Myths about stay-at-home dads fuel sexist policies

Josh Levs and his daughter.
Josh Levs and his daughter. Courtesy of Josh Levs

Everything you’ve heard recently about stay-at-home dads is wrong. The often-repeated lies are hurting families and the cause of gender equality.

Just about any article on the topic includes this as fact: that of 2 million “stay-at-home dads,” only 1 in 5 is home because he is taking care of his kids. The vast majority are home because they can’t get work, are enrolled in school, have retired or are ill.

Every part of this is false.

The source for this lie is a badly botched study from the Pew Research Center. A generally respectable institution, Pew went vastly off the rails on this one. The key problem: It did not look at stay-at-home dads. The agency instead used government data to count up men who have children and have “not worked for pay in the prior year, regardless of the reason.” That’s a huge mistake. By far, the vast majority of stay-at-home fathers, just like many stay-at-home mothers, have some income from an individual project or freelance work. My wife is a stay-at-home mom, and she pulls in a bit of income.

Pew counted men who made no money in the previous year and happen to have children. This includes students who are taking courses and studying for degrees. It includes men who are spending countless hours seeking work because their families need them to make income. It includes men who are ill and disabled and therefore can’t care for their children.

Pew acknowledges this in a line buried on its website. “Summarily excluding fathers who are primary caregivers, but who also worked at least a few hours in the prior year may lead to an underestimate of the actual numbers of stay-at-home fathers,” the agency notes.

The best actual approximation of stay-at-home dads – men who are primarily at home to care for their children – comes from a study cited by the National At-Home Dad Network. Approximately 1.8 million men are home because they want to care for their children – and they’re doing so every bit as well as stay-at-home moms are.

The census, meanwhile, found that 1 in 5 dads with working wives are primary caregivers to their preschool-aged children.

But the misrepresentations get even worse. In a misguided column in the New York Times, writer Judith Shulevitz cited the Pew figures then added the claim that “men who are out of work eke out slightly under three hours a day of housework and child care combined – less than working women do (3.4 hours a day).”

Shulevitz cited a chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that – just like Pew’s data – was not about stay-at-home fathers. It’s about people who make no money. By this same chart, Shulevitz could have claimed that stay-at-home moms (the “not employed”) spend only two hours a day caring for their children. It’s preposterous.

In fact, men and women now put in equal hours on behalf of their families when you combine paid work, child care and household responsibilities. To its credit, Pew got this right in a study that did not involve obscure definitions. Working fathers, by the way, spend an average of three hours with their children each work day, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute whose methodology is legitimate.

The myth of the lazy, uninvolved dad who doesn’t want to take care of his children is fuel for sexist laws, policies and stigmas that prevent women from succeeding at work. Business and government leaders continue to believe that women “rule the roost” while a man’s place is at work. Why would a business offer paternity leave if fathers do so little for their children at home? This backward thinking is also the reason the U.S. is the only developed nation with no guaranteed paid maternity leave. If you believe stereotypes, then you believe women are supposed to stay home without pay while men make all the money.

To update the American workplace, we must help everyone in power understand the truth about today’s parents: Mothers and fathers, both working and staying at home, are equally committed to our families. That is fact.

Josh Levs of Atlanta is author of “All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses – And How We Can Fix It Together.”


What: 20th annual At-Home Dads Convention; Josh Levs will give the closing keynote address

Where: Marbles Kids Museum, 201 E. Hargett St., Raleigh

When: Today, Sunday

More info: athomedad.org/convention/about-the-convention