Rise of the (Poor) Stay-at-Home Dad

There are more dads taking care of their kids now, but most are at home because they have few other options.

In 1987, the New York Times wrote a review about a book that followed 17 families with stay-at-home dads for five years. The good news? “The children [of those families] showed signs of accelerated intellectual development without any harm to the important sexual identification that develops during the first years of life,” the reviewer, Ari Goldman, wrote. Sadly though, “all the families endured criticism about the arrangement they chose—from grandparents, employers, friends and even from the other parents in the playground.”

One of the stay-at-home fathers in the study said the police once paid him a visit in response to a neighbor’s report that “a man is ‘keeping’ a young child in the apartment.”

Pew Research Center

Fortunately, times are changing. Moms still make up the vast majority of stay-at-home parents, but fathers represent a growing share, according to a new Pew survey. In 2012, 16 percent of stay-at-home parents were dads, up from just 10 percent in 1989.

That’s a somewhat positive storyline, but these dads’ reasons for being at home aren’t as uplifting. There has been a big jump in the number of fathers who say they’re at home primarily to take care of their families— it’s now 21 percent, compared to 5 percent in 1989. But Pew adds:

Still, the largest share of stay-at-home fathers (35 percent) is at home due to illness or disability. This is in sharp contrast to stay-at-home mothers, most of whom (73 percent) report that they are home specifically to care for their home or family; just 11 percent are home due to their own illness or disability.

In other words, mothers are still more likely to stay at home because they think it’s the best way to raise the kids; fathers are more likely to do it because they physically can’t work outside the home.

These fathers’ lack of options reflects in their educational attainment and on their families’ financial situations: Dads who stay at home are twice as likely to lack a high school diploma as working dads, Pew found, and they’re far more likely to be ill or disabled than stay-at-home mothers (35 percent to 11 percent). Importantly, nearly half of stay-at-home dads live in poverty (47 percent), while only 34 percent of stay-at-home mothers and 8 percent of working fathers do.

Pew Research Center

And society still doesn’t value stay-at-home dads as much as it does stay-at-home moms: While 51 percent of people say children are better off if their mom stays at home, only 8 percent feel the same way about fathers.

That’s discouraging, since moms are increasingly bringing home the bacon: four in 10 American households with kids under 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner— four times the 1960 number.

And in families where both parents work, it’s still moms who provide the bulk of the childcare. As Pew found in an earlier survey, women in dual-earner households spend 12 hours a week on childcare on average, compared to just 7 for men.

So while it’s encouraging that dads are increasingly playing full-time nanny, it’s clear that they’re not always doing so because they think it's the best arrangement for the kids. And when dads do work outside they home, they are far less likely to spend their free time changing diapers and preparing mac-n-cheese than moms are.

In the 1987 Times story, the book author, Yale clinical psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, said that even dads who don't stay at home “must be nurturers.”

As Goldman wrote, “Dr. Pruett advocates flexibility in the workplace, allowing for staggered hours, temporary leave time to deal with family needs and, especially, paternity leave policies for the first crucial weeks a baby is home.”

Today, only three states, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, offer paid leave for fathersSome things never change.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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