I have been an at-home dad for nine years. Or, at least I thought I had been. It turns out I may have been an at-home or stay-at-home dad (SAHD) for only four years. Most of the last nine years I may have been only a primary caregiver.
Confused? Yeah, me too.
The confusion lies in how you define “at-home dad.” I think most people would consider “primary caregiver” as the very definition of “at-home dad.” However, the Census, in its annual report on Families and Living Arrangements, defines an at-home parent as “parent NILF (not in labor force) 52 weeks last year caring for family, spouse in LF (labor force) 52 weeks.” *
From 2005 to 2009, I fit this definition. I earned no income, and the reason was to care for our home and growing family, which now includes four children. I was an “at-home dad.”
However, from 2002 to 2004, I earned income with my professional mobile DJ company. The last two years, I’ve earned income as a freelance writer for Momaha.com. In none of those years did I earn over $1,000—not even enough to pay the preschool I sent the kids to so that I had some time to do my work (my wife has reminded me of that frequently).
According to the Census, this “work” changed my status from “at-home dad” to “primary caregiver,” even though my responsibilities as the parent at home caring for the children and cleaning the house never changed.
Still confused? Yeah, me too.
The different definitions for “at-home dad” and “primary caregiver” are based on the Census’ continued stereotypical view of a family: A household including two parents plus children in which one parent is the breadwinner (making all of the family’s income) and the other is the homemaker (making none of the family’s income). According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 20% of married couples with kids today fit this family model, compared to about 45% 35 years ago. Most families receive income from both parents now, often out of necessity but also because it’s easier these days to earn a little extra income on the Internet or at a part-time job while also being the primary caregiver.
From a statistical point of view, it makes sense to define “family” this way. It provides an easy explanation as to who is working and who is not, and why. Socially, however, the impact of defining family as breadwinner+homemaker is entirely different. The data leads the public to believe that at-home dads are extremely rare (only 174,000 reported in the 2010 Census). The notion that so few dads attempt to be caregivers on a full-time basis perpetuates the myth that dads are not capable caregivers.
Most people would probably define an at-home dad more broadly as a father who is the primary caregiver of his children, who might also sometimes earn some income. Everyone I know who identifies himself as an at-home dad would fit this definition and so would over a million other fathers.
That’s right, OVER A MILLION.
Earlier this month, the Census reported that 32% of married fathers are primary caregivers. Some of them certainly worked full-time while also taking care of the kids when their wives or partners went off to work, but many of them worked less than full-time. The best research, conducted by Beth Latshaw, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State University, estimates the real number at 1.4 million but admits that the reality is probably even higher.
Even at this low estimate, at least 20% of all at-home parents in the U.S. are fathers.
When I first started staying home in 2002, I thought I was the only dad willing to do this. I felt alone, depressed at times and uncomfortable any time I left the house because I felt like others were judging me. When I met my first other at-home dad and he introduced me to an entire group of them, I couldn’t believe there were so many guys like me. When I attended my first at-home dads convention a year later, I discovered there were even more guys all over the country like me!
These experiences changed my life. I became happier in my at-home dad role. I felt more confident because I was no longer alone. I cared less about the stigma society placed on me. All of this happened because I discovered there was a community of like-minded men.
Most at-home dads are not as lucky as I’ve been. They continue to identify themselves by whatever income they earn, no matter how small—even though most of their days are spent caring for their kids. They remain insecure about their roles and torn between what they think is right for their family and what they believe society expects of them. They believe they are abnormal and alone.
If these men knew they were in fact part of a community of over a million dads like them, it could change their self-image significantly. They might even try a little harder to find a local group or start one themselves, knowing there are plenty of other guys out there with the same role. Society, too, would gain a greater understanding of fathers who are primary caregivers, and perhaps stop thinking dads can’t or don’t want to change diapers.
The implications of this cannot be understated. Much like changing the term “policeman” to “police officer” made it more acceptable for society to see women in law enforcement, understanding that many fathers who are primary caregivers are in fact “at-home dads” will make it more acceptable for society to see men pushing strollers in the park at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday.
And I could be seen as exactly what I am: an at-home dad.
* To be considered “not in the labor force” by the Census, you cannot have earned any income or looked for work in the past year. The surveys from the Census rely on self-reporting, so considering the social and cultural expectations society places on fathers to be breadwinners, there is a high likelihood some will claim to be working or looking for work when they aren’t, which further erodes the accuracy of the Census’ count of at-home dads.
Al Watts is a nine-year veteran at-home dad to four children ages 9, 7, 4, and 3 in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the President of Daddyshome, Inc – The National At-Home Dad Network and writes a weekly blog on a popular mom’s website, Momaha.com.