A Tale of Two Stay-at-Home Dads
Nate Ulmer & Jamie Harrison
By Diane McMahon
Photography by Anne, Inc. – Sloan Bragg
Stay-at-home dads are having quite the moment these days. Also referred to as housedad, SAHD, house-husband and house-spouse, “SAHD-ness” is the stuff of sitcoms, reality TV shows and feature articles in GQ Magazine. A barrage of definitive studies and vocal commentators are zealously announcing the benefits—no wait—the perils (which is it?) of this increasing role reversal in American families. As with most current social and family issues, the debate is polarized, vociferous and riddled by stereotypes. And it couldn’t matter less to Nate Ulmer and Jamie Harrison, two men/husbands/fathers who are actually living the life—happily and by choice.
I acknowledge my qualifications for writing this article are limited. Basically, I’m interested and I have some family experience. My brother decided to inhabit the housedad role a number of years ago—before it had gained social currency. We all wondered if the elder, more traditional members of our clan might mutter something like “Men who can work; men who can’t stay home,” but it didn’t happen. There was some snickering at a New Yorker cartoon where a hapless-looking guy is asked, “What do you do?” and he replies, “I’m a stay-at-home dad. I just don’t have a wife or kids.” But far from being hapless, my brother is smart and accomplished and I remember thinking at the time it takes a confident man with a really strong ego to realize there are things more fulfilling and important than status or money.
Recently, on separate occasions, I met Nate and Jamie. Like my brother, they are married to successful women who are passionate about their careers. They are devoted to their families. Each couple made a well thought-out decision to have Mom continue working to provide the family income and have Dad stay at home as the principal caregiver. Despite the data crunching and census reports that indicate stay-at home dads have more than doubled in the U.S. in the past 10 years, the process of arriving at the choice to have Dad stay home is as unique and personal as marriage itself.
According to social historians, the “modern family” in the U.S. had its origins around the 1830s. Marriage began to be based on values of affection and romantic courtship. Formerly, during the colonial and pre-industrial era, marriage and family were pragmatic necessities for building and maintaining a stable, self-sufficient economic unit. Every member did what was necessary to assure survival. Gender roles were irrelevant. The industrial era ushered in thousands of factory jobs (primarily for men) and for the first time husbands and wives operated in separate spheres. Gender roles became more defined and rigid.
In the 20th century, the financial hardships during the Great Depression and the unavailability of male workers during World War II required millions of women to work outside the home. The post-war “Golden '50s” saw a resurgence of traditional gender roles, but since then greater educational and professional opportunities for women, women’s desire for economic independence and economic necessity have encouraged millions of women to work outside the home. Currently in the U.S., 40 percent of married women have larger incomes than their husbands. In the 21st century, gender roles are becoming increasingly neutralized and fluid.
Not that Nate or Jamie see themselves as members of an avant garde movement leading the charge for gender role neutralization. They are pretty regular guys. Both are tall, good-looking, in good-shape and easy to talk to. They are also very different and so are their stories.
Nate and I move from back to forth in rocking chairs on the front porch of the two-story log house he and his wife, Cathy, built (with some help from family) on undeveloped land that’s been in her family for generations. On a flawless Saturday afternoon, I get to experience the world Nate and Cathy have consciously and carefully constructed for themselves and their three children—Jorja (5), Hunter (3) and Lily (weeks). While Nate and I seat ourselves, a parade of children in varying shapes and sizes march down the steps to a boundary-less front yard that merges with the marsh. They yell back that they are going crab-digging. The only parental warning is to “watch out for snakes.” It is a Huckleberry Finn world.
Fifteen years ago Nate and Cathy met on Hilton Head at a party with mutual friends. Nate was already out of school and a land surveyor. Cathy was a senior in high school and a young woman with a definite plan. She was bound for the College of Charleston and she was going to be a pharmacist. They fell in love—Nate says he won her over when he mangled the punchline to a joke.
