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The Surprising Truth about the Number of Stay-at-Home Dads in America

Are more dads REALLY deciding to stay-at-home with the kids?Are there really more stay-at-home dads in America today than there were in the past?

The U.S. Census says YES, the number of dads acting as primary caregivers has more than doubled in the past ten years. Certainly more fathers than ever are writing about their parenting lives online and in the media, while television shows like A&E’s Modern Dads depict men as primary caregivers. Fatherhood seems to be a hot topic in America today, and yet TheAtlantic.com reports that statistically, the rise of stay-at-home dads is overhyped.

The argument goes like this: Yes, the number of stay-at-home dads is up, author Jordan Weissmann writes, “from about 76,000 in 1994 to 189,000 as of last year.” However, among all married couples with children under the age of 15, only 0.8% of couples include a stay-at-home dad, while 23% include a stay-at-home mom. Furthermore, the census doesn’t account for single parents, the majority of whom are women. And in homes where women and men both work, a Pew research study finds that women on average spend more hours a week on childcare (12 hours) than men (7 hours). Weisman concludes his article with the assessment that, contrary to what trend pieces about dads would like us to believe, more men are “leaning out” (my phrase, not his) of family life, and doing less caregiving.

Up until that point, I was with Weissmann. No surprise that being a stay-at-home dad isn’t a hot new craze— most of the trends that appear in The New York Times‘ Style section are not — it’s just that the men who decide to do it are more visible and vocal today then ever before.

However, the idea that fathers as a whole aren’t taking on more of the caregiving work, and work in the domestic sphere in general, doesn’t sync with my experiences personally. When I take a walk around Brooklyn on a Saturday morning, I see families — fathers included — heading into Prospect Park for outings, or shopping at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. I also see dads escorting the kids on their own. In fact, I find more dads than moms at my local playground on the weekend.

Now, I will be the first to admit that my experiences here in downtown, brownstone Brooklyn may not align with the majority of Americans’. So I did a little digging into the Pew Research study that Weissmann cites, and found that the study’s spin was far more positive regarding gender equality than one would glean from Weissmann’s article. The Pew overview begins:

The way mothers and fathers spend their time has changed dramatically in the past half century. Dads are doing more housework and child care; moms more paid work outside the home. Neither has overtaken the other in their “traditional” realms, but their roles are converging, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of long-term data on time use.

It is true that the Pew study found, on average, dads do less of the childcare in American than women. However, when Pew combined the amount of hours men and women spend on paid work, child care, and housework, they found that men and women come out roughly equal. Furthermore, men and women are alike in their worrying about balancing work and family life 50% of men, and 56% of women say juggling the two is difficult a significant statistic, because it indicates a shift in values. At least half of American men don’t find it enough to simply provide financially for their families. They want to be emotionally engaged and contribute to the childrearing as well.

On his blog The Daddy Doctrines, Chris Routly also takes issue with the statistics Weissmann cites, but comes at it from a different angle. Routly argues that the Census Bureau’s definition of a stay-at-home dad is overly restrictive “A married father with children under 15 years old who has remained out of the labor force for more than one year primarily so he can care for his family while his wife works outside the home.”

This means that if you’ve done any work while at home with your children, or looked for work, or are in a domestic partnership, or a divorced dad, or a gay man, or unmarried, or stayed at home for less than a year, then you’re not counted as a stay-at-home dad. And while the narrowly defined group of stay-at-home dads might not be that large in the grand scheme of things, the Census Bureau does find that 32% of dads provide some form of care for their children, up from 26% in 2002. Again, an important statistic that points to shifting attitudes in gender roles.

So while Weissmann makes an important point that the reality of how parents split their childcare duties is not as equal as many media reports would like us to believe, I think that he’s over-hyping his critique. The parenting landscape is in the process of transforming, and many American dads are taking an active part in that transformation. I would have liked to have seen a more positive spin on Weissmann’s part, calling for increased rigor on the part of American dads to affect not just attitudinal change, but actual change in the amount of time they spend working professionally versus working within the home. Despite his naysaying, I still think this country is going in the right direction. Whether I’m listening to the latest Jay-Z album, browsing the many dad blogs online and here at Babble, or hanging out with dad friends on my stoop, all evidence points to this country moving toward parenting equality, not away from it.

What do you think? Are gender roles in American families becoming more equal, or are dads still lagging behind in the amount they contribute to childcare and housework?

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