A new analysis of US Census Bureau data by the Pew Research Center finds that stay-at-home fathers are becoming more common, suggesting a slow shift in parental roles that Pew says is driven by more than just economic considerations:
The stay-at-home share of U.S. parents was almost identical to what it was in 1989, but there has been a modest increase among fathers. The share of dads at home rose from 4% to 7%, while the share of moms staying at home remained largely unchanged – 27% in 2016 versus 28% about a quarter-century earlier. As a result, 17% of all stay-at-home parents in 2016 were fathers, up from 10% in 1989, the first year for which reliable data on fathers are available. …
However, the long-term uptick in dads at home is not driven solely by economic factors. The modest increase is apparent even after excluding those who were home due to unemployment. Furthermore, a growing share of stay-at-home fathers say they are home specifically to care for their home or family, suggesting that changing gender roles may be at play. About a quarter (24%) of stay-at-home fathers say they are home for this reason. Stay-at-home mothers remain far more likely than dads to say they are home to care for family – 78% say so.
Pew also finds that Millennial parents are more likely to be at home with their children than Gen X parents were at the same age in 1999-2000, with a particularly significant jump among fathers from 3 to 6 percent. A larger proportion of Millennial dads are staying home deliberately to care for family, rather than as a result of unemployment or for some other reason.
Identifying “stay-at-home parents” is increasingly difficult in the era of remote work and the gig economy, which Pew acknowledges. Parents are defined as “stay-at-home” based on their employment status during the year prior to the survey, which is similar to how the Census Bureau categorizes them:
However, the Census Bureau limits the definition of stay-at-home parents to married people living with a child under the age of 15 who state that they were home for the entire year in order to care for home and family, as well as that they have an opposite-sex spouse who was in the labor force all year. The definition used here encompasses any parent of a child younger than 18 who has not worked for pay in the prior year, regardless of the reason, and regardless of their marital status or the employment status of their spouse or partner.
That caveat suggests this analysis doesn’t count working parents who are primarily occupied with child care and household maintenance but who also generate income by working part-time or freelancing from home. Pew found that parents who stay at home to care for family are more likely to have a college degree than whose who are home for other reasons and much more likely to have a working spouse, reflecting the reality that low-income families are less able to get by on just one parent’s earnings.
Expanding the definition of “stay-at-home parents” to include those who work remotely or part-time would likely increase their numbers considerably, for both mothers and fathers. According to the National At-Home Dad Network, “many at-home dads also provide some income to the family, whether by working an evening or weekend shift full-time, working part-time inside or outside the home, or doing odd jobs when it works into the family’s schedule.” For this reason, the network prefers to define at-home dads by their caregiving responsibilities rather than their employment status.
In any case, Pew’s analysis is not the first to find that the number of voluntary stay-at-home dads in the US is increasing: A similar analysis last year showed that the percentage of stay-at-home dads not looking for work in the US had increase from under 1 percent to about 4 percent of all married fathers of children under 18 between 1970 and 2016. Nonetheless, mothers still bear most of the responsibility for child care and are much more likely to stay home. Because men earn more money on average than women—and because women are often penalized in their careers for becoming parents while men are rewarded—it is often the mother who is compelled to scale back her career to care for the children when heterosexual couples are forced to choose which parent will work full-time and which will stay home.