Trading Places

Margie Blue's "Aha" moment arrived when she was nine months pregnant. "I was close to delivering, and I'd always assumed that I would be the one to stay home with our children," says Margie, first vice president of marketing at Raymond James Financial Services, a St. Petersburg, FL, brokerage firm. "Then I suddenly thought, 'I love my job! Why should I leave?' "

Instead, she sat down for a heart-to-heart with her husband, Bill, then vice president of sales at a yacht accessory manufacturing company. "I'd been talking about doing something more gratifying -- helping people in the real world, instead of helping very rich people play with their toys," he recalls. "Margie said, 'What better way to do that than to stay home and raise our child?' "

That was seven years ago. Today, the Blues' arrangement, while hardly mainstream, raises fewer eyebrows. Indeed, stay-at-home dads seem to be popping up everywhere lately, from the Eddie Murphy movie Daddy Day Care to covers of national magazines like Newsweek; last fall, Fortune even reported that more than one third of its "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" have a male partner who stays home. (Hewlett-Packard chairman/CEO Carly Fiorina is probably the best-known example.) But it's not just female executives doing this: Ample anecdotal evidence suggests such partnerships are becoming more common among women who, like Margie Blue, include meeting planning in their job descriptions. Successful Meetings spoke to couples across the country in which the wife plans meetings while the husband runs the household, to find out how they make it work -- and why it often makes sense in this industry.

No Tug of War

Why should planners' husbands in particular be playing "Mr. Mom"? Because meeting planning, like raising children, is essentially round-the-clock work, explains Kaye Moore, Ph.D., a Norwalk, CT, psychologist and consultant to the Women's Leadership Initiative, a research and advocacy project of the Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Foundation. "The number-one concern of women in the meetings industry is balancing their work and home lives," Moore notes. "These women are feeling exhausted and depleted from trying to do two 24/7 jobs, and unless they can work out a creative solution, there'll be real stress overload. If the man is willing to stay home, that takes one of those 24/7 jobs off the backs of women."

This, in turn, frees women up to concentrate on their work without the guilt or distraction of worrying about who's watching the kids. "It's allowed me to focus so much more on the business, plus it means I'm able to pick up and go whenever I'm needed somewhere," says Christine Duffy, president and COO of Philadelphia-based Maritz McGettigan, whose husband Andrew quit his computer-technician job three years ago to take care of Danielle, now 17, and Sean, 10. "When both of us were working he was on the road a lot too, and [your life] gets to the point where it's so stressful it's just not worth it. We had children and we wanted to be with them, but because our schedules were so unpredictable, sometimes neither of us was there. Since my husband didn't love what he was doing anymore, we decided he'd be the one to stop." Duffy -- who in 2001 was named one of the 25 most influential people in the meetings business by SM's sister publication, Meeting News -- admits that this domestic arrangement is one of the secrets of her success: "There's a lot less stress for me personally because I know [Andrew's] there. It's tremendous support."

Spreadsheets to Pampers

When Margie Blue told her husband she thought it made more sense for him to stay home and raise Jared, now 7, "I told her she was nuts!" says Bill, who also raises their adopted son Jacob, now 3. Eventually she convinced him that, as both say now, "You can always build another career, but you can't build another kid." But he had an even harder time convincing his co-workers: "Everyone at my job thought I was crazy, or bucking for a raise. They said, 'You're one of the best-known people in the world in your field, and you're giving that up to wipe butts? C'mon, what do you really want?' "

Blue's story shows some of the challenges planners' husbands face resisting gender stereotypes -- a major one being not getting taken seriously. Andrew Duffy's company, for instance, wouldn't let him go. "They kept asking me to stay on another month, then another," he recalls. "Finally, after six months, I said, 'That's it.' And they still begged me to stay!" Nor did his co-workers evidently consider child care real work: "When I left, they threw a 'retirement' party where they gave me a golf bag," he continues. "Not that I ever use it -- I don't have time." When asked the inevitable what-do-you-do question, Bill Blue, for one, has a simple response: "I tell them I report to two bosses -- a three-year-old and a seven-year-old." Adds his wife, "Often they don't believe him, but when he explains what his day holds, they tend to get it all of a sudden."

People also assume -- as Newsweek's recent cover story did -- that dads are staying home because they've been laid off or can't find work. But "you can't tie this trend to the economy," insists Joe Feldmann, who runs Chicagoland At-Home Dads, an organization of stay-at-home fathers in the Chicago suburbs. "Many of these fathers have been doing this for years. It's not a decision people make overnight."

Diane Kledzik, who plans and leads seminars for the Catholic diocese of St. Petersburg, FL, agrees. "My husband has always wanted to be a stay-at-home dad," she says of Geof, who resigned from his full-time position running training sessions for Family Resources, a nonprofit providing emergency services for children and families, two months ago. Adds Diane, "He has lots of marketable skills, so he can still do training on the side" while taking care of four-month-old Andrew and Luke, 8. (Andrew is even a frequent, albeit napping, attendee at Geof's part-time gigs: "He'll make a great little meeting planner," laughs his father.)

Meanwhile, these men's wives confront other stereotypes. "My parents and friends are very supportive, but I sometimes get comments from other people like, 'With all your traveling, don't you worry about your son?' " confesses Jennifer Wemstrom, a Chicago-based manager of business development for Long Beach, CA-based First Consulting Group, who spends about 40 percent of her time on the road while her husband, Scott, takes care of three-year-old Kyle. "When a man travels, people never ask, 'Isn't that hard on the kids?'" Likewise, Diane Kledzik notes, "Sometimes people say, 'It's great that at least one parent can stay home,' as if it's not as good as having me do it."

A is For . . .

One reason having a stay-at-home husband works well for many planners is that the personality type that helps them succeed in the office doesn't necessarily translate to the nursery. "I think all meeting planners are a little Type A," says Eric Hertzfeldt, whose wife, Linda Taylor, plans information-technology meetings for Northwestern Mutual Life in Milwaukee, WI, while he raises two-year-old Sam and newborn Daniel. She agrees: "I know I wouldn't be a good stay-at-home mom -- I like going into a situation with a plan and having it turn out as I expect."

A key to making such a nontraditional partnership work, notes psychologist Kaye Moore, is learning a skill that's particularly difficult for planners: letting go. "If the man is willing to contribute to childcare and home care, the woman has to be willing to encourage him and not criticize him because he's not raising the kids or cooking the meals the way she would," offers Moore. "Women are so good at managing details; that's why so many meeting planners are women. But if they can let go of some of the details and let the guy do things as he wants to, they won't miss the big picture, which is having a happier household."

Jennifer Petterson, who plans meetings as an executive vice president at Edelman Public Relations in Chicago, confesses she had to control herself from criticizing her husband, Nathan, when he first quit work two years ago to raise Alex (she gave birth to their second son, Daniel, last month). "I pack a lot into a day, and I had to learn to understand when he didn't get to the laundry, or cook a gourmet meal," she admits. "But I'm very lucky. I feel like I'm good at my job, and the reason I can do my job well and have a family and all the things I hoped for, is because of him."