Men of the House: Stay-Home Dads Are on the Rise

E.J. Cory and his one-year-old son Calvin at their favorite neighborhood bar. (Isabelle Muge Niu/NY City Lens)

E.J. Cory and his one-year-old son Calvin at their favorite neighborhood bar. (Isabelle Muge Niu/NY City Lens)

The neighborhood bar was half-empty on a Wednesday afternoon, but E.J. Cory had company. As Cory took a gulp of beer, his “bar mate” settled comfortably in his lap, clutching a feeding bottle.

Cory, father of one-year-old Calvin, belongs to a rapidly growing population of 2 million men who stay home to provide full-time care for their children. His family of three lives in Cobble Hill, a little swath of brownstone Brooklyn where strollers clog the streets and bars tout their baby-friendliness.

For Cory, the decision to switch from working as a wine seller to becoming a stay-home dad was easy. “My wife has a good job with insurance and pension so it was a no-brainer for me to stay at home,” Cory said. “I didn’t want to miss this kid’s life.”

His reasoning resonates with hundreds of thousands of families across the country, a drastic change from two decades ago, when nearly all at-home dads said they did not work because of illness, disability, or unemployment, a recent study from Pew Research Center shows. “Now one in five says they stay at home to care for their children, which is a pretty stunning change,” said the study’s author, Gretchen Livingston. With the overall population of stay-home dad climbing by twofold to 2 million since 1989, this means about 400,000 dads now say they stay at home to take care of their families.

This trend is driven by a combination of economic and social changes, according to Fred Van Deusen, senior research associate at the Boston College Center for Work and Family and co-author of a 2012 study on stay-at-home dads.

“One of the reasons is that more women are working in high-paying jobs and are out-earning their spouses,” he said. Of all households with children, the share of married mothers who out-earn their husbands has increased from 4 percent to 15 percent between 1960 and 2011, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center analysis of census data. Families with breadwinning mothers also have about $2,000 more in median income than those with breadwinning fathers, the study shows. The economic change challenges traditional gender expectation of men to be the primary providers in family life.

Another reason is the shifting perception of work-life balance and fatherhood among men, Livingston said. There has been a 10-percentage point increase of work-life conflict among working fathers in the past 30 years from 34% in 1977, a study by Families and Work Institute says.

Joe McLaughlin plays with Mira, two, and Ronan, 14 months, in downtown Brooklyn. (Isabelle Muge Niu/NY City Lens)

Joe McLaughlin plays with Mira, two, and Ronan, 14 months, in downtown Brooklyn. (Isabelle Muge Niu/NY City Lens)

Joe McLaughlin, a stay-at-home dad who lives on the border of Cobble Hill, said the rigid schedule of his previous job as a restaurant chef left him little time with his family. The proud father of 2-year-old Mira and 14-month-old Ronan said giving up his job was worthwhile.

“The personal and career sacrifices certainly do not compare to the gains I’ve had, just being able to experience their growth, getting to know their personalities and noticing all the little intricacies on the day-to-day basis,” McLaughlin said.

Several men said that while the rewards of staying home to raise the children are high, there is also a price to pay. Men who act as the primary caretakers often grapple with identity issues, a lack of social network, the stress of caretaking and on top of that mistrust from the public, experts say.

The idea of men as breadwinners is so ingrained that sometimes seeing the nurturing side of men baffles people. Cory recalled an amusing experience when a Caribbean woman approached him while he was riding home on 4 Train with Calvin, and sincerely congratulated he and his husband for their adoption.

Experts say it is common for stay-at-home dads to battle with pressure in social situations.

Jason Greene has been a stay-at-home dad for ten years. His wife’s earning as an attorney allows him to care for their three children full time. Going to dinner parties with her colleagues was not entirely comfortable, he said. “People asked what I do and when I told them I stay at home with my kids, there would be a long pause,” Greene said.  “I didn’t know how to respond to that silence.”

Now he has come to terms with this because he knows how much his contribution means to his wife. “I make sure that when she goes out to take on the world, she doesn’t need to worry about home,” Greene said.

All three fathers said their wives trusted that they could handle the job well. The public, however, is not ready to give dads the vote of confidence yet. Based on the Pew Research Center study, only 8 percent of the public thinks children are better off if dad is at home, a fraction of the percentage—51 percent— of people who believe children are better off if mom is stay at home.

The preconceived notion that men cannot be trusted with caretaking comes from the portrayal of incapable buffoon dads in movies and commercials, said Lance Somerfeld, co-founder of the NYC Dads Group, which provides support and advocacy for stay-at-home dads and other engaged fathers by organizing events and meet-ups for some 850 fathers in the city.

In fact, in the brownstone neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, and Cobble Hill, the invasion of turf by involved dads has already begun, he said. It has become a regular scene to see groups of dads wearing babies at Brooklyn Bridge Park or the crowded playground on Carroll Street. Such scenes send a message,” he said,  “that men can be just as capable and nurturing caretakers as women are.”