The evolution of the stay-at-home dad
Twenty years ago, the stay-athome father was a curiosity, a spectacle, viewed with a mixture of suspicion and praise. I know this because I began to conduct research on these men two decades ago. They were hard to find and reluctant to speak about being the odd man out in a sea of mothers or what one father called “estrogen-filled worlds.”
Today, stay-at-home dads are everywhere. They walk proudly with their babies in slings; they’re daddy bloggers creating online and community dad groups; and they’re injecting a male presence at library story time and infant play groups. Television programs, such as Modern Family, Up All Night, and Parenthood, portray stay-at-home dads as smart, handsome, willing, and content. And high-profile women such as Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Christiane Amanpour, and Sarah Palin all live with men who have been called, or call themselves, stay-at-home dads.
The term ‘stay-at-home dad’ (SAHD) is part of our 21st century discourse and is used in a taken-for-granted manner by academics, journalists, and bloggers. The term is important. It signals a radical shift in traditional gendered forms of breadwinning and caregiving. Yet I think it’s time to re-think the stay-at-home dad label.
First, it is difficult to know to whom it refers. According to Statistics Canada, a stay-at-home dad is part of a husband-wife couple who have dependent children at home (at least one under 16) and where the wife is employed and the dad is not employed; they also note that this means dad is “not going to school and not looking for work, but able to work — meaning not disabled.” Using this definition, in 2011, there were 60,875 Canadian stay-at-home dads (13 per cent of all stay-at-home parents).
While these numbers indicate a three-fold increase since 1986, they also seriously underestimate the numbers of fathers who provide much of the daily care of children.
Excluded from these numbers are secondary, irregular, flexible, or parttime earners; part-time students; work-at-home dads (WAHDS); unemployed job-seekers, the underemployed, and discouraged workers. Moreover, statistics that follow only husband-wife families exclude a growing number of single, divorced, and gay fathers.
A second problem with the SAHD label is the now out-dated distinction between work and home. This distinction, rooted in the early stages of industrialization when there was a physical separation between factory and home, led to a mythologized view of home as a separate world — a refuge behind a white picket fence, or as historian Christopher Lasch called it, a “haven in a heartless world.”
This image was reinforced in TV and magazine images of the 1950s North American housewife standing at the door of her suburban home, waving her husband off to work.
This separation still pervades our understandings of work and care. We assume that the worker goes off to work while the caregiver stays at home. In today’s world, however, these lines are blurred. Employed parents may work via their smartphones while they are at school events and take on some parenting duties while at work. Stay-at-home parents, on the other hand, may take on paid work while infants are napping, while kids are at school, or when another parent or caregiver is available. As I argued in my book Do Men Mother?, while most stay-athome dads are the home-based, flexible, or secondary earner, they nevertheless maintain some connection to the labour market.
Finally, the stay-at-home label assumes that care is not work. Many feminist scholars have sought to correct this assumption by arguing for the economic value of unpaid work. The argument that care is work also appeared in the recent exchange, rehashed for days in the American media, between Hilary Rosen and Anne Romney. When Democrat Rosen quipped in an interview that Romney “actually never worked a day in her life,” the wife of the Republican presidential candidate replied, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.” In my research, I have heard many stay-at-home dads use similar words to describe “the hardest job I’ve ever done.”
In the past few years, the meanings and daily practices of work and care have radically shifted. Careers have become more fragmented, and, notably, the shame of working intermittently has faded in step with any of the earlier embarrassment of being a stay-at-home dad.
In the midst of a global recession, families have come up with innovative ways of paying the bills and caring for children.
This may mean that mom stays late at work and dad makes dinner, or that mom works downtown and dad works at home — but both are still working to put food on the table.
Instead of stay-at-home dads, should we think instead of workat-home dads (as well as work-athome moms)? This would connect to a large body of research on how women have long created lives composed of a patchwork of paid work and unpaid work.
More and more men are now living such lives. No longer confined to one job — 48 hours a week, 48 weeks a year, for 48 years — men now combine working and caring, at work and at home, paid and unpaid. Perhaps the most compelling story of fatherhood in 2012 is not about the rise of stay-at-home dads (SAHDs) but about the richly nuanced lives of work-at home dads (WAHDs).