Statistics on Stay-At-Home Dads, and why the media needs to start digging deeper

Statistics on Stay-At-Home Dads, and why the media needs to start digging deeper

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.

~ Mark Twain

If you’re an at-home dad like myself, it’s always (well, usually) nice to see the odd piece in the media about what we do. When the goal is to make dad-as-caregiver be seen as a completely normal choice for a family, the more stories about “the rise of the Stay-At-Home Dad” the better, in my opinion. That I, and some of my friends, sometimes get asked to talk to the reporters writing these articles is nice too, I won’t lie. I love that there is a public conversation going on about this, far more than I feel the need to be in the midst of it, but when asked it probably comes as no surprise that I am happy to share my opinions.

It seems like there are others though that are getting tired of all this talk about us stay-at-home dads and our much ballyhooed “rise.”

The latest is this Atlantic piece by Jordan Weissmann, that seeks to dismiss with a hand-wave this shift in the parenting world as an insignificant, over-hyped blip. As part of this, he cites the latest 2012 US Census that counted 189,000 stay-at-home dads — about double what they were a decade ago — as still representing such a tiny number of dads that any talk about more fathers “choosing childcare over career” or a “shift towards gender equity in the age of the female breadwinner” is overblown. He even goes so far as to conclude, confusingly, that men are actually taking less responsibility now, even though he cites Pew Research studies that contradict such a statement.

There are (at least) two major problems with his conclusions, as I see it. But rather than address his article specifically, I actually want to speak more generally about why I think the US Census data is itself misleading, and why — especially in a discussion on men and childcare, gender equality, and female breadwinners — the actual number of Census-defined “stay-at-home dads” is mostly irrelevant.

“Stay-At-Home Dad” defined… poorly.

This is very old news for those of us who follow these things, but one bit of important information that is almost always left out of articles that mention the latest US Census number of stay-at-home fathers is that the definition of a “stay-at-home dad” used by the Census Bureau is simply too restrictive, and misleading when talking about how many men are actually primary caregivers for their children today.

The official definition of a stay-at-home dad is as follows: A married father with children under 15 years old who has remained out of the labor force for more than one year primarily so he can care for his family while his wife works outside the home.

This means that a guy who is at home (or at the park, or story-time, or grocery shopping, or the library…) with his young children for 8-10 hours a day on his own, 5 days a week, isn’t necessarily counted as a stay-at-home dad.

  • Done any work in the past year? Part-time? Freelance? Seasonal? Night-shift? Mowed lawns for pocket change? Hosted a Tupperware Party? You’re not a stay-at-home dad, says the US Census Bureau.
  • Write a blog about being a stay-at-home dad, but made $5 in Google Adsense revenue? BZZZT! Not a stay-at-home dad after all.
  • Looked for work during the past year? No need to actually apply to any, just perusing Craigslist occasionally and being “available” for work will do to make you part of the “labor force.” You don’t have to actually be employed. So nope, you’re not a stay-at-home dad.
  • Did you take on the job of primary caregiver this year after being laid off or quitting your job? Not so fast, daddy-o, you’re not a stay-at-home dad.
  • Gay? Single? Divorced? Cohabitating? Not married? Sorry, you’re not a stay-at-home dad either.
  • Are you doing it while your wife goes to school or works from her home office, rather than while she goes to work outside the home? No más! You are not a stay-at-home dad.

You should get the picture just how many functionally stay-at-home dads are eliminated from the count, likely including the majority of the dads you’ve been seeing on the playground and in the grocery store lately. But in case you still don’t get it, here’s a visual representation anyhow, courtesy of the National At-Home Dad Network.

In this photo below, you can see roughly 80 of the men who attended the 17th Annual At-Home Dad Convention. These men all act as primary caregivers to their children, full-time, and consider it such a vital part of their daily role that they attend a convention to hone their parenting craft and network with other dads who do the same thing:

Photo courtesy the National At-Home Dad Network.

Photo courtesy the National At-Home Dad Network.

Now, here are the attendees to the convention who actually fit the US Census definition described above (married, did not work, or look for work, for more than a year, while wife works full-time outside the home):

Photo courtesy the National At-Home Dad Network.

Photo courtesy the National At-Home Dad Network.

Less than half. And again, that’s among a group who actively embrace the role of “stay-at-home dad” and self-define that way enough to attend a convention about it.

