Recessionary Rise In Stay-At-Home Dads May Have Permanent Effects

The number of stay-at-home dads jumped 14 percent last year. One expert says some of that change may be permanent.

RICHARD CARSON / Reuters

Stay-at-home dad Ron Mattocks with his daughters in 2009.

Census data [pdf] show 176,000 stay-at-home dads in 2011, up from 154,000 in 2010. That’s a 14% increase, and a 68% increase since 2002, when they numbered just 105,000. Many have pointed to the recession as a cause, but even if employment bounces back, men’s role may be irrevocably changed.

Asked why so many more men stayed home in 2011, Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Fathers, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family echoed many other experts: “in a word, recession.”

We haven’t “won the war against sexism,” he acknowledged, but women’s economic power has been growing swiftly since the Nineties. Meanwhile, for men, “economic instability has become a fact of life.” Whether they work in blue-collar professions like construction or white-collar careers like banking, many men are either experiencing layoffs or “changing jobs like underwear” to try to make ends meet. The result: “moms have a lot more responsibilities on the job and dads have a lot more repsonsiblities at home.” Smith thinks the stay-at-home dads stats actually understate this phenomenon, because a lot of dads are doing more housework and childcare than ever, even if they don’t stay home full-time.

So will this trend reverse itself when the economy bounces back? Smith pointed to the aftermath of World War II, when many women were pushed out of their jobs by men returning from war: a lot of those women, he said, “had gotten a taste of something that hadn’t been available to their grandmothers, and that lit a fuse that burned for fifteen years and then exploded into second-wave feminism.” Similarly, when employment rebounds, “things will get back to ‘normal’ but people’s psychology will have changed.”

A number of vocal stay-at-home dads seem to have embraced their new duties. Tom Anderson became a stay-at-home dad of twin girls after being laid off by an Internet startup. Last fall, he wrote at Babble of his plans to join a local stay-at-home moms’ group: “I can only hope they will let someone that can’t read instruction manuals and can’t seem to find time for a shower into their club.” With many other daddy bloggers and authors making stay-at-home fatherhood ever more visible, clubs for moms only may soon become a thing of the past. The Great Recession, says Smith, has already brought about deep changes in American gender roles, and those changes might be here to stay.

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