And they don’t want to be called Mr. Mom anymore. In fact, the growing At-Home Dad’s Network has been leading a campaign to get the term banished from the English language.
“Back in the 1980s, ‘Mr. Mom’ was a way to describe a man who was taking care of children, because that was seen as women’s work,” said Al Watts, president of the National At-Home Dad Network. “But now there’s been a great change in society. And there’s a great term for a guy who takes care of his kids. It’s ‘Dad.’”
And while at-home dads still face stigma – surveys show that society rewards at-home mothers, but still wonders why at-home fathers aren’t at work – Watts said his organization is taking that uneasiness about caregiving men head on: His organization has begun handing out “Man Cards” that read “As an actively involved dad, you are the manliest of men.”
Watts and his organization are part of the fast-growing share of dads who are staying home because that’s what they and their families have chosen. The new Pew Research Center report found that in 1989, only 5 percent of the 1.1 million at-home fathers said they were home to be primary caregivers. That share has increased four-fold now to 21 percent, a sign not only of the power of economics in reshaping traditional family structures, but of shifting gender norms.
“The assumption that a lot of people make is that the number of stay-at-home dads went up because of the recession. And while that’s absolutely true, even if you take out that trend altogether, the fact is the number has been going up over time, regardless. And the biggest increase is in the share of fathers who want to stay home to take care of kids,” said Gretchen Livingston, author of the new report. “That’s very striking.”
Other surveys have found that men today, particularly younger men, say being a good father outweighs their ambition at work. Boston College’s Center for Work and Family found in a recent survey that 77 percent of the fathers wished they had more time to spend with their kids and more than half said that, if given the choice and if finances permitted, they’d prefer to quit their jobs and stay home to take care of the kids.
In the Pew Research report, the share of fathers home because they themselves are ill or disabled has dropped from more than half of all at-home fathers in 1989 to about one-third. And the share of fathers who are home with kids because they’re in school, retired or for other reasons has dropped only slightly in the past 25 years, from 25 to 22 percent.
About half of all at-home fathers are white, 20 percent Hispanic and 16 percent African American, according to the report. Livingston also found that at-home fathers tend to be quite a bit older, poorer and have less education than their working father counterparts. And, unlike trends with at-home mothers, where a recent Pew Research report found a disproportionate share of foreign-born mothers stay home, at-home dads are fairly evenly distributed between immigrant and U.S.-born.
While the number of at-home fathers has been on the rise, the actual number is in dispute, in part, Livingston said, because there just isn’t a lot of information collected about dads not at work. Livingston used the Current Population Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and included fathers ages 18 to 69 who reported living with at least one child younger than 18 who has not worked for pay in the prior year.
The Census Bureau limits the definition of at-home fathers to those living with children younger than 15 who are home as primary caretakers. That’s the fastest growing segment of at-home fathers and now stands at around 214,000. Some at-home father groups say the number could be as high as 7 million, because they also include the number of fathers who say they are primary caretakers, but may work part-time out of the home.
“As with dad data in general, there just isn’t a whole lot of information out there,” Livingston said. “For so long, the thinking has been, ‘Dads go to work, that’s what they do, so that’s how we’ll study them.’ But maybe as we see more dads as caregivers and that becomes more normal, maybe we’ll move toward more research that does look at all that dads do.”
The handful of researchers who study fathers say that the dearth of information available on fathers outside their roles as primary breadwinners extends to science as well. It was only in the past few years that scientists found that men, like women, have hormonal and neurological changes once they become parents. When they become fathers, men, too, produce estrogen and prolactin, the hormone associated with producing breast milk, their testosterone levels drop and their production of the bonding hormone, oxytocin rises.
“We discovered that men produced these hormones by accident – by doing thyroid studies,” said Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center who has long studied fathers.
Pruett and a handful of others who study fathers have found that, contrary to the cultural view that mothers are key to child development while fathers are merely providers and bystanders, involved and active fathers strengthen child development. “Being an involved father changes him, his health, the nature of his relationships, his job satisfaction, his warmth. It changes the child, and improves the child’s chances for well-being and the ability to deal with the kinds of everyday stresses in their lives,” Pruett said.
In fact, Pruett said, the emerging science should not come as a shock. The distant, provider father only emerged as a cultural ideal during the Industrial Revolution. “During the pre-industrial period, men were very close to their kids. They worked together in the field. They spent a lot of time with them,” he said. “This artificial polarization of Dads Who Work and Moms Who Care started very recently with the Industrial Revolution. Well, the factories have shut down. Today, 86 percent of fathers feel they want to be more involved with their children than their fathers were with them. We should give them support and help, not only in the home, but also in the workplace.”
Although the Pew Research report notes that at-home fathers still face stigma – some at-home dads will tell outsiders that they’re “consultants” – and are not as rewarded for care-taking as are mothers, at-home fathers like Mike Stilwell, co-founder of the growing National At-Home Dad Network, say that society has come a long way.
When Stilwell, who lives in Fairfax County, began staying home to care for his three children more than a decade ago, fathers taking their children to the parks in the middle of the day was an oddity. One such at-home Dad in Montgomery County was actually approached by some mothers and asked why he wasn’t at work, Stilwell said. Not satisfied with his answer that he was an at-home dad, they called the police.
“That was pretty shocking. But things are changing,” he said. “You go to a park now, you may see a group of dads talking to other dads, or hanging out and talking to moms. The more and more dads taking care of kids becomes acceptable to people, and the more they see how natural it is for a father to do it, I think it’s going to keep getting better. I just wish I’d done it earlier.”
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