Mad About the Man

Mr. Spence said that he finds fathers who still resemble the ’60s Don Draper-ish men sort of pathetic. “I remember working with guys in corporate America and they would hide behind their jobs so that they wouldn’t have to spend so much time at home,” he said. “I always thought that was kind of lame and stereotypical.”

Of course it is. But it isn’t the stereotype of Don Draper that is so attractive; it’s his desperate need to break out of the stereotype. Much like the characters in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Tom Perrotta’s Little Children—both recently made into films—he suffers from a classic case of upper middle-class suburban angst, adults petrified by how ordinary they’ve become. With his taste for strong women living outside the very rules he feels boxed in by, Don Draper seems as though he just might understand all angles of the domestic equation. “His sense of yearning, his sense of being confined by the home yet also craving that confinement and comfort, I identify with it,” said a Brooklyn mom of two and Draper-phile in her mid-thirties whose husband, a “screenwriter,” works from home while she commutes to a publishing job in Manhattan.

Holly Isdale, 43, a strategic wealth management adviser at Barclays, is a kind of Donna Draper figure (minus the philandering, of course!); her husband William Ryan, 46, a former electrical engineer, has been a stay-at-home father with their two children for over eight years in Bryn Mawr, Pa. Due to the long commute, Ms. Isdale has a pied-à-terre in the city where she stays when she needs to work late.

Every morning, Mr. Ryan wakes up between 4:30 and 5 and cleans the house; gets the laundry cycle through; makes a to-do list and plans the meals; gets the children up; and goes for a run with the dog. He makes an errand run: dry cleaning, hardware store, socks for his son, pay off a parking ticket, pick up a new coffee carafe, the tennis club, make doctor’s appointments for the kids, then grocery store. Shower, shave, then lunch with other SAHDs and SAHMs. Back at the house, he replies to e-mails, mows the lawn, organizes the basement, sands down some wood and makes house repairs, then nap. Kids get home, he makes lunch; then homework, extracurricular activities, and finally, cooks dinner, for which his wife may or may not be present.

“There was a word for guys like me back then,” said Mr. Ryan of the 1960s. “Losers.”

But, he said, that was a different era. “My wife is far more ambitious than I am. I never aspired past a middle-class job; she wanted to get out there and succeed.”

Ms. Isdale proclaimed herself content with the arrangement. “I am married to the most amazing man; he’s sublimated his career aspirations for me,” she said. But she recognizes the humor in their role reversal. “When I get home, I just want to hang out and not talk to anyone because I talk to people all day long, and he’s been home with no one to talk to!”

Meanwhile, out in Fairfield, Conn.—a location for the 1975 film of the Ira Levin novel Stepford Wives—you’ll find Lincoln Hayes, 36, who gave up his career in the nonprofit world just a year ago to take care of two boys, ages 3 and 6. His wife, Bibie Wu, also 36, has continued her well-paying job as a business director at a consumer packaged goods company. 

“Sometimes, I think, ‘God, I’m a stay-at-home dad. How did this happen to me?’” Mr. Hayes said. “And my wife is like, ‘How did I become the working parent?’”

Mr. Hayes’ day, much like Mr. Ryan’s, consists of dropping kids off at school, connecting with stay-at-home parent friends, cooking meals and maintaining the house. “If my wife gets home in time, then we eat dinner together,” he said. “If not, then I tell the kids that mommy will be home right after dinner or by bedtime, depending on the night.”

Ms. Wu bristled at the idea that her husband’s masculinity might somehow be in question.

“It takes a certain kind of guy to be confident enough to stay home and still have a sense of identity,” she said. “Linc can easily choose to be in the corporate world and make a lot of money, but he chose to stay at home.”

Ah, choice—that fraught buzzword of 21st-century feminism!

But even as men proclaim themselves happy homemakers, some of their wives, or “partners” to use the popular parlance of the day, express ambivalence. “You appreciate a stay-at-home dad—as feminists, this is what we wanted!—but marriage now is all about equal partnership,” said the anonymous Brooklyn mom. “It works as a social system, but it’s not terribly erotic.”

She recalled a recent conversation between her husband and a SAHD of their acquaintance (the men had cooked, of course). “They were talking very intently about something that went on in preschool,” she said. “And I just completely glazed over, went a million miles away in my head. I thought, ‘Jesus, fellas, get a life!’”

By contrast: “Don Draper is a hero. He’s a dreamer.”

Her neighbor, Ms. Bernstein, agreed that there’s substance behind the swoon. “As much as I applaud the fact that we’ve grown more open-minded and there are choices available for women and men, it has certainly made things more complicated,” she said. “When our world is so chaotic, we tend to romanticize a time when men were men and women were women. Certainly, Don Draper is not making his wife very happy, but there is a strength to him. A stability.”

ialeksander@observer.com