What the Rising Number of Single Dads Says About Fatherhood in General

Nearly a quarter of single parents in the United States are men—a sign of how all fathers are taking a more active role with their kids.
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If my wife and I divorced, who would get the kid?

Obviously, if only for mental health reasons, this isn't the sort of hypothetical I want to spend any significant proportion of my time worrying about. But I'll admit it did flit across my mind while reading the recent Pew paper The Rise of Single Fathers. The report shows a massive, ninefold increase in single dads raising their kids, from around 297,000 in 1960 to 2.6 million today.

There are a number of factors that have contributed to this change. Some are the same factors that have contributed to the rise of single mothers. Divorce rates have stabilized, but they're still way higher than they were in the 1960s. Out-of-wedlock births are more common and less stigmatized than they used to be, too. Marriage has, since 1960, gotten less stable, and single parenting has gotten more accepted. As a result, you've got more single parents, of whatever gender, raising kids.

But single dads haven't just increased in absolute numbers. They've also increased as a percentage of all single parents. Back in 1960, single dads made up only 14 percent of single-parent headed households. Today that number has climbed to 24 percent--almost a quarter. Men's rights advocates would have you believe that feminism has systematically prevented men from gaining custody of children. Yet, according to this data at least, it seems like the (limited, but real) feminist gains of the last 50 years have actually coincided with greater parity. It's hard to say whether this is correlation or causation, but either way, it looks like folks who want more men getting custody should be rooting for more feminism, not less.

Again, the impetus behind the rising rates of single dads seems fairly straightforward. Another recent Pew study shows that the roles of moms and dads are converging: Women in marriage spend more than twice as much time on paid work as they did in 1965, while men spend more than twice as much time on childcare and housework. The continued gender disparities are a little startling -- women still spend on average twice as many hours on childcare as men do. But there's no doubt that men are looking after the kids in marriage far more than they did in the past. It's not a surprise that they are caring for kids when marriage ends, too.

The general trends certainly apply to my marriage -- and possibly would also apply if the marriage ended. I'm the primary caregiver in our family, mostly because I work from home and can ferry the boy hither and yon whenever the schedule calls for it, but also because the whole idea of ferrying hither and yon at the dictates of someone else's schedule (however charming that nine-year-old someone else may be) makes my wife exceedingly cranky. To be fair, she did warn me about this going in.

In any case, the point is that the considerations that make me the primary caregiver -- whether logistical or temperamental -- would, presumably, still be in play if my wife and I separated. Changing gender roles have let us organize our marriage in a way that would have looked quite odd to most people circa 1960. Those same changes make it more natural, or thinkable, for men to get the child or children in the event of a break up.

On the one hand, it's difficult to argue that more single dads is exactly a good thing. Single dads don't tend to provoke the same kind of moral panic and concern-trolling from cultural commentators that single moms do, but it's clear from the report that men raising kids alone struggle in many of the same ways, if not to the same extent, as do moms raising kids alone. Single father-headed households have a median income of $40,000 --well-above the $26,000 for single mother headed households, but far below the $70,000 for married father-headed households.

On the other hand, though, the fact that there are more single dads seems like an outgrowth of a series of developments that are positive in a lot of ways. I'm happy that I get to have a marriage where I do a lot of parenting. I like parenting. Similarly, my wife likes not having to do all the childcare the way her mom did. More single dads is a sign that guys have more roles open to them...and also, relatedly, a sign that women have more roles open to them. That the percentage of single dads is slowly approach the percentage of single moms is an indication that marriage, and society, are becoming a little more equal. Which seems like a good thing for moms, for dads, and for everybody else as well.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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