With women graduating from college at greater rates than men, it seems only natural that we should be seeing more stay-at-home fathers. Hard-charging women in demanding careers have less time for parenthood, and we can presumably expect their male partners – many of them in slightly less lucrative, less demanding careers – to pick up some of the slack. This domestic shift seems especially likely in countries such as America, where the prohibitive costs of childcare can swallow up the better part of a pay-check anyway. But as a male friend recently explained to me, becoming a full-time dad is not as simple as it sounds.
“The life of a stay-at-home dad feels miserable,” said this friend, a Brooklyn-based screenwriter we’ll call Ben. “You know the all-male workplace and how unwelcome it is for women? Well it’s ten times that for stay-at-home men.” He explained that as the only father at a playground or parent meet-up group, he often felt awkward and out of place. “It basically feels like an old-boy’s network, but it’s all women talking about their children.”
Women who have been braving all-male boardrooms for decades may have little sympathy for Ben. But his gripes are worth noting. One of the reasons why large numbers of women have yet to reach the highest levels of power in the workplace is because they still tend to get stuck with the lion’s share of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. So if we hope for women to advance in paid labour, we need to take a closer look at why men have been so sluggish in taking on more of that unpaid labour – a subject I consider at length in the latest issue of 1843. Although fathers represent a growing share of stay-at-home parents – 16% in America in 2012, up from 10% in 1989, according to the Pew Research Centre – they are still vastly outnumbered by stay-at-home mothers.
You might expect society to become more accepting of stay-at-home fathers as their numbers rise. Yet new research from the Council on Contemporary Families, an American non-profit, suggests the opposite is happening. Analysing nearly 40 years of surveys of American high-school seniors (aged 16-19), Joanna Pepin of the University of Maryland and David Cotter of Union College found that young Americans are less likely to support an egalitarian family arrangement now than they were 20 years ago. Although American teenagers broadly support gender equity in the workplace, in 2014 only 42% of them disagreed with the statement that “it is usually better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”, down from 58% in 1994.
Ben certainly enjoys being able to spend more time with his son. But he often senses he is being judged for being less financially successful than his wife, as many people still equate being a good father with being a good provider (even in progressive enclaves like Brooklyn). He bristles at the way women tell him when to feed or bundle-up his son – a phenomenon he calls “momsplaining”. He also finds it hard to socialise: while he gets along swimmingly with one woman at the playground, and their children play like champs, he feels uncomfortable getting her number to arrange a play-date. “Am I going to start inviting women back to the house when my wife isn’t home? No.”
The frustrations he felt are common among dads. “People say things that kind of make you feel like you’re a second-rate parent,” says Greg Washington, a father of two boys in Wisconsin. For him, becoming a primary parent happened organically. He and his wife, who works as a nurse, were earning around the same amount, and they both felt it was important for their children to have one of them at home. “We came to the conclusion that I have the better temperament,” Greg explained. “And I wanted to do it.” But the job felt different from what he had imagined. Daytime activities usually cater to mothers, and Greg grew tired of hearing cashiers say things like, “Oh, mommy has the day off? Daddy’s babysitting today?”
Greg ended up Googling “I’m a frustrated stay-at-home dad” and discovered the National At-Home Dad Network, a non-profit that offers tips and a sense of community for fathers in America and Canada. (They sell a popular T-shirt that says “Dads Don’t Babysit”.) He became a member, has been on the board for six years and never misses the annual convention. “A lot of fathers feel isolated,” he explained. “We’re up against social norms for who goes to work and who stays at home with the kids.”
Young parents today sense they are blazing a trail. Those who wish to be equal partners have few clear models to follow. Couples in which the woman’s career comes first remain vanishingly rare. This leaves many genuinely confused about what they want and how they should behave. Yet much of the conversation has concerned the needs and frustrations of women. These days we are familiar with the ways women can feel undermined at work and overwhelmed at home. But if we want more men to step forward as fathers, to allow their partners to lean in to their careers, we need to be more sensitive to the ways they, too, are often navigating a sexist minefield. “It just feels like we’re in this liminal phase, in between two states,” said Ben. “It’s not the 1950s any more, but it’s not the future yet.”