Commentary: Give stay-at-home fathers the respect they deserve

BYU research says stay-at-home fathers can be happy and fulfilled, if sometimes not honored.

(Michael Dwyer | AP photo) In this June 21, 2009, photo, fans tour in front of the scoreboard in Fenway Park in Boston in celebration of Father's Day following a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox.

Ryan Park was a young lawyer who had just finished a clerkship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Any number of prestigious and lucrative job options were available to him. His next gig? Stay-at-home father to his daughter, Caitlyn.

And get this: He wanted the role of full-time father. Though the work was demanding, he says, “I was as happy as I’d ever been.” He became a full-time father not because he had to, but because he “wanted to experience life at the helm of my daughter’s day-to-day life.”

Park’s career path may be rare, but stay-at-home fathers are increasingly common. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the number of stay-at-home fathers has more than doubled since 2000.

Being a stay-at-home father is not easy. In addition to the demanding nature of the work – and yes, it is work – stay-at-home fathers suffer a distinct status demotion. Almost anything a man can do with his time will be esteemed more highly than taking care of his own children.

Research shows that many Americans believe stay-at-home fathers couldn’t possibly parent as well as women and that no man (or perhaps no “real man”) could enjoy being a caretaker full-time. When a man announces he is a stay-at-home father, he’ll often get a glassy-eyed, “isn’t that nice?” kind of response. Stay-at-home fathers are often unwelcome, either formally or informally, from spaces populated mostly by women and children.

With all the stigma and stereotypes around stay-at-home fathers, it’s surprising how many men are making the choice to take care of their children full-time. But with changing trends in the workforce, we should make space for stay-at-home fathers. Just like stay-at-home mothers, they do important work that is both demanding and rewarding. Instead of pitying, judging or patronizing stay-at-home fathers, we could instead try to understand them.

Two of us (Holmes and Wikle) recently looked at data about stay-at-home fathers from the American Time Use Study (ATUS), an ongoing research project of the U.S. Census Bureau. The ATUS asks people to record how they spend their time in a day. Stay-at-home fathers (and others) also reported their emotional state at different times throughout the day: happy, stressed, fatigued, etc. We compared data on married stay-at-home fathers with similar data on stay-at-home mothers, working mothers and working fathers.

The results were revealing stay-at-home fathers are quite happy when they take care of their children. They rated themselves happier when they were with only their children than when they were alone, with only their spouse, with their spouse and children, or with other (non-spouse) adults. In fact, no group of people in the study – working fathers, working mothers, or stay-at-home mothers – rated themselves happier in any scenario than stay-at-home fathers rated themselves when they were with only their children.

The news about how stay-at-home fathers feel while they are with adults other than their spouse is mixed. On one hand, they rated this time as meaningful. No doubt they value adult conversation and interaction as much as many stay-at-home mothers do. On the other hand, stay-at-home fathers are also stressed out around other adults. Like, really stressed – they rated themselves significantly more stressed around other adults than in any other scenario, and more stressed than any other group (working fathers, working mothers and stay-at-home mothers) in any scenario.

Why all the stress? It probably has a lot to do with the negative stereotypes and stigmas associated with stay-at-home fathers. A stay-at-home father is constantly fighting invalidation. The economy of esteem is structured so that stay-at-home fathers are perpetually fighting the idea that his choice represents a failure of manhood. Even Ryan Park, who, as a former Supreme Court clerk, was as well-positioned for success as any young lawyer could be, found that he “sheepishly started pulling out the Harvard paraphernalia buried at the back of the closet for the ‘mommy and me’ sing-along.”

It’s time to give stay-at-home fathers the respect they deserve. It turns out that many men choose this in the best interest of their children and families and are happy doing this work. This Father’s Day, make room for fathers who do the job full-time.

(Tyler Richardson | BYU) Daniel Frost

Daniel Frost is the director of public scholarship in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

(Aislynn Edwards | BYU) Jocelyn Wikle

(Kate Kelson | BYU) Erin Holmes

Jocelyn Wikle and Erin Kramer Holmes are also professors in the School of Family Life at BYU who recently completed a study about stay-at-home fathers.