Dads are more interested and involved than in the past. Married dads are tripling the amount of child care they provide. Unmarried dads, as well. Divorced dads are much more likely to ask for joint custody. Even unmarried dads see they have a legitimate interest in getting involved. —Stephanie Coontz

The number of households headed by single fathers has increased to its highest point in American history, according to a new report by Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends. One in 12 households with minor children now has a single dad at the helm.

That's a ninefold increase from 1960, from fewer than 300,000 households to more than 2.6 million in 2011. Single-mother households increased more than fourfold, from 1.9 million to 8.6 million. Two-thirds of households with children are still headed by married parents, but that's down from 92 percent in 1960.

"Single parenthood is still dominated by moms, but the share who are dads has grown, and about one-fourth of single parents are now dads," said Gretchen Livingston, Pew senior researcher and author of the study released this week. "When people talk about single parents, the fact is it's usually code for single mothers. It's important to recognize that there's a pretty significant minority of those parents who are dads."

The report's definition of a single-dad household counts men who are 15 or older, head their household and live with their minor children (who can be biological, stepchildren or adopted). It includes the 52 percent who are single because they never married, they separated or divorced or they are widowed and do not cohabit. It also includes the 41 percent living with a nonmarital partner and the 7 percent who are married but live apart from their spouse.

A small share of the cohabiting households in the report included women who are the child's mother, but the report wasn't designed to quantify that, Livingston said.

Single dads

The report found the perspective on a father's part in parenting is also shifting. When people were surveyed about what role a father is expected to fulfill for his children, the results were these: to provide emotional support, values and morals; provide discipline, then give financial support. Father's traditional role was one of breadwinner. The list was the same for moms, as well.

"Notable" differences exist between single mothers and single fathers. The fathers are more likely to live with a cohabiting partner — 41 percent, compared with 16 percent.

Livingston noted cohabiting couples are not as stable as those who marry. "Dads in cohabiting relationships look more like other single dads than they look like married dads, particularly in terms of financial well-being. Cohabiting dads were a little less privileged than other single dads."

Single fathers tend to have higher incomes than single mothers and are much less likely to live at or below poverty levels, 24 percent versus 43 percent. They tend to be older than single mothers.

Compared with households with two married parents, single dads are younger, less educated, less financially well off and less likely to be white, the report said. Their education level tends to be "markedly lower" than married fathers. As many as one-fifth of the single-dad householders don't have a high school diploma.

Driving the change

The increased percentage of single-father-headed families is driven by a number of factors, starting with a general decline in marriage, which ties into increases in nonmarital births, Livingston said. Also, while the divorce rate has been slowing, it's still up significantly compared to 1960.

More dads are taking on a caregiver role in households than in the past, whether they are single or not. While fathers still overall spend considerably less time on parenting tasks than mothers do, another recent Pew report showed dads are spending about three times as many hours in caregiver roles than they used to. They now spend more than seven hours a week.

"Dads are more interested and involved than in the past," said Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. "Married dads are tripling the amount of child care they provide. Unmarried dads, as well. Divorced dads are much more likely to ask for joint custody. Even unmarried dads see they have a legitimate interest in getting involved."

Gender roles are less defined than in 1960. Coontz said that just as laws have changed to give women more equal access to the workplace, they are providing men with more equal access to family life, including an increase in joint custody presumption.

"These are all very big changes that only occurred in the past 30 years," Coontz said.

It's important, Coontz said, for parents to be amicable for the sake of the children, even if their personal relationship has broken.

The increased hands-on parenting involvement of men comes with the upside that men tend to earn more income, she said. On the downside, "many men are less experienced in terms of talking about intimate things with kids and in terms of understanding the kind of supervision involved," Coontz said. "It's not inherent. But men of good will can learn this."

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The increase in men who are single-father heads of household, while relatively new, also harks back to an earlier era, Coontz said. During the Revolutionary through Civil Wars, men typically were awarded custody of their children. Then it swung so that women usually received custody.

"Now there is more joint custody, which is potentially more fair, but it means a woman who is pregnant has to stop assuming the baby is totally her deal. And man has got to stop seeing it as a power play in terms of relationships with women and be sure he is interested in the kid's welfare," Coontz said.

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