Women remain far more likely than men to stay home with their kids, and they do so for different reasons. In 2012, there were 10.4 million stay-at-home mothers (who accounted for 29 percent of all American mothers), vs. just 2 million stay-at-home fathers (7 percent of all fathers who lived with their children). Dads now represent 16 percent of all stay-at-home parents, up from 10 percent in 1989.
Although non-working dads have grown much less likely since 1989 to say they’re at home due to illness or disability, that’s still the top reason they’re not in the work force, followed by the inability to find a job. One in five at-home dads gives caring for family as the reason they do not work, a proportion that has increased since 1989 but remains far below the proportion of stay-at-home mothers who say the same. (Eighty-five percent of married, at-home moms with working husbands, and 41 percent of single at-home moms, say they’re home to care for the family.)
The strength of the economy affects both men’s and women’s desire and ability to work, but it has an especially strong impact on men: the number of at-home dads tends to spike during recessions and then decline somewhat as the economy recovers (a pattern evident during and after the 2008 recession). It is unsurprising, then, that the men who struggle most in the job market—those with some illness or disability, those who lack a college degree, and especially those who lack a high school diploma—are the most likely to be stay-at-home fathers.
As with at-home mothers, at-home fathers are more likely than their working counterparts to be poor. In fact, they’re even more likely to be poor than stay-at-home mothers, which is likely due to at-home dads’ higher rates of illness and disability and their lower likelihood of having an employed spouse. Mothers who don’t work are younger than their employed counterparts, in part because some women stay home just temporarily while their children are young, while non-working fathers are older on average than working ones.
It’s hard to classify the growing number of fathers at home as a positive or negative trend overall. Children whose fathers stay home to care for them are presumably more likely than other kids to develop close relationships with their dads, and to reap the benefits that such relationships offer. And when both parents are flexible—able to find and keep a good job, and able to care for their kids and run the household—the family is less apt to be financially devastated by a change in the job market, a medical emergency, and so on. But when the economy pushes a parent out of the labor force against their wishes, as has been the case for an especially large number of fathers since the 2008 recession, the personal stress and financial struggles that result must take a toll on the whole family.
The first sentence of this post has been updated, and words have been added to the fourth paragraph, for greater accuracy.