It was a working mom’s worst nightmare.
Two weeks before Peggy Duggan, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital, was to return to work after adopting twins from Cambodia, the day-care center said there wasn’t enough space for both babies.
Distraught, she called her husband. “I told her not to worry,” recalled Joe Karbowski. He took care of it, all right. He quit his job to become a full-time dad — raising the kids, cooking dinner, and doing laundry.
“Peggy couldn’t believe it,” said Karbowski, who is a nurse by training, But to him, it was perfectly logical.
“I had made the pinnacle of my career, and Peggy was just starting her career,” he said. “Why couldn’t she be able to pursue this?”
High-powered women everywhere longing for partners who get it should know that Joe is still married. But there is evidence to show that more guys are becoming man enough to take on what’s traditionally been women’s work. That has all sorts of implications, from the home to the corner office.
The role reversal — women as primary breadwinners, men as primary caregivers — has been gradual but significant in this country. Women bring home the bacon in about 40 percent of households. Meanwhile, about 2 million men are stay-at-home dads, according to a report released this month by Pew Research. It was half that number in 1989.
There are still far more full-time moms than Mr. Moms, and many men are home because they can’t find a job or have some kind of physical disability. But a growing number, like Karbowski, have raised their hand to become the chief household officer.
That moment came for Beth and Rob Boland nearly 15 years ago, as they were jetting off to the Caribbean, the first vacation without the kids, who were ages 6, 3, and 1 at the time.
Rob was a senior vice president at Fidelity Investments; Beth was a partner at Mintz Levin. Life was unhinging between the three children, two go-go careers, and one Dover-to-Boston commute. Rob knew something had to give. For a year, he flirted with the idea of finding a less demanding job so he could spend more time at home.
As their flight took off, Rob told Beth, “It’s going to happen now.”
When they returned, he switched jobs, but the learning curve on the daddy track was steep. Beth had done so much of the parenting that on the first day of his new role, Rob realized he had never done preschool drop-off or pickup. He had to ask Beth for directions.
After two years, Rob found it hard to juggle family and career, even a less ambitious one, so he became a full-time parent.
What followed were many moments of self doubt. There were funny looks from friends and family, even from other stay-at-home mothers. Was this the right thing to do? After all, a University of Chicago MBA is a terrible thing to waste.
But leave it to a 9-year-old to clear things up. During an annual checkup, the pediatrician asked Steven, the couple’s oldest, how he felt about his father watching him full time.
“The happiest day of my life,” Steven told the doctor, “was when my dad came home from work and told me that he was going to stay home and take care of us from then on.”
Will there ever come a time when desperate house husbands and workaholic wives are the norm?
Mary Shapiro, a professor at Simmons College who studies women and their careers, believes that could become reality as our economy moves from manufacturing to knowledge-based businesses. Women are better suited for the jobs of the future, and that will further break down the archetypal June and Ward Cleaver family structure that somehow still exists in the 21st century.
“Each generation is challenging the current pervasive norms,” Shapiro said.
Ruth Silman, a partner at Nixon Peabody, may have witnessed that change. Her husband, Tim Clark, has been a stay-at-home dad since 2001, when their first daughter was born.
When Phoebe was 5 and had just started kindergarten, she came home one day and declared: “Mommy, did you know in some families that the daddy goes to work?”
Without her husband stepping up at home, Silman realizes it would have taken her a few more years to make partner.
For Peggy Duggan, the surgeon, a husband in charge at home meant she could take charge of her career. She’s now chief medical officer at the Faulkner.
And for Beth Boland, who is a partner at Foley & Lardner, it was never about her.
“To see my husband grow as a dad and as a person, that was the thing,” she said. “I think less about how it affected my career and more my marriage. We are crazier about each other now than 30 years ago.”
And the husbands?
The kids are getting older, and they don’t need their fathers as much. After years of being full-time dads, they’re all easing their way back into the work world, finishing the hardest jobs they’ll ever take on.Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.