Dads meet up, bond over stay-at-home experience

Half a dozen men meet a few times a month to talk sports and swap advice about their kids. The park is their office "water cooler."

TAMPA — Mike Watkins stood under a tree in Ballast Point Park on Wednesday morning to give his 6-month-old daughter Sienna some shade. ¶ She cooed and took in her surroundings from her spot in his arms while he talked sports and childcare with the other dads from the Househusbands of Tampa Bay Facebook group. ¶ Watkins, 27, bent down to help Sienna stand up on the sidewalk. ¶ "She's not too good of a sitter but she loves standing up," he said, as someone in the group asked how old she is. ¶ "Six months," the Tampa dad said. "Six months on Father's Day."

The group of about half a dozen stay-at-home dads from around Tampa Bay meet a few times a month to talk sports and swap advice about their kids. Scott Sterling, 33, of St. Petersburg organized the group about a year ago.

They're part of a small but growing number of men who are taking on the role of at-home dad while their wives work.

Some don't have other jobs. Others work part time or work from home. Watkins, a massage therapist, works a few evenings each week. Sterling works from home as a freelance writer.

Sterling started the dads' group because he missed the "water cooler" aspect of work, like casual talk about politics or what happened during last night's baseball game.

At first, he found it tough to adjust to being at home. A week would pass, and he'd realize how long it'd been since he left the house, or since he'd seen anyone besides his wife.

"She pushed me to go out and meet people," he said.

The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 40 percent of all households with children under 18 include mothers who are the sole or primary breadwinners for the family, according to a Pew Research Center data analysis. In 1960, it was 11 percent.

The numbers include single mothers, but 5.1 million are married mothers whose income is higher than their husbands', the report says.

Census data for 2012 put the number of at-home dads in the United States at 189,000, more than double the 93,000 cited in 2000.

The census defines "stay-at-home" dads as those out of the labor force for a year, but groups like the National At-Home Dad Network say that number is higher because they include in their definition dads who are the daily, primary caregivers for their kids but may also work from home or part time.

Jeremy Garrett, 27, has been a stay-at-home dad for about six months. He and his wife, Ashley, a fourth-grade teacher, live in Tampa near Town 'N Country. He works as a pastor at Peninsular Christian Church a few nights a week and cares for their three children during the day — their 7-month-old daughter Adalynn and the twins, foster children, they've been caring for since they were 6 months old.

Family and friends are supportive, and people are generally positive toward him out in public, he said.

But sometimes strangers give him odd looks that seem to say, "Why are you in the grocery store in the middle of the day? Why aren't you working to support your family?"

"A lot of people have the assumption the man should take care of all the money, Mom should be the one staying at home. You get that a lot," he said. "For us it was just a smarter decision, and a smart decision financially."

The dads' group has become a source of support for him.

"Some of them have been stay-at-home dads longer than I have. Sometimes you get a little angry with what people have to say about being a stay-at-home dad," Garrett said. "From them you learn, hey, things are going to happen. You just have to accept it and move on."

Ray Alzamora, 51, of Valrico has been a stay-at-home dad since 1998. He has two children: Jessica, 17, and Sarah, 13.

He first joined a group for stay-at-home dads in 2000, but it included families from places like Naples and Orlando, and it wasn't easy to meet.

"You don't necessarily jump in car with a toddler and drive two hours to play for an hour and turn around and go home," he said.

Finding other kids around their age to play and interact with was one of the harder parts of being an at-home dad.

"Until they're in preschool, elementary school, that's one of the challenges," he said. "You pretty much just do what you can, network with other local families or other dads if you can find them."

He went to the park on Wednesday while his kids were in summer camp to meet with the other dads, offering bits of advice here and there. He talked to Garrett, who pulled out a bottle of baby sunscreen.

"It doesn't make your hair look pretty, but hey," Garrett said as he rubbed a little on top of Adalynn's head.

Alzamora looked on from the park bench with a knowing laugh.

"You get better at it," he said.

Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.