Family Matters

Stay-at-Home Dads: No More Angst. These Guys Love What They Do

The proportion of stay-at-home dads has doubled in the past decade. Contrary to popular belief, these fellas aren't at home with the kids because they got laid off and had nothing better to do. Being a full-time father is a conscious choice they're proud to defend.

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Thomas Barwick / Taxi / Getty Images

The mindset of that rarest of parenting creatures — the stay-at-home dad — has changed mightily in the past few years.

Three years ago, the Boston College Center for Work & Family began polling fathers about their attitudes. In 2010, they asked new dads if they’d ever pondered staying at home to be the primary caregiver. Heck, no, came the response. Last year, researchers asked 1,000 working dads whether they’d seriously consider staying home if their wife made enough money for their family to live comfortably; 53% said yes. This year, the College zoomed in on 31 dads and many of their wives to better understand what it’s like to be a SAHD — a stay-at-home dad.

They figured the data would reinforce the prevailing wisdom: that the main reason guys might stay home changing diapers and driving carpool is because they’d been laid off. Instead, the researchers found that most of the men stayed at home by choice. About five who’d lost their jobs were clear that they didn’t actually consider themselves SAHDs; they were on the prowl for other work. There were others who had been laid off as well, but they were thrilled with the outcome as they’d wanted to stay home — losing their paychecks simply gave them carte blanche to do so.

The percentage of stay-at-home fellas has doubled in the past decade, though it’s still tiny: just 3.4% of stay-at-home parents are fathers. But man, are those guys happy. Perhaps the joy they take in doling out Cheerios and doing loads of baby laundry is merely additional evidence of the inordinate pleasure that men take in parenting, a phenomenon discussed on Thursday on Healthland.

“It’s clear to us that men strongly identify with this as a role,” says Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family and lead author of the stay-at-home dads report. “They don’t have a feeling of ambivalence of, What am I doing, I’m a man. There is no sense of angst. These guys strongly identified with being a SAHD. They are proud of it.”

(MORE: Daddy Day Care: Why Does the Government Consider Dads “Babysitters”?)

As to why they made the choice to stay home, fathers characterized their decision as both financial and pragmatic: their wife out-earned them, and they’d chosen to not outsource their children’s care.

Most of the SAHDs said they felt socially supported, even envied, but some sensed that outsiders thought they were “slackers.” Not infrequently, those outsiders tend to be family members, especially in-laws. “The better these guys felt about their role, the less likely they were to be stung by these kinds of comments,” says Harrington.

Although most dads feel it’s more socially acceptable for them to stay home and raise their kids now than it was five years ago, a recent survey by BabyCenter found that 54% of the estimated 2 million SAHDs in the U.S. still feel they’re battling stigma. While they say they’re happy to be home caring for their kids — 70% reported being proud to be the parent in charge — they also feel isolated because parenting resources tend to be geared toward moms. Far from reveling in their status as the only dude on the playground, one in three SAHDs say they feel excluded and uncomfortable being surrounded by so many moms. One comment from a SAHD that BabyCenter highlighted in its report: “My biggest challenges are…[t]he looks/cold shoulder I get from moms at the park. They just don’t get it (yes, I am a dad and yes, I take care of my son full time).”

Their biggest fans? Moms, who felt grateful that their husbands focused on the kids so they could focus on work and career.

On a scale of 1 to 5, dads ranked their parenting abilities a 4.1. Researchers didn’t ask mothers to rate their spouses, but based on their enthusiastic responses, Harrington said it’s likely they would have awarded even higher scores.

“The wives were glowing in talking about their husbands,” says Harrington. “They were so proud and happy with the way their kids are growing and developing with them. If anything, they said they look at him and the relationship he has with the kids and think, That should be me!”

Now there’s some gender-bending food for thought.

MORE: Parents — Especially Dads — Are Happier than their Childless Pals. (Happy Father’s Day.