Every morning, Shawn Carew, 46, wakes up at 6:30. That's when his toddler, Garrett, stirs from his crib. Then it's juice and breakfast, diaper-changing, and time to get dressed. Sarah, his 3-month-old, is raring to go shortly thereafter. It's tummy time for her, and then dad and kids are off to the South End's Ringgold Park for a couple hours — usually until noon, when it's time to fix lunch and nap Garrett. After that short breather, and as the end of the day draws near, Carew admits he'll text his wife, wondering when she'll get home.
Carew, a part-time IT project specialist, is the primary caregiver for his two children. He's among a growing group of dads who are primary caregivers, a trend attributable to many factors: the prevalence of telecommuting and flexible work arrangements, job loss among men during the recession, and the evolving generational desire of fathers to become more active participants in their children's lives.
According to US Census data from the National At-Home Dad Network, 32 percent of married fathers — 7 million dads — are a regular source of care for kids under 15, up from 26 percent in 2002. That's good news for working moms, and it's great news for fathers who want to cast off traditional parenting roles.
Indeed, the sitcom stereotype of dad as a frazzled Mr. Mom who can't fold laundry or warm a bottle has grown quaint. As moms have done for years, dads are cobbling flexible work schedules, downshifting to part-time to make parenting a priority, or in some cases opting out of the workforce entirely, at least for a while.
"In an increasing number of families, dads are no longer the backup parent," says Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family. "Many of these fathers are natural nurturers who might be more adept at parenting than their spouse."
Or mom may have the higher-paying job. The Pew Research Center recently released a study noting that more mothers than ever are their family's primary (or sole) breadwinners. Today, four out of 10 households have mothers as the primary provider, and women comprise nearly half the US labor force. As debates intensify over work-family balance or whether women can "have it all," it's important to note the flip side: Many dads are picking up the slack.
In 2012, Harrington helmed an in-depth study of primary caregiving dads, tellingly titled "The New Dad: Right at Home." He found that some men were "default dads" at home due to job loss, but the majority of at-home dads made a deliberate choice. These fathers had partners with fast-track careers or higher incomes, and it simply made sense for someone to scale back. (Carew fits the profile: His wife is a gynecological surgeon at Beth Israel who works long hours.) The dads in his study enabled their wives to succeed, and happily so.
"There was a strong consensus among these fathers that there's nothing else that they could be doing which would be more important," Harrington says.
Harrington hopes these attitudes galvanize men to demand more flexibility from their employers. Already, he sees examples of companies across a broad range of industries that are beginning to provide greater support to fathers on work-family issues. Google and Yahoo offer generous parental leave for dads, he notes, and large public accounting firms such as Deloitte have workplace initiatives focused on working fathers. The company also offers a notably gender-neutral parental leave policy.
To see the parenting shift in action, just visit any playground.
"I got a few jokes, like, 'Oh, you're the dad who always shows up!' but people were really accepting," says James Whiting, a 32-year-old Arlington father who stayed home after receiving his PhD and often attended playgroups. Carew says that the moms and nannies he meets at Ringgold are chatty, making him feel less like a token dad. (He admits that there might be playdates he's not invited to, though.)
The benefits are long-lasting. Primary fathering forms a crucial bond with children that previous generations, raised with the dad-as-distant-breadwinner dynamic, might not have enjoyed. Ray Bartlett, a Cape Cod writer in his 40s who stayed home with his toddler, has no regrets.
"We're thick as thieves," he says. "That wouldn't be the case if I weren't an active participant in feeding and diaper-changing. . . . You get to see so many amazing things in your child's development."
Whiting says his family's parenting arrangement gave him more respect for his wife, who quit her job when he landed work.
"I have a better understanding of what it's like to be home all day," he says. "And she knows what it's like to get home after work and not have much energy to help out."
While the emotional payoffs can be great, there are professional drawbacks to staying home — for dads as well as moms.
"It's easier for a woman to explain away an absence on a resume. A stigma still exists for dads," says Pattie Hunt Sinacole, CEO of First Beacon Group, a Hopkinton-based human resources consultancy. "For women, an absence is seen as, 'Oh, she's really committed to her family.' Whereas for a man, it's, 'Oh, he's just not that ambitious.' "
Savvy dads can overcome this hurdle, though. Career consultant Kathy Robinson says that, while a primary caregiving dad could be pigeonholed as a guy who's "between jobs," it's possible to leverage the employment gap.
"Show you've been engaged in something in your field," she says, whether it's consulting or freelancing. And by all means network, even if it's during soccer practice. "I have so many clients who've gotten great leads from parents at their kids' sports events," she says.
After 16 months at home, Whiting took a job as a researcher for a hedge fund. It was a radical switch from bottles and diapers, but one thing made the transition easier. "I knew during the interview process that I'd found a good place to work, because people had pictures of kids in their offices," he says.
Kara Baskin writes frequently about family life for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.