ROBBINSVILLE, N.J. — Scott Benner was shopping for day care when he witnessed a scene that would change his family. A little boy was clinging to his day-care provider. What struck Benner was the sorrow in the eyes of the father who was trying to pick up the boy.
He rushed home to tell his wife, Kelly, that he thought she should quit her job and stay home to raise their new baby, Cole.
"How's that going to work?" she asked him with a laugh. He was a graphic designer at the time, while she was moving up in a pharmaceutical company. Her career path and earning potential were clearly better than his.
Thirteen years later, Benner is part of what is now a growing trend, though the numbers are still comparatively small. The Census Bureau says 189,000 dads stayed home to raise their children in 2012. That number included married fathers with children 14 and younger who have been out of the labor force for a year or more so they can care for children while their wives work outside the home. Between them, those men cared for more than 369,000 children. Eighteen percent of preschoolers in 2011 were regularly cared for by their fathers while their moms worked.
The New York Times recently asked the Census Bureau to expand its estimate to include men with freelance or part-time jobs who serve as primary caretakers for their children. The bureau estimated around 626,000 men would fit that bill.
The National At-Home Dad Network believes the Census Bureau seriously undercounts how many there are because it only counts those not in the labor force. It excludes some caregiver dads counted by 2009 research from Appalachian State University — part-time workers and those who work opposite shifts from a spouse so they can be primary caregivers to their children. That number exceeded 1.4 million five years ago.
Finding a groove
For many families, a failing economy led dad to stay home and care for the family while mom worked. Eve Tahmincioglu of the Families and Work Institute points to both gains in women’s earning power — in 27 percent of dual-income families, women earn more than their husbands — and the challenges men have faced with higher unemployment during the recession.
Men and women are making a complicated set of decisions about how their families will function against a backdrop of many different factors, each somewhat unique. They are finding that attitudes about those decisions are changing, too.
In its 2008 "Times Are Changing" report, the Families and Work Institute noted that "both men and women are less likely to agree in 2008 that men should earn the money and women should take care of the children and family than they were in 1977." Back then, 64 percent felt men should go to work and women care for home and family. That had fallen to 39 percent in 2008. But the report also noted that 2 in 5 employees still endorse traditional gender roles. What has changed is that the two genders now have virtually identical views on the question, not the huge chasm between the sexes that existed in 1977. Then, men overwhelmingly felt women should be at home while they supported the family. Women were nearly divided on the question, with 52 percent agreeing.
Economics is clearly a factor for some families. Job losses related to the recession hit men nearly twice as hard as women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most recent data shows female job losses outpace slightly those of men, but that wasn't true in recent years when the workplace was shedding men. In April, for civilians above age 20, 7.7 percent of men were unemployed, compared to 7.1 percent of women.
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