McKINNEY, Texas - Chuck Shepard stands in his kitchen, in the middle of a tornado - his 5-year-old, Catherine, and 4-year-old, Jolie, run around him, laughing, as 2-year-old Caleb naps upstairs. But he's calm while reflecting on life as an unemployed stay-at-home dad.
Physically, being with his kids all day isn't that bad. Mentally, it's a wringer.
Are they learning enough while I take care of them? Will they be OK while I use the bathroom? I can't let my guard down.
"It's like studying for a final every day," Shepard said.
Jobless fathers like Shepard no longer bring home the bacon; instead, they fry it for breakfast.
These tough times have been dubbed by some as a "he-cession," especially because men have lost about 80 percent of jobs shed during this downturn. More men are joining the stay-at-home dad ranks - there were 140,000 last year, a one-third jump since 2002, according to census data.
Shepard wasn't planning on this.
He was content after launching his own company, installing window treatments. Business was good. He worked into the evenings and on weekends, placing blinds and drapes in new homes across booming Collin County.
But last summer, business dropped dramatically. Customers couldn't afford to dress up their windows.
Last December, Shepard shut down the business. He and his wife, Lissa, pulled their three kids out of day care because they no longer could afford the $1,500 they were paying each month.
For now, his wife, a civil engineer, is the family's sole provider. Her salary alleviated the pressure of having to find a job right away. But Shepard, 43, was scared as he thought about running around with his three young charges.
Meanwhile, he was still licking his wounds. He used to say with pride that he owned his own business. Now, he was embarrassed to be jobless.
"All these things that I thought were important were taken away just like that," he said. "I can't be a good dad unless I'm out there having a job, making money."
Things didn't get off to a good start.
Instead of embracing his new role as at-home dad, Shepard threw a pity party. He let the kids watch TV as he lounged around.
"I did the minimum to get by," he said.
It led to a frank discussion with Lissa.
"I told him, 'This is how I view your job now,' " she said. "Whether you like it or not, you're going to have to like it because there's no choice at this point."
There were clothes to clean, dishes to wash, meals to make and kids who needed their dad.
Chuck Shepard thought: "What the heck am I going to do?"
The recession has caused deep job cuts in male-dominated fields such as manufacturing and construction.
In June, the male unemployment rate was 10 percent, versus 7.6 percent for women.
The U.S. Census conducts an annual study of family arrangements, and that is how it determined there were about 140,000 stay-at-home fathers in 2008. Others estimate there are many more, perhaps about 2 million.
Whether from economic necessity or by choice, at-home dads are on the rise.
"There's no doubt that there are considerably more men in this role," said Aaron Rochlen, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the topic.
Many jobless men are able to shuttle their kids around town because their wives are working - and perhaps earning more than they did. In 2006, 26 percent of wives earned more than their husbands, up from 18 percent two decades ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Lots and lots of moms have decent incomes ... and fathers can play caregiving roles," said Jeremy Adam Smith, author of "The Daddy Shift," which explores stay-at-home fatherhood. "Families are just more nimble in terms of how they can respond to an economic crisis."
It also helps that views of fatherhood are changing.
"Parental roles are something to be negotiated, which is totally different from my grandfathers' or my father's generation," Smith said.
More men are embracing their roles as stay-at-home dads, Rochlen said.
"I think some of these guys are holding onto that idea of provider but appropriately stretching it to meaning doing what's needed to be done with family, and that's a positive thing," he said.
Shepard eventually snapped out of his fatherhood funk. He relied on his faith in God to keep his family up and running as he faced challenges. Another motivator: He realized he didn't want his kids to fall behind on his watch.
"One of my fears was if they were home with me, could they maintain their level of learning so they weren't falling behind?" Shepard said.
So learning replaced lounging.
One recent morning, after visiting the gym, the kids played at a park.
After lunch, Shepard taught Caleb to dump red blocks in a bin. Then he went over lessons with Catherine and Jolie, tracing letters in the alphabet.
Later, they sang nursery rhymes.
Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle ... Here we go round the mulberry bush ... Patty cake, patty cake, baker's man ...
After a lunch of chicken nuggets, tomatoes and carrots, the kids caught a few minutes of "The Backyardigans" on television as Shepard walked dishes to the kitchen.
"A little extra TV while I clean this up," he said. "You've got to pick your battles."
Catherine, perhaps wanting to show off for a visitor, started acting up. She jumped on her dad's back. She stuck her feet in his face.
Shepard gave her the look.
He tilted his head, staring laserlike into her eyes.
"You're pushing the envelope," he told her. "If you keep doing that, you're spending a long time in your room."
"One thing you learn is patience," he said.
Shepard says time at home means he now has a better sense of who his children are.
Catherine is the leader and likes to be in charge. Jolie is more sensitive, quick to give a hug. Caleb is sweet, with a good sense of humor.
What do they think of their dad?
Catherine shrugged. Jolie said she likes going with her dad to Chick-fil-A.
They've formed a deeper connection: The girls now ask their dad to help them get ready for bed. Lissa offers to assist instead.
"I try to insert myself more," she said.
Lissa said her husband has "improved quite a bit" as an at-home dad.
"He's a very good father," she said. "He's very patient. He's great with kids."
Shepard figures he's made progress, especially a few weeks ago when Lissa arrived home to a scene that would make any working mom smile.
Dinner was spread out on the kitchen table. The house was relatively clean. The kids were in a good mood.
"Wow, this is really nice."
Shepard, who hopes to find a job later this year, said he's grown more comfortable talking about closing his business.
He's also learned to embrace the moment - and to savor the extra time with his children. He figures he's spent more time with them in the last six months than he did in all the years he was working.
"Even though we're worse off financially than we probably have ever been, I'm more at peace and calmer and happier than I've ever been," Shepard said. "We've got everything we need and maybe not all the things we used to want.
"In place of that is all this time with my kids. And you can't put a price on that."
(c) 2009, The Dallas Morning News.
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