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The Truth Behind the Stats on Stay-at-Home Dads

The TRUTH Behind Stay-at-Home Dad Stats
Photo via Pew Research Center

Are you a stay-at-home dad, or do you know a stay-at-home dad? Increasingly, the chances are you said YES to one or both of those questions.

In a report released last week, the Pew Research Center finds that the number of stay-at-home dads in this country has risen from about 1.1 million in 1989 to 2 million in 2012. More significantly, the number of dads who are staying at home primarily because they want to take care of their kids has risen from 5% to 21%. This represents a sea change in attitude, as more than four times as many stay-at-home dads are at home because they choose to be.

That’s great news, in that it demonstrates how gender roles are loosening in this country, so that men have no qualms minding their kids while their partners go off to work. However, the less great news, Pew writes, is that “the largest share of stay-at-home fathers (35%) is at home due to illness or disability. This is in sharp contrast to stay-at-home mothers, most of whom (73%) report that they are home specifically to care for their home or family; just 11% are home due to their own illness or disability.”

What’s been even less heartening is how the media has jumped on these numbers as if to say, “Ah-ha! This proves dads don’t really want to be home with their kids. They’re only doing it because they’re unemployed.” (For examples, see here and here.)

Sadly, that may be the case, but only because Pew defines stay-at-home fathers as “those fathers not employed for pay at all in the prior year and living at home with their children younger than 18.” This means that either the father is not contributing to the family budget because his partner earns enough to support him and the kid(s), or he’s unable to find a job. I don’t think this represents the nuanced situation in most middle class American households, where both partners contribute financially and domestically to the family’s survival.

felixanddadFor example, by Pew’s narrow definition, I have not been a stay-at-home father for the past four years, even though I’ve been my son’s primary caregiver while my wife works full-time. That’s because starting when he was one year old, I began making a small amount of money on my writing — work that I completed either while my son napped, in the evenings after my wife came home, or on the weekends while she took care of him. We needed the money for our budget, and it was important to me to keep a career going during this time. According to the U.S. Census and the Pew Research Center, that makes me a “working dad,” even though my wife’s salary accounts for the lion’s share of our family budget, and I’ve spent approximately 30 to 45 hours a week at home with my son since his birth.

This seems strange to me. Up until the past year, I’d hesitate to call myself a working dad because I know plenty of great fathers who work full-time. I didn’t feel like I belonged lumped in a category with them, and the majority of working dads I know didn’t count me in their camp. I think we need to redefine our definitions of stay-at-home parents to include parents who work some of the time. Otherwise, a bleak picture emerges of the American stay-at-home dad. Compared to a “working dad,” he is twice as likely to lack a high-school diploma. He is far more likely to be injured or disabled. And nearly half of stay-at-home dads live in poverty. As the National At-Home Dad Network puts it, the Pew study tells us less about men who are primary caregivers and more about men who are unemployed but have children. A big difference.

The portrait of stay-at-home moms in this country (who are also only counted if they make no income) is going to look different, because for decades staying at home with the kids has been a socially acceptable choice for mothers to make, while dads continue to fight against stereotypes that they’re not as good at taking care of their kids. Pew confirms this, finding that 51% said a child is better with a mother at home, while only 8% said the same about a dad. (I wonder what the answer was when asked whether a child is better off with a parent at home. That doesn’t appear to have been studied.)

Despite this continued stigma, attitudes among men — and not just stay-at-home dads, but all dads — are changing. The report finds that “working fathers with children under age 18 are just as likely as working mothers to say that it is difficult for them to balance the responsibilities of their job with the responsibilities of their family. In addition, roughly equal shares of working fathers (48%) and mothers (52%) said they would prefer to be at home raising their children, but they need to work because they need the income.” (As I’ve written before, men want to “have it all” too, but can’t. (No one can.)

I think that these attitudes demonstrate greater, more significant changes in this country’s view of fathers than the data on who makes up our stay-at-home dad communities. It’s because of men wanting to be a part of the childrearing and homemaking and also at work that we see The Daily Beast calling 2014 “The Year of the Dad,” and why Today Moms just rebranded itself Today Parents. The anecdotal evidence is clear: dads are contributing to their children’s daily lives in more significant ways now than ever. Don’t let the numbers fool you.

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