By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/30/2007 7:26:09 AM ET 2007-08-30T11:26:09

I recently wrote about how stay-at-home moms may be committing career hara-kiri if they take too much time off from work to raise kids and do nothing to update their skills. But it appears men who make the decision to become stay-at-home dads may be in even more career hot water.

Men have the added problem of trying to return to work in a society that just doesn’t get why they made the decision to leave a budding career in the first place. Even though women face similar discrimination, experts say, society is more accepting of moms making such a choice. Men, on the other hand, are thought of as “unmanly” when they decide the become nurturer and take time away from the traditional hunter role.

It starts before men even leave the workplace, says Armin Brott, author of “Fathering Your School-Age Child: A Dad’s Guide to the Wonder Years, 3-9”, and he also has a Web site called mrdad.com.

“In our culture, we look at work and family issues as women’s issues and don’t acknowledge men have at least the same kind of concerns about their families. And the additional thing we dump on them is that so much masculinity is tied up in our salaries and professional accomplishments. When you disconnect from that, are you a man anymore?”

Men put this pressure on themselves, and their working wives often do this as well, not fully accepting the uncommon family structure, Brott adds.

The feminist movement was supposed to open the world to such role reversals, but alas it’s been a tough sell at home and in the workplace.

“Men face more prejudice when they decide to return to the workplace than women do. In fact, some companies have a lot of prejudice, so many men simply take vacation leave instead of Family Leave when a new baby comes. They know it would affect their career promotional path to advertise loudly ‘family is first’ in many companies,” says Robin Ryan, career coach and author of  “What to Do With the Rest of Your Life”.

The number of stay-at-home dads still pales in comparison to women who make that choice, but the numbers are growing.

Nearly 160,000 men stay home with their kids today, almost three times the number that were staying at home just ten years ago, according to the U.S. Census. And many more men would take on the role, experts say, if there wasn’t so much macho baggage out there.

After my column on stay-at-homes moms came out, dads emailed me demanding equal time.

Victor Gonzalez of Marietta, Georgia, wrote:

“I’m 41 and had been an at-home-dad for the last 8 years. When we got married both of us had very successful careers. When our daughter came along in 1999 we decided that the best for her and our family was for me to stay at home with her.

“Now that my daughter is more independent I am looking to go back to work, first on a part-time basis. Well, forget it. There is no way that anyone understands that a man can take time off his professional career to take care of the little ones.

“While indeed it’s extremely tough for women to get back to work after a long time away, it gets even tougher for a man to do the same. Society has unwritten rules for dads that decide that their family is more important than corporate America.”

It does, agrees Scott Haltzman, MD Clinical Assistant Professor, Brown University Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.

“How does the workplace view a man that takes time off of his career to raise children? They tend to look at him as not having the kind of drive or seriousness of purpose that they would want in leadership positions,” he says about what he sees as a pervasive stereotype.

And a double whammy for stay-at-home dads when they return to work, is they usually have little support at the office or plant because there are rarely dads who made a similar choice to commiserate with.

“It’s so important for men to have the support of other men, to receive the validation they need to make tough choices. Men get that support from men’s groups where men get the fathering, the wisdom and the tough love they need to make unpopular decisions,” says Wayne Levine, a clinical psychologist and founding director of BetterMen.org

“They’re in an identity vacuum,” adds Haltzman, “because the workplace doesn’t have anything to guide them when they show up at the doorstep saying, ‘I’m ready to get back to work.’”

Despite the challenges, Haltzman suggests men hold their heads up high when they return to work instead of feeling sheepish or embarrassed of his choice: “He needs to be able to paint it in the most positive light.”

You don’t need to go through a litany of all the diapers you changed, he advises, just keep a positive mental attitude and have a sense of pride and purpose of what you did. Make no excuses.

Unfortunately, a lot of you stay-at-home pops are in uncharted waters.

Todd Findley from Fort Wayne, Indiana, wonders if he’ll be able to figure it out:

“I am a 37 year old stay-at-home dad.  I was a public school teacher for 5 years before my wife and I decided that it was better for me to stay at home with our three boys.  As a teacher, I was not paid very well.  However, my wife is a computer programmer who gets paid enough to allow me not to work.  In the short-run, this is a great arrangement.”

“However, once all of our boys are in school full time (our youngest is 2), I am going to want to reenter the workforce.  Will there be difficulty for me as a man like there is for the former stay-at-home moms?  There hasn’t been much research done on this.  I think that guys of my generation will be the guinea pigs on this experiment.”

Sometimes being a guinea pig can play in your favor.

“Whenever you’re breaking out of normal roles you always have the burden of proof, just like women in the 1950s trying to become surgeons and pilots,” explains Warren Farrell, author of “Why Men Earn More” and “Father and Child Reunion.” “But pattern-breakers are people who have more courage, communication skills and creativity.”

That’s how you want to spin your decision when you get to the coveted job interview. Farrell says dads should make it clear they did not break the pattern to escape work; and that they are now very happy and ready to come back.

And as with stay-at-home moms, opting out altogether is probably a bad idea when it comes to your future career. You need to keep your skills up, keep up on technology, take night courses, volunteer, or work part time to keep your work receptors stimulated. Also, keep abreast of the job market in your town, and keep networking, even have lunch with former colleagues to keep on foot in the door.

“When you come back and have a job interview you’ll know what’s going on out there,” explains mrdad.com’s Brott. “If you just focus on child rearing you’re in trouble.”

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