Will Station, a vice president at Boeing (second from left) plays with his children, Taylor (left) and Jaden, and his wife April, near their home in Newcastle, Wash. During the pandemic, Station has not traveled for work, so he's spent a lot more time at home with his family.

Will Station, a vice president at Boeing (second from left) plays with his children, Taylor (left) and Jaden, and his wife April, near their home in Newcastle, Wash. During the pandemic, Station has not traveled for work, so he's spent a lot more time at home with his family. / Jovelle Tamayo for NPR

Zachary Austrew is still trying to come to terms with what it means to be the sole breadwinner in his household.

"We're not that family where I go to work, and she stays home and cleans the house, and I expect dinner when I return," he says. "That's not how we operate."

And yet, with two young children stuck at home and Austrew's project management job deemed essential, they more or less are — for now. This summer, his wife Ashley quit her full-time job in marketing and is now homeschooling the kids.

"She was a homemaker almost immediately, and I was outside of the house," he says. "I definitely felt some guilt."

Many men are facing this new reality, as women have quit the workforce in droves recently. The number of women on U.S. payrolls overtook men for a brief period of three months through February this year. No longer.

And as schools have remained closed or partially closed, and child care options have dwindled, life for countless families has been upended. While women still shoulder the bulk of child care and household duties in America, many men are being forced to confront new realities at home.

Unlike Austrew, many others have found themselves out of a job, and single dads are finding ways to manage on their own. Whatever the situation, one thing is clear: The pandemic is taking fathers on all sorts of journeys they may never have chosen otherwise.

You can get a glimpse of Will Station's journey in a video he shared online this fall. Station knew his children were bummed about virtual learning. They didn't want to put on nice clothes or do their hair for the annual first-day-of-school picture. They just wanted to get it over with and go back to the living room.

To shake things up, he turned on some music, sent the kids out the front door with their backpacks, and had them turn around and ring the doorbell. He then greeted them back with a big welcome and what he called a silly dance. Instantly, everyone's mood brightened. It set a new tone for the school year, one that has turned out to be as different for dad as it is for the kids.

Station, a vice president at Boeing, normally travels several times a month for work, logging as many as 200,000 miles a year. His wife April, who works full-time for Microsoft, was the parent who looked after most of their children's school needs. Station says he often did not know the names of his kids' teachers.

"My wife would tell me obviously, and if I had time, maybe I'd meet them, you know, once or twice a year," he says. Now, with online schooling, he not only sees the teachers regularly (online) but watches how they interact with his children.

Station with his children, Taylor (left) and Jaden.

Station with his children, Taylor (left) and Jaden. / Jovelle Tamayo for NPR

"I got to see my kids and see their world in a way that I've never experienced before," he says. "It's very special."

Station hasn't traveled for work since February, and while he's still logging a lot of hours from home, he is overseeing more of the schoolwork than ever and spending more time with the children. He gets emotional thinking about how much he's missed and how much he's getting to experience now.

"Even with all the chaos, this has been a bonus year for me," Station says.

Eight months into the pandemic, the shift in how fathers view their responsibilities at home is worth watching, says economist Misty Heggeness of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Gender inequality in the workforce is driven in part by similar forces in the domestic sphere. Far more mothers than fathers interrupt or scale back their careers to care for young children and manage the household. Eroding or eliminating the imbalance on the home front will likely lead to greater equality in the labor market, Heggeness says.

Anecdotally, you hear many stories of dads stepping up in the pandemic. Census data also suggest a larger number of men are spending more time at home. Heggeness examined data from a subset of fathers: those who live with school-age children. She found 50% more of them were not actively working this fall compared with a year ago. This includes fathers who are not working and not looking for work, and fathers who might have taken sick leave or administrative leave or were on vacation.

It also includes unemployed fathers like Nathan Bieck. Early this year, Bieck was putting in long days preparing for the April grand opening of the new Loews Hotel in downtown Kansas City: 800 rooms, 60,000 square feet of meeting and event space.

"We had giant media events planned. People flying in from all over to cut ribbons," says Bieck, who worked in business travel sales. Those plans were scrapped when the nation went into lockdown. By early May, Bieck was furloughed.

Meanwhile his wife Ashley was going bonkers at her job in health care, working 16-hour days dealing with changing policies surrounding COVID-19 payments and reimbursements.

"It's a complete role reversal, from the laundry to the food," Nathan Bieck says of their home life. "I'm a much better cook than I was six months ago."

With their 9-year-old daughter Maddie in remote school, he has also assumed another role.

"I am Teacher Dad," he says. "I get up every morning, and I wake her up, get her breakfast ready. We get her online."

Under his tutelage, Maddie's reading and math scores have gone way up, an achievement he proudly shares. He may not be bringing in a bunch of money for the family, he says, but "this one, I can say hey, maybe this is working."

While Maddie is in class, Bieck has been applying for jobs. At 45, he says the process can feel humiliating. He prays for the day that his boss calls him to say the hotel, which opened in June under strict COVID-19 restrictions, is ready to bring him back. But who knows when that might be? It's just a really tough market, he says.

Meanwhile, Austrew has not had to worry about job security this year. He's been with his company for 14 years, and even in the pandemic, new opportunities have come up — positions he might have sprung for in normal times. Instead, he's choosing to play it safe, not wanting to rock the boat and add more strain on his family.

"The stability of my career is the most important thing that we have financially right now," he says. "I want to do my day-to-day activities as quickly and efficiently as possible, so I can get home and deal with all the other ... stresses that we're not used to having."

He feels he owes that to his family, and especially to his wife, whose career is on hold for the foreseeable future.

"One day I hope to make it up to her," he says. "Hopefully after everything returns back to some sense of normalcy, she can return to what she really wants to do. And I'll definitely support her any way I can."

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