself into?" he thought.
The razzing went on for the first few months after Kreutzer left a 12-year career in the funeral business to stay home with his newborn son while his wife, Patricia, supported the family as a financial sales manager.
"I was almost depressed," Kreutzer recalls. "I worked all my life. I was somebody that if I had to be to work at 8, I got there at 7:30, and if things weren't done at 5, I stayed until they were. I'd always felt like I had a paycheck, I was producing. Now all of a sudden I didn't have a paycheck, and I felt like I wasn't producing."
Two and a half years and another child later, though, and Kreutzer can't imagine dropping his kids off at day care. He's one of nearly 100,000 married dads in the United States who opt to stay home with their children, according to a 2003 U.S. Census Bureau report. That's a sliver compared with the 5.4 million married moms who parent from home, but it represents a cultural shift that more and more families find appealing - or just downright necessary.
"Basically it was either day care or one of us stay home, and we couldn't afford me working with what she makes," Kreutzer says. "So I said, 'I'll give it a try.'"
His leap of faith has led to memorable moments like this:
Troy clutches his 3-month-old daughter, Ava, in his arms while his rambunctious 2-year-old, AJ, swings a pint-sized plastic golf club in their front yard.
AJ quickly bores and heads to the nearby plum tree, where still-green fruit clings to low branches.
"Hey, daddy!" he summons in a saccharine tone - right before he hurls a plum just inches from Troy's head.
"OK, that's enough," Troy says, laughing. "I call him the dirty plum picker."
Then he boasts about how AJ can swing a golf club better than him and knows the difference between turkey, deer and coon tracks. Troy has learned a few things from his son, too.
"It's scary," he says. "I never thought I'd be 37 years old and know all the words to 'The Wiggles' songs."
'You get soft'
Watching the children's TV show is a very small part of the Kreutzer family's routine, which usually swings into gear when AJ wakes up around 7:30 a.m. While Patricia disappears to her basement office to start her long work day, Troy makes breakfast and cleans and dresses the kids. Then it's lunch and a nap by 3 p.m., with dad prepping for dinner while the little ones sleep.
Don't call him Mr. Mom
Mom joins the family for lunch most days, and she breast-feeds the baby.
"When Ava's hungry, I just hold her at the top of the steps and let her scream," Troy says. "If Patricia's on the phone, we understand. If not, she comes up and feeds her and then goes right back to work."
For the most part, though, Troy and the tots are on their own. They get out of the house a lot, exploring their 16-acre property outside Oskaloosa and another 130-acre plot they own near Perry Lake, where they enjoy feeding fish in the pond they built last year.
They also attend a play group with 10 other families every Tuesday morning in Grantville.
"It's a good time," Troy says, "and it's good for the parents, too."
Needless to say, Troy doesn't feel isolated by his stay-at-home role. On the contrary, he says, it's a privilege being able to watch his children grow up.
"I don't know what it'd be like to drop them off at a day care. I couldn't do it now. ... I'd cry like a baby," he says.
"I was always the macho man. Now that I have kids, I cry at 'Little House on the Prairie.' I don't know what it is, but you get soft. ... It's the love. It's just unconditional."
An important job
Jeff McPheeters can relate. The 50-year-old father of three boys felt sure he was missing out on significant moments in his sons' lives when he was logging 80-hour weeks at a construction job. His wife, Priscilla, runs a successful Mary Kay business from their rural Lawrence home, and she remembers Jeff coming in one day and saying, "I don't think God intended families to have as much stress as we have."
"Two dynamic careers were taking us both away from the kids," recalls Priscilla, who was pregnant with the couple's youngest son, Benjamin, at the time.
They decided Jeff would try staying home with the boys. Isaac was 8 then, and Paul was 6.
Although Jeff planned to help Priscilla with tech support a few hours a week for her business, he knew he wouldn't be happy unless he had something more to do, so he proposed home-schooling the boys.
The experiment has been a success. Isaac just graduated from high school, and his brothers are thriving academically. But the best part, they say, has been the opportunity to share family experiences along the way.
"Priscilla and I both know right then if they did something new and exciting that day in school. It's not old news," says Jeff, who has an education degree from Kansas University.
There are benefits for the boys, too, in having dad around.
"I learn more just talking with him than out there in the schoolroom sometimes," Paul says.
Isaac admires his father's "discernment and wisdom with tricky situations in raising us."
Online resources for dads at home
The trend toward more dads staying home to raise their children has led to a network of online resources aimed at these fathers and their families. If you're looking for support - or even some comic relief - here are a few places to look: ¢ www.slowlane.com: A searchable online reference, resource and network for stay-at-home dads and their families. ¢ www.rebeldad.com: A blog by a father who speaks candidly and from experience about issues relating to "the new fraternity" he joined when he decided to become a stay-at-home dad. ¢ http://fatherhood.about.com/ od/stayathomedads: Articles that offer advice on chores, parenting techniques and how to maintain a relationship with your spouse when you transition to fatherhood at home. ¢ www.dadstayshome.com: A site for stay-at-home-dads to connect with other dads. The forum includes teachers, engineers, motorcycle builders, construction workers and many other professions that are all doing the same job now.
"His leadership by example is huge," Isaac says. "He doesn't force it, so we just naturally want to follow him and want to make him proud."
Jeff's friends didn't give him a hard time when he transitioned out of the traditional work force. In fact, the move may have been harder for him to justify to himself.
"In our culture, you kind of validate yourself based on what it is you do. And we tend to think of what we do based on a job or a career," Jeff says. "We probably make too big a deal out of who makes the most money, who has the most 'important' job."
'Such a good dad'
Patricia Kreutzer helped her husband, Troy, get over his initial reservations by offering words of encouragement and praising his skill at raising their children.
"He not only takes care of both kids all day, he does most of the cleaning and cooking. I realize how much he does when I get to take care of both kids on weekends," she says. "I often asks him how the heck he does it."
Troy doesn't take weekends off. He mows, runs the weed eater and waters the plants and grass. Yet he never seems to run out of energy for his children.
"When I see him with the kids, my heart melts. He is such a good dad," Patricia says. "He loves reading books to them; coloring; teaching colors, shapes and, best of all, nature. He has the kids outside as much as possible."
Troy figures he'll take up a career outside the home again when AJ and Ava start school - maybe a job in the nursing field, but nothing that will keep him from frequenting his children's performances or sporting events.
For now, he's cherishing the coos and kicks of his baby girl and the burgeoning personality of his toddler.
Troy even has a secret handshake with his "little buddy." AJ's too shy today to show a stranger how he and Daddy clasp hands and point at one another. But he's happy to rattle off the catchphrase that wraps it up.
He glances quickly at his father and sums up his sentiments in a raspy tone: "You da man!"