What scene comes to mind when you envision a dad left in charge of his kids for the day? Is it a room with fresh crayon marks all over the walls, kids with food-smeared faces—nothing short of general chaos? While those tropes might be funny, they probably aren't all that accurate, especially nowadays, when more and more men are pitching in at home.
In fact, fathers now perform 4.6 more hours of childcare and 4.4 more hours of housework each week than they did in in 1965, according to a report from the White House Council of Economic Advisors. And dads say that involvement with responsibilities on the home front, particularly involving children, is increasingly important, as is finding a career and employer that will allow them to devote a significant portion of time to their family. In a study from the Boston College Center for Work and Family, 60 percent of the 1,029 fathers polled said that employer-provided, paid paternity or parental leave was important to them. This figure was significantly higher among younger men, with 93 percent of Millennial dads indicating that paid paternal leave was important to them.
Still, while opinions and priorities may have seen some cultural shifts, the balance between work and home is still a difficult one to strike. The vast majority of fathers surveyed for the Boston College study took only two weeks off for the arrival of a new baby, a period of time that correlated strongly with the amount of paid paternity or parental leave provided. When asked how much paternal leave they thought was appropriate, the majority of men said somewhere between two and four weeks, with younger dads erring towards longer leave. And some men choose not to take the maximum amount of time off from their jobs, fearing that they'll fall too far behind, or be seen as less dedicated employees.
While some fathers find themselves trying to create work schedules with additional flexibility, more fathers are assuming the role of primary caregiver. The number of stay-at-home dads has risen from 1.1 million in 1989 to 2.0 million in 2012, according to Pew. Why? For some fathers, they found themselves in the role due to circumstance: Temporary unemployment or disability can make dads the most logical option for childcare. But some fathers are home by choice, and because of a shift in labor dynamics as women reach higher educational and career attainment.
For Chris Tecala of Centerville, Virginia, who worked full-time in the audio visual field for a hospitality company, the question of who should stay home with the kids was an easy one to answer. "My salary equaled the cost of the yearly daycare of two, non potty-trained infants, which was about $40,000 a year," he said. "I would be working just for someone else to watch my kids and it just didn't make sense."
According to Pew, 24 percent of married women earn more than their husbands. The study also found that for married couples with children, women were the primary breadwinners in 37 percent of households. As women earn more and seek higher positions in more competitive fields, the decision of who should leave work to care for a sick child, or stay home altogether, has become less clear.
Now Tecala, who stays home during the week to watch his twin two-year-old boys, strikes a balance by working part-time for the same company during the weekends. Even once his boys are old enough to attend school, Tecala says he plans on continuing with a part-time schedule so he can "be there for them every step of the way."
The decision to remain active in the professional world, albeit in a scaled-back fashion, is fairly common, says Will Culp of the National At Home Dad Network, especially for those who plan to reenter the workforce after the kids get older.
Dan Baldwin, a stay-at-home dad from Baltimore says that his family's decision to rely on him as the primary caregiver was driven partially by finances, but also because of the lack of schedule flexibility at his former job. Baldwin used about seven weeks of paid leave thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act, but afterward, when he tried to discuss creating a more family-friendly schedule for his urban planning job, he said his employer offered up the equivalent of two days off per month. For his family, it simply wasn't enough, he said.
So Baldwin stays home to care for his son, David. He says he plans on returning to the working world, once any children he and his wife may have are old enough to attend school, but even then, there will still be a focus on flexibility so he can do things like attend field trips and soccer matches. "I think that going into a new job, that would be one of the things I would look for—that would weigh heavily on my decision about where to end up," he said.
Though they are the primary caregivers in their families, both Tecala and Baldwin make sure to note how involved their wives, both employed full-time, are in child rearing. "By the end of the day when she gets home, I like to have that break," Baldwin says. "She'll feed him dinner, give him a bath, and put him to bed. And that's when I'll get some cleaning done." Tecala describes a similar scene in his home.
But despite this scene of domestic bliss and cooperation, it still seems as if a large portion of Americans don't see stay-at-home dads and stay-at-home moms in the same light. Another Pew poll reported that, 51 percent of respondents felt that kids were better off with a mother who stayed home, and only 34 percent said that kids were just as well off if their mom worked. Those numbers change dramatically when you switch to the idea of a stay-at-home father. Only 8 percent of respondents said that children would be better off if their dad stayed home, while 76 percent said they'd be just as well off if their dad worked.
Culp says that these views, that deem that mothers are better suited to take care of the kids, contribute to flimsy pro-paternity leave policies at many organizations. "I think the bias against pro-paternity policies in the workplace starts with the notion that mothers are genetically better-suited for childcare," he said. "As long as employers see involved fathers as an impediment to productivity, any change toward more progressive paternity leave policies will be met with resistance."
While Baldwin and Tecala said that most people were positive about their decision to act as their child's primary caregiver, both had stories of odd looks or curious reactions that they had gotten from strangers, mostly women. Tecala described a look of confusion that he gets occasionally when he carts his twin boys around the supermarket. I asked him if that type of reaction upset him. "At first it bothered me, but now I just kind of shrug it off and laugh," he said. "I like to think that they're just jealous that they don't have a guy who's willing to look after the kids like I am."