Some dads are just saying no to career opportunities

The Fontenot family visit a park near their home in Round Rock, Texas. Corey Fontenot, 35, switched from a more lucrative sales job to a more family friendly operations job after his first child was born.
Mish Whalen | NBC

A small but growing group of dads are making the same decisions moms have been making for years: Turning down a promotion, saying no to a job offer or even changing jobs because they want more time with their kids.

Experts say these kinds of dads are still a minority, but they signal a major shift in how men view their roles at home and at work.

"They weren't stuck on a certain view of masculinity that was all about being a breadwinner. They were redefining their roles and they were really feeling good about it," said Gayle Kaufman, a sociology professor at Davidson College, who interviewed dads who had made those trade-offs for her new book "Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century."

Corey Fontenot, 35, doesn't lament his decision to give up a more lucrative sales job in exchange for a less stressful operations job soon after his first child was born with health problems and terrible colic.

"I don't regret it because it's a family choice," he said. "They come first and that's all I can say. They're what matters."

Fontenot, who lives in Round Rock, Texas, was working irregular hours to meet intense sales targets for a large technology company when his son was born four years ago. He was totally unprepared for how tough it would be to juggle everything.

"You have to keep a paycheck coming in, but when it's a question of your wife's sanity for one thing (and) your children's health for another, there's really no question of where you should be, whether you should be at home or at work," he said.

The switch to operations gave him a regular schedule and the option to work from home sometimes. That flexibility came in handy again when his daughter, now 1, also was born with health problems.

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Both kids are now doing well, but Fontenot still values his flexible schedule because it allows him to drop off and pick up the kids from day care, and be available when a kid is sick or another emergency comes up. His wife, who works in education, has a hefty commute that leaves her with less flexibility during the day.

Still, there are trade-offs. Fontenot said money has occasionally been tight, and he worries that any move up the ladder would mean giving up some of the flexibility.

"I know full well that the next level is not going to leave me with as much freedom as I have now," he said.

'Time for me to pull my weight'

Josh Benoit, who turns 39 on Father's Day, didn't realize what he was missing out on at home until he was unexpectedly laid off from his job in the radio industry.

He suddenly found himself in the role of stay-at-home dad to his now 3- and 7-year-old boys: Helping his wife out with the morning routine, going on field trips, taking kids to appointments and hitting baseballs in the afternoon with his older son.

Benoit, who lives in Houston, was out of work from December of 2012 until November of 2013, when he took a part-time job in the radio industry. But after all the time with the kids, he said he realized that he didn't want to go back full time into a field where he wouldn't have the freedom to do things like drop his kids off at school in the morning.

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"I just wasn't willing to do it anymore," he said. "It was time for me to pull my weight."

A few months ago, Benoit took a more family friendly job in marketing. He's continued to do a little bit of radio, and he conceded it's been hard to give up the radio career he has loved so much. The new job also required some financial sacrifice, but he said it's been worth it.

"It's not been quite lateral as far as pay goes, but then again I make up for it in other areas," he said.

Corey Fontenot holds his daughter Cora as his wife Donna puts her hair in a ponytail.
Mish Whalen | NBC

Not wanting the 'old deal'

Joan Williams, who runs the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, said there have always been men who didn't want what she calls the "old deal," where they had to sacrifice family time to meet ambitious career goals.

What's new these days is that more dads—and especially professional dads—are speaking up about it, and making career changes to reflect their family priorities. Even the actor Rob Lowe has spoken publicly about choosing roles that allowed him to be a hands-on dad.

"They're willing to put their money where their mouth is," she said.

Still, Williams said she thinks the trend is often exaggerated, and that in many households men are still taking the bigger breadwinner role while moms are the ones juggling more home life duties.

That may partly be because men can face harsh repercussions if they do ask for a change at work to accommodate family needs.

"We see some changes in men's behavior, some changes in attitude," said Erin Kelly, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies work and family issues. "But we also know that these gender norms are very powerful, and that people who violate them can get slapped down or be at risk of getting slapped down."

Lessons from childhood

Some men say they are doing so in part because of their own experiences growing up with dads who didn't have as much time at home, or couldn't make similar changes themselves.

About eight years ago, an old friend approached Connally Baumann with an offer to move to a growing telecommunications company, at a time when his employment with his current company was uncertain. But the change would have required moving from the Dallas area to the Houston area, pulling his kids out of their schools and away from their friends.

Baumann, now 49, remembered how his own parents had moved several times during crucial periods of his childhood, and ultimately decided he didn't want to do the same thing to his own children.

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The company he turned down ended up being very successful, and if Baumann had taken the job he said he'd probably be making substantially more money. Instead, he kept his kids, now 15 and 19, in the same schools, and in the same house they've now lived in for 18 years.

He admits it's been a little bittersweet, but at the same time he didn't want to leave his kids in a vulnerable position.

"You try to do things for your children," he said.

—By CNBC's Allison Linn