Clearly, the numbers in the Census do not accurately represent how many dads are stepping up as caregivers for their children. Then again, the Census has shown itself to be struggling with how to count care-giving dads in other ways too — I’ve written before about how according to the US Census Bureau mom watching the kids is “parenting” while dad watching the kids is “providing child care.”

So, how many stay-at-home dads ARE there, exactly?

If you expand the definition to include dads who, in addition to the full-time responsibility of being primary caregiver for their children, also do some sort of part-time work, have looked for work, were laid off in the past year, are not married, etc.? Honestly, the real number is unknown, but one in-depth study suggests it could be as high as 1.4 million.

It’s also interesting to note that when not specifically and narrowly defining one as a “stay-at-home dad,” the US Census finds:

“Among fathers with a wife in the workforce, 32 percent were a regular source of care for their children under age 15, up from 26 percent in 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau reported today. Among these fathers with preschool-age children, one in five fathers was the primary caregiver, meaning their child spent more time in their care than any other type of arrangement.” (Source: census.gov)

No matter if it’s 189,000 or 1.4 million or somewhere in between, clearly fathers today are taking on a much larger responsibility for primary care for their young children than in previous generations.

Which brings us to…

The Deeper Story

Frankly, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked by a reporter about the rising number of at-home dads. But so far it seems my answer, and encouragement to dig deeper for the real story here, is an angle that is being largely ignored. My answer? The deeper story is not about the numbers at all.

When you read an article like the one in the Atlantic, complete with pretty charts, pointing out that even after doubling in the last decade, the percentage of stay-at-home parents who are dads is still almost insignificantly low, it can be easy to see why one might feel like at-home dads and our “rise” is being over-hyped. Yes, we’re still rare! Yes, the vast majority of dads still work outside of the home and do their completely awesome parenting before and after work and on weekends. I totally get that. I hate that the conversation about involved dads so often ignores how much more involved working dads are in their kids lives now too.

What’s been lost here though is the same thing that is lost every time the “rise” in stay-at-home dads is pinned on the “recession hitting traditionally male-dominated fields the most”: It’s not the numbers changing that is the big news, it’s our changing attitudes towards gender roles.

There have been recessions, and depressions, many times, that did not result in a sudden spike of stay-at-home dads. Those men didn’t suddenly show up at the park on a Wednesday morning in huge numbers, pushing strollers. They didn’t seek out playgroups, or ask diaper bag companies to make versions with fewer flowers and more camo.

Why? Because it is only recently that such an arrangement was even possible for most people, and dads have felt empowered to openly embrace the role.

In the recent past, if the husband was out of work, his wife could almost never be expected to be the sole breadwinner without the family living in poverty, and the husband considered a bum. Her choices were incredibly limited, and his role as breadwinner firmly established both by practicality and social pressure. If he lost his job, he did what he could to find another, because there was no other option. Even as women started entering the workplace in higher numbers, it took decades for them to climb the ladder into positions that could actually support a family comfortably enough that the father could stay home with the children, even if he wanted to. If a couple wished for one of them to stay home, it absolutely made sense that it be the wife, because she was almost certainly lower wage earner, and likely already socially groomed towards caring for the children.

But here in the 21st century, things have changed. Women are not limited in the same way they were 50 years ago. They graduate from college at higher rates than men. They can be doctors or lawyers or high-powered executives or engineers or run their own successful businesses. Certainly they still feel pressure to set aside their careers, just as men are still pressured to make monetary provision their major contribution to raising kids. But more and more are ignoring those pressures to fit into strict gender roles, in lieu of making choices for their family based on what’s practical, and on the goals and temperaments of each parent. Where a couple is fortunate enough that one of them is in a career that can financially support the family as the main breadwinner, it doesn’t have to be the husband for it to be a viable option for the other to stay home.

While the number of men making the decision to set aside their career to stay home with their kids is still, in the grand scheme of things, low, the more significant change is that a far greater number of men than ever are willing to do it. They are not only stepping up and taking on the role, but — more importantly, perhaps — doing so proudly and openly. More men than ever say they would do it if it made the most sense for their family. More men than ever report the same or higher anxiety about work-life balance issues as they try to be as involved in their children’s lives as possible.

So next time you find yourself rolling your eyes at yet another article about “The Rise of the Stay-At-Home Dad,” keep this in mind: it’s not about the change in numbers, it’s about the change in attitudes.

When will we start hearing more about that, I wonder?

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