New Study Looks at “At-Home Dads”
by David Gibson
Most full-time, “at-home dads” interviewed for a new study by the Center for Work and Family at Jesuit-run Boston College were not forced into this role after a job loss.
Instead, they tended to be “men who had, in concert with their spouses,” made the clear choice “to dedicate themselves to full-time parenting for an often indefinite length of time.”
For the most part, the at-home fathers were “a very happy group who felt they were following an important calling,” according to the study, titled “The New Dad: Right at Home.”
It appears, too, “that at-home dads are very good parents.” The researchers found that the fathers in their study were “devoted to their children, and very involved and active parents.”
In fact, the study notes, fathers who wanted someday to return to work outside the home also wanted “jobs that would enable them to spend significant amounts of time with their children,” even were this to limit “their career advancement possibilities.”
The study says the decision to become an at-home father most often reflected “two major considerations” — a couple’s “financial circumstances and their values regarding how their children should be raised.”
The report points out that in some instances the fathers’ incomes “were not sufficient to offset the high costs” of children’s day care.
Interestingly, the decision to become a household with an at-home father and a work-force mother often aided the mother’s career, allowing her to focus more intently on her work.
According to Brad Harrington, the center’s executive director and the study’s co-author, “the existence of at-home fathers greatly enables and facilitates the careers of their working wives or partners.”
Often, of course, deciding a father would stay home reflected both spouses’ “strong desire” that a parent be “home with the children rather than, as one participant put it, ‘outsource our children to a day-care provider.’”
In some cases the decision also reflected a conviction that the husband was more fitted than his wife to this role.
These men did not decide their role “based on gender, but rather on their competencies and the needs of their family as a whole,” the report says.
At-home fathers represent a growing segment of American parents. Still, according to the study, they as yet “make up only 3.4 percent of all at-home parents in two-parent families.”
Third “New Dad” Study
Over the past three years, the Center for Work and Family has focused much of its attention on the changing role of fathers. “The New Dad: Right at Home” is its third “new dad” report.
A 2010 study, “The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood Within a Career Context,” looked into the experiences of 33 new fathers, principally in dual-career families with very young children.
In 2011 the center published “The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted.” Based on a survey of 963 fathers in white-collar jobs, the center sought to learn how men negotiate their lives while wanting career advancement, but also wanting to be highly engaged husbands and fathers.
This year the center studied at-home fathers, “whose commitment to ‘hands-on’ parenting would be difficult to question.” The number of those who participated in the in-depth interviews was small. The center explains:
“We planned to conduct interviews until we reached the point where little new information or few new themes emerged.” In the end, the center interviewed 31 at-home fathers. Twenty-three wives completed a study survey.
“Due to the limited sample” of fathers, the researchers acknowledge that the study conclusions are tentative.
The researchers wanted “to better understand these fathers, to see why they left the work force, how they contributed to their families and what has allowed them to successfully navigate this role.”
Obstacles and Challenges
At-home fathers, like at-home mothers, encounter some “obstacles and challenges,” the study affirms.
“Issues of social isolation, loss of an adult network, uncertainty about future career plans and concern about how they will be perceived by future potential employers are of concern to most at-home parents, but men often experience these feelings even more acutely,” it says.
Stress surfaced in some homes over mothers’ and fathers’ roles. Some working mothers “felt a bit out of place in the role of sole breadwinner”; some felt “they had lost a measure of control in their home lives.”
One wife said there are days she resents her husband “for doing what I have always perceived as my job.”
Some couples experienced frustration when their parents’ criticized the notion of an at-home father. “We worked through it, but it was very stressful,” one wife recalled.
But overall, the experiences of at-home fathers “were very positive, and they felt gratified by having the opportunity to be at-home dads,” the study says.
Moreover, it comments, these are men who amplify the call in society “for increased flexibility in organizations.”
Here the study underscores its finding that in considering “the prospect of returning to work” someday, virtually all the fathers interviewed “expressed their heartfelt desire to find jobs with significant flexibility that will allow for greater work-life balance than they had before leaving the workplace.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.