And I think because they’re challenging this ideal, right? Men are expected to be breadwinners, to work, not to be stay-at-home dads. To take on this huge social norm, it’s good to have a support network to lean on and to reinforce that you’re making a good choice. That’s really important when bucking social trends.
Fetters: It surprised me how many men told you that stay-at-home moms and the stay-at-home-mom community were not welcoming to them.
Melzer: I wondered how much of this was in their heads and how much was just that those are the experiences that stood out to them, and they were downplaying and minimizing all the times they were invited to playgroup and so forth. There were a range of experiences, but it does seem to be the case in my research and others’ research that many of them have multiple experiences of just not feeling welcomed by stay-at-home moms, for a variety of reasons. I would anticipate that changing as stay-at-home dads become more prevalent and passersby don’t look at them and think, “It’s Daddy’s day off,” or question whether they have some sort of ulterior motive, like picking up moms on the playground.
Fetters: Do you think stay-at-home dads will rise in number over time?
Melzer: Long term, yes. I think that’s going to take some time and some significant shifts in our thoughts about work and gender roles. We saw a huge spike with the recession and then a significant decline, but I think all the long-term social trends indicate that yes, we should see more growth based on women’s desire to be breadwinners, based on increasing numbers of same-sex couples who are getting married and having kids, and some shifts among men and their desire to be engaged parents.
The distinct, positive impact of a good dad
If you look at younger generations, boys and men just express a much greater desire to prioritize family over work. But because they then encounter workplace cultures, an economic system, and a lack of family leave benefits that discourage them from prioritizing family, the change is slow. Perhaps when we start changing some laws, the U.S. might look more like northern European countries, and it’d be much easier for men to prioritize family a bit more and not feel like they’re failing as men when they make those decisions.
Fetters: It surprised me how much difference a supportive partner makes in whether men feel competent or fulfilled as a stay-at-home dad, particularly men who don’t end up staying home with their kids by choice.
Melzer: Partners really bolster unemployed men. Some of them talked about finding outlets including therapy or writing, but men are less likely to seek those sources of support. They’re more likely to be isolated, and have weaker social-relationship networks. So partners probably have an outsize presence for men in particular. Some partners are essential to help men stave off more serious depression and to—I don’t mean this in a condescending way—prop them up or pump up their egos a little, or just remind them, It’s not your fault, we’re in the midst of a recession. This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the economy.