The message that the American father “ain’t who he used to be” has echoed throughout the country and begun to challenge our views of traditional gender roles. As revealed in the Center’s previous two research reports in The New Dad series, today’s fathers seek to play a much more active role in raising their children, and nowhere is that desire more keenly manifested than in the small but rapidly growing group of stay-at-home fathers.
Last month we released the results of our latest study, The New Dad: Right At Home which continued our look at the changing role of fathers in America. The study included in-depth interviews with 31 at-home fathers. While the number of full-time, stay-at-home dads remains small, 3.4% of all stay-at-home parents, that number has doubled over the last decade. Some estimates have put the number of fathers who are now the primary caregivers in the US as high as 2 million. Beyond this number, we are also seeing an attitudinal shift among working men about their role in hands-on parenting. In our 2010 study, The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted, 53% of the nearly 1,000 fathers we surveyed indicated that they would be comfortable being an at-home father if their spouse had sufficient earnings to allow them to do so. That numbers may suggest that the relatively small number of those who are at-home dads may be “canaries in the coalmine” as all fathers increase their role in caregiving.
The fathers in our current study have made the commitment to be the primary caregivers in their families. Our research sought to better understand why they chose to leave the workforce, the challenges and successes they have experienced, and the impact that being at-home has had on their families, and most especially, their working wives. Some of our significant findings included:
- In spite of all the media “hype” regarding laid-off fathers who re-invent themselves as full-time caregivers, that image did not match the data we reviewed or our experiences in speaking with at-home fathers. We found that in most cases being at home was a choice, often made by both spouses for pragmatic and value-driven reasons, not simply a reaction to an unanticipated lay-off. An out of work father may be providing dependent care during his period of unemployment, but this may not commit him to identify with the role of at-home father.
- Like women who are at-home parents, men who make this decision face a number of obstacles and challenges, which they feel even more acutely than their female counterparts. Feelings of social isolation, loss of an adult network, uncertainty about future career plans, and concerns about how future potential employers will perceive them are all matters of great concern. For example, research we found regarding at-home fathers suggests thatfeelings of social isolation are significantly greater for men than women.
- At-home dads make very good parents. Not only did the fathers we interviewed view themselves as good parents, but their spouses strongly confirmed their assessments. The at-home fathers were clearly devoted to their children and active, involved parents. Much like our image of the competent and caring at-home mom, these fathers are committed to their children, supportive of their spouses, and doing the myriad of daily tasks needed to maintain their households (even if in a few cases their assessment of a clean house fell slightly short of their wives’ standards).
- In addition to exploring the effects of at-home fathering on the men in our study, we also gathered data from the men’s spouses. Not surprisingly, we found that having an at-home husband greatly facilitated the careers of their working partners. The overwhelming response from the wives was that this arrangement had enabled them to pursue their careers in a much more assertive fashion without the limitations that virtually all other working mothers experience.
- Very often, we focus on work-family conflict and the “burdens and responsibilities” of parenting that mostly fall to American mothers. However,we should not let this conflict / burden paradigm lead us to forget the richness and rewards that also go with parenting. The men we interviewed made it clear that they relish the opportunity to be primary players in their children’s lives and were very cognizant of the fact that they were enjoying meaningful relationships with their children that most men never enjoy to the same degree.
Men’s involvement in raising the next generation of American children is clearly on the rise. While the number of at-home fathers is still small when compared to fathers who work outside the home, it is clear that most fathers will be more engaged with their children in the future than was the case in the previous generation. While that brings with it new challenges and work-family arrangements for many men (and employers), our research suggests that the benefits of fathers’ greater active involvement with their children will likely outweigh the costs in men’s lives. As these changes occur, however slowly and awkwardly, we should never forget what a difference a dad makes.
I hope your summer is off to a great start !!
Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family. This post originally appeared in our member newsletter.