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The Rise of the Stay-At-Home Dad

Why more fathers are staying home to look after the kids and what that means for families

Rebecca Hill

Published on: March 31, 2017

baby and dad

Will Culp is the ringmaster of his own circus. During the week, his two daughters and one son are up at 6 a.m. sharp. The girls get ready for school; his son goes to preschool four times a week. So, who stays home with the kids? In 2009, Culp and his wife decided it would be Dad — and they haven’t looked back.

Since 1989, the number of American dads who stay at home with their kids has nearly doubled, according to the Pew Research Center. The number is even higher for dads who say the main reason they’re staying home is to take care of their family. That number is up to 21 percent; just 5 percent of surveyed fathers said the same in 1989.

The number of stay-at-home dads hit a peak — 2.2 million — in 2010, partly because of the recession of 2007–2009. More than 6 million jobs were lost by men during the recession, compared to 2.7 million lost by women, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The difference is typically attributed to the fact that professions hit harder by the recession, such as manufacturing and construction, have higher concentrations of male employees. More men out of work meant more men at home; in 2014, 23 percent of dads said they were at home primarily because they couldn’t find a job, according to Pew.

Stay at home, stay connected

  • City Dads Group: This national organization connects stay-at-home dads living in the same city through meetups and boot camps.
  • Daddit: This dad-focused subreddit has more than 34,000 subscribers.
  • Dad 2.0 Summit: This annual conference brings together dads to discuss “the commercial power of dads online” and the mainstream perception of fatherhood.  
  • Launched in April 2015 by Simon Isaacs, this website answers that most important question of “What do I do with my kids all day?” with a specific focus on dads.

Job wanted: Dad

Such was the case for Culp, who lives in Mahomet, Illinois. When he lost his job in 2008, he became a stay-at-home dad to avoid child-care expenses, a common motivation for families. According to the EPI, child care for two kids can cost anywhere from 19.3 percent to 28.1 percent of a family’s budget. For some families, it just makes more sense to have one parent remain at home to care for the kids. 

Finances were a motivating factor in Seattle stay-at-home dad Scott Steinhorst’s decision, too. Previously, Steinhorst had worked as an Amazon software engineer; in 2004, he decided to take a break from what he describes as an “excessively intense work schedule” to be a stay-at-home parent.

“My wife and I have always been grateful that we could make such a decision,” says Steinhorst. 

For other families, the decision of “who stays home” comes down to who makes more money. Eric Springer of Champaign, Illinois, stayed home from 2007 to 2016; his wife, a nurse anesthetist, earned more than he did as a high school teacher.

At first, Springer stayed home to tend to the couple’s newborn son. Later, he continued to do so as he finished graduate school and after the birth of the couple’s second child in 2010. Springer has since gone back to full-time work as a computer programmer and computer science instructor. The change, he said, wasn’t an easy one.

“Before returning to work full-time, I had a very flexible work schedule,” Springer says. “It was somewhat of a challenge for our family when I decided to return to work full-time.”

Not as easy as it seems

Stay-at-home dads often find themselves dealing with various misconceptions about their choice to stay home. In fact, employer-provided family and work programs often implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) target only women, making it tougher for men to become the primary at-home caregiver, according to a 2015 report by the Boston College Center for Work and Family (BCCWF).

Sometimes, though, the hardest part of staying at home is getting others to be on board with your choice, says Culp. While many friends and family understand his decision, Culp says it’s not universally accepted and he often sticks out. He’s often the only dad in the room at events like story time at the local library, for example.

“I was doing all the same things that stay-at-home moms were doing, and it did make a few of them uncomfortable,” he says. Not that the awkwardness stopped him from embracing the role. “I am a very engaging person and I am not going to shrink back and hide,” he says. To help educate people about his life as a stay-at-home dad, Culp began writing a parenting column in his local newspaper; those columns eventually led to a book, Better Off Dad: Parenting Morsels from a Stay-at-Home Daddio.   

For Springer, the isolation of staying at home was the hardest part. “I remember how important it was to stay connected with other at-home dads,” Springer says. “It was so easy to feel isolated at times.” Since Springer didn’t know any other local stay-at-home dads, he started making phone calls to friends and family. He talked to dads on the playground and at the library. Eventually, he formed a stay-at-home dads’ group that, when Springer was a member, met several times a week for playdates and for a monthly “Dads’ Night Out.” 

Springer also joined the National At-Home Dad Network (NAHDN). The organization, founded in 2003 by three stay-at-home dads, provides support, education and advocacy for fathers who are the primary caregivers of their children. For Springer, NAHDN gave him a chance to meet other dads in similar situations.

“I attended six conventions in the eight years that I was an at-home dad,” Springer says. “To this day, I still have friends whom I met at the convention.”

Culp is also a part of NAHDN, serving as an at-large board member. What he likes most about NAHDN is the ability to use the annual convention, HomeDadCon, and workshops as “professional development” opportunities. Dads go to sharpen their parenting skills and to educate themselves about parenting trends, says Culp. 

dad and baby

Going back to work

As with stay-at-home moms, many a stay-at-home dad returns to work later in life. But it’s not without consequences. A study by the BCCWF showed that men who took time off to care for family members had significantly lower long-term earnings; other studies have shown that they were not only treated as lesser workers but “lesser men.”

While mothers often face similar challenges upon returning to full-time work, Brad Harrington, Ph.D., executive director of BCCWF, says dads may actually have it worse.

“Many women fear that spending years at home with children will make relaunching their careers difficult,” he says. “This problem is even more acute for men.” One 2013 study by the University of Toronto found that if fathers are involved or take time off to care for their families, they can be subject to “informal and formal professional sanctions,” such as a type of “not man enough” harassment.

For stay-at-home dads who are considering a return to work, the key is to go about it very intentionally, says Culp. “I have laid the groundwork for the last couple of years,” says Culp, who is in law school and clerks part-time at a law firm. A parent who decides to go back to work needs to stay on top of any training, take continuing education and watch for changes in their specific career, Culp adds. “You can’t just duck in and out of the workforce,” he says.

Whatever a family’s situation, the issue of child care and work/life balance must be viewed as a necessity with which every family has to deal. “Staying at home with my children has always been a privilege,” says Springer. “I built strong relationships with them because of the time that I spent with them during the day. There were many defining moments.” And for most parents, that’s all it takes to make any sacrifice worthwhile. 

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