At-Home Dad Data: The Numbers Don’t Tell The Whole Story

Jim O’Dowd responds to a recent CNNMoney article that applies Census data to the growing stay-at-home dad population in the United States, and he says that the figures only tell part of the story.

I recently read the article Stay-At-Home Dads: More Men Choosing Kids Over Career by Jessica Dickler on CNNMoney. This is yet another piece that follows the same formula as so many recent reactions to the Census data published earlier this year (no slight to Jessica in particular). It is just that a slew of these articles have played out following the same basic format. The first half of the article focuses on the statistics from the Census report. They cite the rise in dads being responsible for childcare, often clarifying that it is “at least one day a week.” This must be followed by comments about how men lost more jobs than women during the economic downturn. Next comes the wage comparison, showing how women are earning more top jobs, and more top salaries, and more and more men are earning less than their wives. All this implies that the reason more men are engaged with their kids must be due to the economy. Here is where a few, token quotes appear from dads who have chosen to be at home with their children, or from an author or an academic who has done some work on the trend. And the article usually wraps up with a glimpse into the life of one of those families where dad stays home.

As an at-home dad, I’m not offended by these articles, just a little disappointed. It seems that a large body of people want to assign a simple, observable, concrete causation for the shift in social structure, suggesting that a logical interpretation of the data explains things fully. This is understandable, and not necessarily wrong. But the story is so much deeper than what is generally reported. The statistics used are all observed, rather than generated from input from the source of the data. In other words, there are no broad studies used where the men at home were asked directly about their situation. Unfortunately, it is likely that there is a serious shortage of such studies. The group of men that makes up the population called “At-Home Dads” are rather new to an entity like the Census Bureau. When you are only studying these things every decade, it is pretty tough to pick up on trends that are happening much more rapidly. Also, the task that the Census is charged with doesn’t exactly lend itself to identifying such shifts. In spite of the fact that there have been dads at home with their kids for decades, some as work-at-home dads and some as primary caregivers, societal awareness of this is very recent, as is the growth in numbers of dads in both categories.

There is another component obstructing the collection of the softer data that tells the deeper story: your typical guy. There are jokes and cliches about how a man won’t stop to ask directions. Those ideas are based on real life tendencies. They are generalities, and are also shifting like men’s role in the family. Old school thought establishes that men are not well known for seeking help. Many believe that men aren’t capable, or at least aren’t very skilled in emotional communication. These types of factors limit the availability of source material for any study that seeks more intimate details about the “how” and “why” of the trend toward greater dad involvement.

Additionally, the historical notion of the perception of dad’s role in the family is a fairly narrow niche. It is far and away the default expectation that a man will grow up to be the wage earner in the household. On every level, from children’s stories and games to career guidance as kids approach college, you won’t hear boys expressing that they just hope to get married to a nice girl who has a good job. In TV shows (and real life) right up through the ’90s (and even today), dads are portrayed as the wage earner, and interaction with the family can only happen once he gets home. Even then, the role is more about the authority figure, or the sage with all the wisdom, or maybe even the guy who walks in the door and falls into the couch.

There are exceptions, of course, but there is not a mainstream message out there that leads to an expectation that men have an active, engaged, and positive role in childcare responsibilities. Fortunately, this trend is shifting. It seems that shift is behind the curve, though. And there is resistance to the shift. A quick Internet search will expose blogs that claim men can’t, or shouldn’t be involved in this type of role. This seems to be a very, very small segment of the population. As a whole, our culture is just beginning to recognize, accept, and encourage the growing role of dad in the home and family.

Herein lies the real disconnect between a typical article about the Census figures and what is really going on with men and dads. Roles change, even if employment doesn’t. Time magazine did a cover story last year about the Chore Wars, recognizing that men are playing a much larger part in terms of domestic participation. And there is a great quote from Jeremy Adam Smith in Jessica Dickler’s CNNMoney article, “There are a lot of guys out there that had remote relationships with their own fathers and they don’t want that with their kids. It’s not just stay-at-home dads—fathers in general are participating more in their children’s lives.” This involvement comes in many forms, not just pitching in with laundry, cooking, and shopping. Also taking a much larger role in the lives of their children.

More and more dads are becoming integral in all the aspects of childcare, from diapering to discipline, from making lunches to making forts in the yard, from playdates to violin lessons or team practices, pediatrician appointments to teacher conferences and from homework help to bedtime stories. Most importantly is that there is a growing awareness among dads that the benefit of a positive and engaged father on a child’s life is enormous. Dad’s are finding ways to do that, whether they have a job outside the home or not—and no matter what the Census says.

Jim is an at-home dad to his four kids, and has been on the job since just before the first arrived (engineering was never as hard). He is a board member of the National At-Home Dad Network (formerly Daddyshome, Inc) and an advocate for engaged fatherhood. Jim is rarely without an opinion, just ask his kids.

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