The number of dads who stay at home with their children rather than go to work has nearly doubled since 1989, according to new statistics from Pew Research Center, but dads comprise just 16 percent of all stay-at-home parents.
Although the majority of fathers stay home due to uncontrollable forces such as illness and employment, many more fathers than before are choosing to stay at home and be the primary caretakers of the house and children while their wives support the family.
“The economic recession led many fathers to stay at home,” said Gretchen Livingston, the main author of the Pew report. “But we’ve seen continuing growth across the decades. The roles of mothers and fathers have converged to some extent.”
The Pew study considers a stay-at-home dad to be any father "not employed for pay at all in the prior year and living at home with their children younger than 18."
Under that definition, the number of stay-at-home dads in the United States in 2012 was 2 million — a 91 percent increase from 1989.
The researchers found four main reasons for fathers to stay home: caring for home/family, unable to find work, ill or disabled, and in school/retired/other.
Gaining confidence in their roles
The fathers who stay home to care for their family was the fastest-growing demographic over the last two decades. In 1989, 5 percent of fathers said they stayed home to care for the children. In 2012, that number had risen to 21 percent, a fourfold increase.
Livingston attributes this increase to shifting gender roles that allow more women to work outside the home and more men to stay home and parent.
Al Watts, president of the National At-Home Dad Network and a stay-at-home dad, agrees.
“The economics of gender has really begun to change in a dramatic way. There are simply more opportunities for men to make this choice than they had even 10 years ago,” Watts said.
However, stay-at-home fathers still account for only 7 percent of total fathers who live with their children.
“The public puts a high value on stay-at-home moms, but it’s not the case for fathers” Livingston said.
Although fathers gained more freedom to stay home in recent years, another Pew Research Center survey from 2013 indicates that more people believe that children are better off when the mother stays home (51 percent), rather than the father (8 percent).
Over the 11 years Watts has been a stay-at-home dad, he has seen a shift in public opinion when it comes to gender roles.
“Society is beginning to see that more and more men are taking this role and not losing their masculinity,” he said.
Watts believes that as society continues to change to allow individuals more liberty to choose an unorthodox life path, more fathers will decide to be the primary caretakers for their children.
“When I started staying home, I thought I was the only man in the world who was doing this. But as I began to get more comfortable just being a parent in general and as the primary caregiver, and also I began to meet more stay-at-home dads that were like me, so I didn’t feel like I was alone or a freak. That really helped me build my confidence up.”
The At-Home Dad Network sponsors an annual convention, now in it’s 19th year, to empower, support and advise fathers who choose to be the primary caretakers for their children. Watts hopes that as stay-at-home fathers become more common in society, more fathers will be willing to “come out of the pantry” and be proud of their role.
Outside factors at play
The economic recession that lasted from 2007 to 2009 drove many fathers out of the workforce, causing the number of at-home dads to peak at 2.2 million in 2010.
The majority of fathers stay home because of illness or disability, although the percentage has shrunk considerably: 35 percent in 2012, compared to 56 percent in 1989.
Other men are unable to find work, either because the economy is struggling or because the men don’t have the educational qualifications necessary.
“Among dads who live with their children, those with the lowest levels of education are among the most likely to be stay-at-home dads,” Livingston wrote in the report.
Only 3 percent of fathers with a bachelor’s degree or higher stay at home full time, while 14 percent of fathers who lack a high school diploma do likewise.
Nearly half of stay-at-home fathers live in poverty, compared to 8 percent of working fathers. The poor economy and the comparatively low educational attainment rates are factors, as is the fact that not every stay-at-home father has a spouse who can support the family.
Race and ethnicity also factor into whether a man is more likely to be a stay-at-home father.
“Black fathers who live with their children are the most likely to be stay-at-home fathers — fully 13 percent were in 2012. Among Hispanics and Asian Americans, the share is 8 percent; and 6 percent of white fathers who live with their kids are not working outside of the home,” wrote the authors of the report.
Despite the general increase, “it’s important to keep stay at home fathers in perspective,” Livingston cautions. “We’re not claiming that all stay-at-home parents are fathers; the vast majority are still mothers.”
Livingston isn’t sure if the increase will continue, but she points out that the numbers have steadily increased since 1989, even after the recession, indicating that more and more stay-at-home fathers are choosing the caretaker path.
Watts is more optimistic.
“The trend will absolutely continue. Women are going to have more economic opportunities, and because of that, men will have the more flexibility to do the things they want to do. A lot of fathers choose this role because they want to do it, not because they have to do it,” he said.