Yesterday, Pew Research released a new report, based on an analysis of recent research into stay-at-home dads. You may have seen something about it already, but if you haven’t seen it, you can read the full report here.
Obviously, the report includes a number of findings that are quite significant to the National At-Home Dad Network and the dads we represent. Some of those findings are extremely positive, others are sobering, the majority of the media’s interpretation even more so. While the positive data certainly gives us great hope that the changes we see in our communities and families are becoming more and more accepted in our society, there are also several troubling aspects of the study — and more specifically how the data has, in one short day, already been presented in a light that we feel negatively reflects on stay-at-home fathers.
A Note About Definitions
We at the National At-Home Dad Network often find ourselves speaking out about the definition of what makes a “stay-at-home dad,” particularly because the definition used by the U.S. Census is, in our view, needlessly narrow and severely underreports the number of dads who are regular primary caregivers to their children. As a result, public discourse about stay-at-home dads, particularly media stories that draw their facts from Census data, is often framed using numbers that make stay-at-home dads appear to be far more rare than they are.
While we are ecstatic to see Pew Research speak about their being over 2 million stay-at-home dads in the United States in 2012, we also have major concerns with their definition, which defines stay-at-home dads as “men ages 18-69 who are living with their own children (biological, step or adopted) younger than 18, not employed for pay at all in the prior year.” Even though this definition, like that of the U.S. Census, would appear to exclude any dad who does some work, it also seems dangerously over broad by counting all dads who are out of the workforce.
Sadly, their decision to use this definition means their study is not truly about “stay-at-home dads,” but rather about dads of young children who are unemployed. There is a difference.
While we think their research is significant and we stand by our excitement about how it represents a major shift in public and private attitudes about fathers as caregivers, we think it is a problem to continue to define stay-at-home dads based on employment status and, to present a report on “Why Dads Are Not At Work” as “Why Dads Become Stay-At-Home Dads,” is inaccurate and somewhat misleading. The U.S. Census definition disqualifies far too many men from being counted because they work or seek work of any kind during the year, while it appears the Pew Research definition counts too many by making “dad who was unemployed last year” synonymous with “stay-at-home dad.” We believe that a closer definition needs to be based on a father’s regular role as primary caregiver, not his employment status.
The Good News
The highlight of the report, and the point that Pew Research makes clear is the most significant takeaway, is that “the biggest contributor to long-term growth in these ‘stay-at-home fathers’ is the rising number of fathers who are at home primarily to care for their family.” This is shown by a massive increase, from 5% in 1989 to 21% in 2012, in men who say that they are home to care for their family rather than due to lack of employment, illness or disability, or because they are retired or going to school.
Even if, given the very broad definition being used by Pew Research to count stay-at-home dads, you only count the 21% of their 2 million dads that are in the role by choice (420,000), that is more than double the number of stay-at-home dads given by the U.S. Census (roughly 214,000 in 2013). Whether those who are unable to find work, home due to injury, illness, school or retirement are also filling the role of primary caregiver is an unknown in this study (all we know is they have kids at home), but surely we can all agree that those dads who do claim care-giving as their reason for being home count, and represent a major shift.
This has certainly been our experience as well, where a larger and larger percentage of the stay-at-home dads whom we serve are in the role as a result of a choice for them to be the primary caregiver to their children, rather than because of unemployment or inability to work due to disability. Even then, many of those who become stay-at-home dads via a change in employment status or because of an injury can and do still make the choice to embrace the role, and can and do thrive in it. Often unemployment may spark the change in role, but success at home, practical family need, and the benefits of having a parent at home make the distinction between those who chose the role from the beginning and those who were more “forced” into the role fairly small. A man’s attitude about his role is the most important ingredient to his success and contentment, not how he came to it.
We believe this increase in the number of dads reporting they are staying home as caregivers represents more than simply an increase in numbers over the past 23 years, it also stands as a stark reminder of the significant shift in attitudes — both those of society as a whole, and those of individual dads — about a father’s role in the family and the importance of career over family. In 1989, a father who was home with his children rather than working outside the home would far more easily find social acceptance and less judgement if it was due to injury, illness, a sluggish economy, or unavoidable layoffs. His willingness to “step up” at home would be lauded, but seen as either a stop-gap role until employment could be found, or as an acceptable way for a man who is unable to work outside the home to contribute. Fathers who did not work, and explained it to be because they took on the role of caregiver, were far more harshly judged.
Today, though, while those deeply ingrained attitudes remain in many places, the idea of a dad making the choice to stay out of the workforce for the purpose of raising his children is far more accepted.
The Sobering News
The study is not all good news, unfortunately, particularly in the numbers we see about poverty among stay-at-home dads (47%), even though this shouldn’t be a surprise given that the data counts any unemployed dad, regardless of whether his partner works or not. Still, this is important information, especially as we seek to combat the perception that your average stay-at-home dad is in the role because their spouse is a professional or executive who makes such a significant amount of money that they don’t need to work. A large percentage of men who are primary caregivers for their kids also do additional work in order to help their family make ends meet, and many struggle to do so each month. For most, having one parent stay home is not a luxury they enjoy, but made possible by sacrificing other things. It’s a good reminder about why we have scholarships available for dads wishing to attend our annual At-Home Dads Conventions, as a large number of the dads we serve can only come with financial assistance.
The study also points out that, using their definition, the most common reason a dad of young children is at home and out of the workforce is because of illness or disability (35%). We have many valued members in the NAHDN for whom this would be an accurate description of their situation when it comes to why they cannot work, but that doesn’t mean for all of them it is why they are a stay-at-home dad. Similar to the numbers on poverty, this is a hard number to parse, since a man not working for this reason absolutely does not mean he is then a stay-at-home dad, simply because he has children. An illness or disability that prevents a man from working outside the home is just as likely to make being the day-to-day primary caregiver for his children just as difficult, or he could be under care himself. It seems to us very misleading to point to illness or injury as the prime reason a father becomes a stay-at-home dad.
The other sobering news comes by reading about how the media is reporting on this new research. While some are seeing the same positives we do, others are seeking to dwell on the negatives, or interpret the data to mean that most stay-at-home dads are “forced” into the role. Within 24 hours we already had one article recognizing the complexity of the issue, but still falling back on allusions to “Mr. Mom,” while another chose to present the data framed as evidence that stay-at-home dads do what they do because they have no other choice, latching on to the statistics about illness and disability discussed above. One article even took the latter’s spin and then went so far as to describe stay-at-home dads as “playing full-time nanny” to their kids.
Dads are parents, not nannies.
We strongly believe the recent Pew Research report shows impressive and encouraging progress for stay-at-home dads.
That said, in the words of Dad 2.o Summit founder Doug French, “We still have work to do.”