Stop Congratulating Stay-at-home Dads for Doing Their Job as Parents

The number of stay-at-home dads has doubled since 1989, according to much-heralded new research from the Pew Foundation. But don't get too excited: this isn't actual progress for equality in the domestic sphere.

There are still over 10m stay-at-home moms compared to the nation's 2m full-time, stay-at-home dads – and the majority of fathers who are forgoing work for family aren't doing it willingly. Funny how the "most important job in the world" is still the one that most men don't want.

According to Pew, 23% of stay-at-home fathers are there because they can't find a job, and 35% report being home because of illness or disability. It's only 21% of men who say they're not working in order to care for their children or to take care of the home. Given how little society thinks of men who are full-time caretakers, though, it shouldn't come as any surprise that most men aren't eager to spend their days carpooling and wiping up dirty tushies. Last year Pew's report on stay-at-home parents showed that, while the majority of respondents thought that children were better off when their mother stayed at home and didn't work (a fallacy I'll get to in a minute), only 8% said the same of fathers who stay home.

The truth is that everything from social expectations to policy sets up dads to assume that they shouldn't – or can't – take care of their own kids alone. My personal pet peeve – but a telling cultural tidbit – is when people ask if my husband is "babysitting" our daughter. He's her father, he doesn't "babysit": he parents.

Yet this isn't just a verbal tic. As I reported in my 2012 book, Why Have Kids, when the US Census looks at who is doing child care, the mother is the "designated parent". This means that anyone than other than a mother – grandparent, babysitter, teacher and yes, even dad – is counted as "child care" for the purposes of the census. Parenting is only parenting when a mother does it: even the government says so!

Dads do get a bum rap. Commercials tell them that they're inept at the most mundane parenting tasks like diapering; skeptics wonder why stay-at-home dads aren't out "providing" for their families; and family workplace policies like paternity leave – or gender-neutral parental leave – are less available and more socially stigmatized than they are for mothers.

So I feel bad for fathers, truly. But I feel worse for moms.

Despite the uptick in fathers' involvement in parenting, women still do the vast majority of domestic work, from housework to child care. And, like the dads who stay-at-home, not all stay-at-home moms are there by choice. One of the major reasons women stop working in order to care for kids is not – as popular media trends would have us believe – because they "opt out" of high-paying careers to be full-time moms. Instead, the majority of stay-at-home moms are there because of financial hardship – and a third of all stay-at-home mothers live in poverty.

Mothers, unlike fathers, also have to deal with their commitment to their kids being questioned any time they do work. If we work full-time, we're apparently ignoring our kids. If we send them to daycare, we're turning them into bullies. If we love our jobs, we must be fooling ourselves because moms who work are miserable. (Actually, a 2011 report from the American Psychological Association shows that moms who had jobs during their children's early years were happier than those who stayed at home.) And while dads get gold stars for anything from turning up to a soccer game to changing a diaper all by themselves, moms are expected to do everything without accolade ... because mothering is supposedly fulfilling enough on its own.

If we wanted to make parenting happier and healthier for both moms and dads, we'd let go of the expectations and make care work more valued across the board. Some parents want to work outside the home, and some don't – and neither decision will irreparably damage you kid or, alternately, ensure their success. But without necessary supports like subsidized child care and mandated paid parental leave, parents will never have real options to choose from when deciding how to best care for their children.

In the meantime, I hope more dads do choose to stay at home, and not just to buck the social expectations that they shouldn't or won't do a good enough job. Instead, I want them to show all of our kids that fathers are involved in parenting as mothers – and that the only "babysitter" in the house is the one that gets paid at the end of the night.


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