Cathy pursued her plan. They married five years later. Cathy is now a pharmacist in Bluffton. Nate says he always knew he wanted children. Even before they married, it was clear that Cathy was committed to her career as a pharmacist and it just made sense that he would stay home once they had children. The door to the house opens and Cathy steps outside with baby Lily, who is happy to be handed to her Dad. Cami, a family friend, joins us on the porch steps. This seems to be a house where the entrance and exit of people is as easy as the tide coming in and going out. I have just asked Nate what kind of dad he is. Cathy interjects, “All kids love him because he’s a big kid himself.” adding with a smile “He’s a really cheesy guy.” Cami chimes in, “He’s a great dad. They’re always singing around here.”
During a quiet moment I ask Nate about his own childhood. “It wasn’t the greatest. But I learned from a negative example. It’s why I’m so determined to make life the best it can be for my own children.” He stops for a minute. “To make their lives better. That’s all I can wish for.”
In answer to my earlier question about what kind of dad he is, Nate says he loves having fun with the kids—his own and everybody else’s—but they know when he means business. He tries to be fair and loving and even when he is disciplining them he reminds them they are loved. While he talks, he is rocking Lily. I ask if he ever gets frazzled or rattled. In his unruffled, easy-going way he says, “No.” He continues, “People drive me fricking crazy, but I can get along with kids. We have an understanding; I always find that place inside where they can just be.”
The door opens again. Cathy’s father—who lives in the house over there, next to my sister—(it is a family compound in reality) asks Nate if he can borrow something. Their ease with each other moves through gently like the afternoon breeze. Probably the biggest testimony to Nate’s love for this family into which he’s married is he took Cathy’s last name—Ulmer. He makes it clear it is the values and example of her family that he wants as the legacy for his children.
Remarking on the network of friends and family who help make their life work, both Nate and Cathy agree, “It takes a village.” Plus careful planning, conscious choices and knowing who you are and what you want. And then you have to find the person who shares your vision…even if it’s a bit unconventional. Congratulations to you Mrs. and Mr. Ulmer.
Jamie’s and his wife Patty’s story begins a bit earlier than Nate’s and Cathy’s. As Jamie says he’s at the tail end of his ride, having attended the college graduations of his two sons from Furman University in Greenville, S.C. in May. Jamie and Patty met at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. and married in 1981. He went to work for DuPont and Patty went to work for General Electric. For seven years they built their careers, traveled and played before deciding to start their family. They had two boys, Brian and Greg.
When Brian was in third grade and Greg in first, Patty was offered a job with Gulfstream. (She is currently V.P. of Finance.) Jamie managed a transfer to Charleston, with the agreement that he could work out of their home in Hilton Head. His flexibility enabled him to get the boys off in the morning and be there when they came home in the afternoon. He managed the laundry, grocery shopping and cooking (he modestly admits his wife calls him a gourmet cook).
He also nonchalantly mentions he was getting up at 4:30 a.m. to handle his European business before breakfast, and he managed his domestic business while the boys were at school and late into the evening. The slower, more relaxed pace both Jamie and Patty had envisioned when deciding to move south wasn’t materializing. Patty’s early morning and late evening commutes to and from Savannah were unavoidable. The only room for real change was for Jamie to quit his job and become a full-time stay-at-home dad. After three hectic years of juggling, he did it.
Like Nate, he seems to have experienced no negative judgment from peers or colleagues….or himself. He says he would recommend the choice to any man who has the opportunity to share time with his children as they grow up. He feels extremely lucky that his wife gave him the financial capability to do it.
There is one factor in Jamie’s story that makes his decision particularly advantageous and happy. Both Jamie and Patty are baseball fanatics. Patty had the graciousness to provide her husband with two sons who are excellent students and who have loved baseball from the time they were born (if you believe Jamie). Since middle school, as a stay-at-home dad, Jamie was able to coach and then attend and support his boys throughout their high school baseball careers and on through college—every season of the year, both weekdays and weekends. Both Brian and Greg received baseball scholarships to Furman. Brian was drafted by the New York Mets during college, but decided to retire at 25. He returned to Furman and was able to walk with his brother at graduation ceremonies this spring. Patti has supported her family every moment and attended their games every weekend. Clearly, Jamie and Patty’s commitment, love and support of their sons extends beyond baseball. But it is a family passion they have been able to share throughout the boys’ lives. It required choices and compromises by both parents. Jamie calls Patty the Harrison boys’ hero. They had no template on how to proceed, but theirs is a family plan that works.