These days, in most newly-married households, both adults work. Then, when children come along, parents sometimes decide that one of them should stay home with the kids, either to reduce the cost of childcare or because quality childcare isn’t available. For as long as anyone can remember, that stay-at-home parent was the mom.
But there’s a shift underway. These days, with women earning more college degrees than men and with the rise of service-sector jobs, increasingly it’s the mother who earns more than the dad. According to Stephanie Coontz of the Council on Contemporary Families (as reported recently by National Public Radio), in more than a quarter of families (28%), it is the woman makes more money than her husband. The old notion that the parent with the smaller paycheck should be the one who stays home with the children is leading to a rethinking of parental roles and a new appreciation of what fathers can do.
The U. S. Census Bureau reports that only 3.5 percent of families include a stay-at-home dad but this figure is thought way too low by most observers. It often misses fathers who work from home, either as telecommuting employees or as home-based entrepreneurs. Just as many stay-at-home mothers run businesses, many stay-at-home fathers have more than the children to think about during the day. In reporting their activities to the Census Bureau, stay-at-home dads are apparently less likely to credit childcare as their main activity than are stay-at-home mothers.
Being children’s chief caregiver is not a well-accepted role for men. They may be viewed as filling in for mom temporarily by teachers and pediatricians, who are more familiar with dealing with women. They may be ignored by fellow caregivers at the playground. And men may be thought somehow deficient in parenting skills, even though the most respected and best-selling authorities on parenting are male. Even mothers may doubt that dad knows what he’s doing.
But here’s the truth of the matter. While fathers typically interact differently with children than mothers do, this is simply a difference, not a deficiency. Men tend to be more physically active with their children and more supportive of exploration and problem-solving. According to the American Psychological Association, children raised with men as their primary caregiver have at least equal language skills, reading and math achievement, and social abilities compared to children raised by women. For parents of both sexes it comes down to who is more available and more comfortable in filling the stay-at-home parent role. If it’s the father, then that’s okay.
One of the great advances of the past thirty years is a rethinking of what is “women’s work” and what is “men’s work.” Another great advance is the availability at home of all the technology needed to do many creative and vital jobs from the convenience of one’s spare bedroom. It should come as no surprise that both mothers and fathers are taking advantage of these two innovations to craft a family support system that works for everyone: the adults and the children.
Should Daddy stay home? Maybe. It’s not a problem if he does.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.