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  • It's hard to predict how the gradual rise in stay-at-home dads will impact families. Tweet This
  • Young women’s educational advantage over men could cause the number of stay-at-home dads to increase. Tweet This

“This notion that I’m a bum is something I deal with every single day.” “It can be pretty solitary.” “I’m not a stay-at-home dad. … Even for me, the term conjures up some poor schlub in a V-neck covered with Cheerios who cannot get his act together.”

Such comments from stay-at-home dads, which appeared in a recent Redbook magazine spread on stay-at-home moms, vividly confirm that men whose primary role is caring for their children still face negative stereotypes and hostile attitudes. That some feel isolated is not surprising: at-home dads remain far less common than at-home moms.

Still, according to a new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, their numbers have risen and may continue doing so for reasons related to the economy, education, and gender ideology. Four percent of two-parent families had at-home fathers in 2010, up from 2 percent in the 1970s. Whether this upward trend will affect the historical link between reverse-traditional divisions of labor—in which a woman works or earns more than her husband—and worse marital outcomes remains to be seen.

To investigate the factors driving the increase in stay-at-home fathers, Karen Z. Kramer and Amit Kramer used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1979 cohort) and the Current Population Survey (1972-2012), in tandem with state-level data on unemployment and General Social Survey information on Americans’ gender ideology.

Notably, the researchers’ definition of an at-home dad was a strict one: In addition to being married and having at least one child 18 or younger in the household, a man was only an at-home dad if he “was out of the labor force and had not received any income in the previous year while his wife was working full time for pay (at least 35 weekly hours) and earned the entire household income.” That means unemployed men actively looking for work, and men who were primary caregivers but worked a few hours a week were excluded.

Men who fit this definition were divided into two groups based on why they were not working. Fathers who listed “illness, disability, or the inability to find work” were categorized as unable to work; those who said they stay home to take care of family were termed “caregiving” at-home fathers.1 In the CPS sample, caregiving fathers accounted for only 19 percent of all at-home fathers in 2000-2012, which represents a rise from less than 1 percent in the 1970s and 1980s. Unable-to-work fathers dropped from 59 percent of all dads at home in the 1970s to 32 percent in 2000-2012.

It’s important to draw these distinctions because one would expect different factors to cause growth or contraction in the number of men in each category. Economic conditions, for instance, should be most relevant for unable-to-work at-home dads—and that is indeed what Kramer and Kramer’s analysis of CPS data shows. Overall, a 1 percent increase in the male unemployment rate at the state level “was associated with an 8.0% increase in the likelihood that a household became a stay-at-home father family,” and the effects were stronger for unable-to-work fathers than for caregiving ones.

Spouses’ relative educational attainment, a rough proxy for their earning potential, likewise affected families’ odds of having the father stay home. In both samples, “families where mothers held a college degree and a father has less than a college degree were more likely to be a stay-at-home father family.” In the CPS data, this effect exerted more impact on caregiving stay-at-home father families than unable-to-work ones. This finding implies that young women’s ongoing educational advantage over young men could cause continuing growth in the number of caregiving stay-at-home fathers.

That a woman’s superior earning potential may make a couple more likely to choose a stay-at-home father arrangement voluntarily is underlined by the difference in household income between families with caregiving at-home fathers, and families with unable-to-work at-home fathers. In 2000-2012, mothers with husbands who stayed home to care for kids earned an average annual income of $76,320, whereas mothers whose husbands stayed home because they couldn’t work earned $38,960.

After examining the relevance of the unemployment rate and spouses’ relative education levels, Kramer and Kramer turned to a third element: gender ideology. Within individual families in the NLSY79 sample, more egalitarian gender ideology2 predicted greater odds of having a caregiving stay-at-home father but not an unable-to-work stay-at-home father.

How the gradual, halting rise of stay-at-home fatherhood may affect families is hard to predict. In recent decades, at least, marriages in which a wife worked and/or earned more than her husband have tended to exhibit poorer outcomes. For instance, IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox coauthored a study3 finding that no single work-family arrangement predicted the marital satisfaction of men with children, except for working less than their wives (whether they themselves worked part-time or not at all). These fathers were 61 percent less likely to report being very happy in their marriage than men whose wives stayed home. There was a satisfaction gap even for the husbands whose wives preferred that arrangement.

Three economists who authored a separate study, which drew wide media attention when it was published as a working paper in 2013, revealed that couples in which the wife’s income exceeds the husband’s were six percentage points less likely to describe their marriage as happy than other couples. These couples also showed a higher likelihood of divorce. In fact, couples’ desire to avoid having a female breadwinner may cause them to divide paid and household labor differently: “In couples where the wife’s potential income is likely to exceed the husband’s,” the researchers noted, “the wife is less likely to be in the labor force and earns less than her potential if she does work.”

However, both of these studies drew on survey data that’s now roughly 15 to 20 years old, and couples who get married today may hold different expectations or anticipate more flexibility in their roles as workers and parents. Divorce used to be more common among couples in which the wife was more educated than the husband, but these days it is not. And breadwinning women are no longer rare: more than one in four wives in dual-income marriages earn more money their husbands. As this balance has grown more widespread, perhaps spouses have come to feel more comfortable with it.

Or perhaps not. One study drawing on more recent data indicated that men are more likely to cheat when their wife earns more money than they do. The effect was strongest when the woman was the couple’s sole breadwinner. One way or another, reverse-traditional divisions of labor and income still appear to put a strain on marriages.

1. Those who gave some other reason, such as attending school, were placed in the category “other.” Men who gave no reason for not working were included only in the overall analysis of all at-home dads. In addition, the authors cautioned that ongoing pressure on men to work may have caused some at-home fathers to report being unable to work when in fact they stayed home for other reasons.

2. Gender ideology was measured using the male survey participants’ responses to prompts such as “A wife with a family has no time for outside employment” and “Men should share the work around the house with women.”

3. W. Bradford Wilcox and Jeffrey Dew, “No One Best Way: Work-Family Strategies, the Gendered Division of Parenting, and the Contemporary Marriages of Mothers and Fathers,” in Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives, edited by W. Bradford Wilcox and Kathleen Kovner Kline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).