On being a stay-at-home dad – a glimpse from the other side

Surprised by the doorbell ringing at our new home, I open the door to meet a woman from the village we just moved to in southeast France. We don’t know anyone, so who can it be? She has brought a printout of “an easy recipe that children like”. She is both welcoming towards the new ‘English people’ and a bit concerned, having heard about the stay-at-home dad looking after his young children aged two and four years. Our families later became good friends, but her visit portrayed the norms, expectations, and challenges we have around who cares and who works.

Around the world, there is nearly always an implicit, and frequently explicit, assumption that women are the ones who should care for children while men provide via paid work. This persists despite the fact that many households are made up of dual-earner parents.(1) It also leads to the so-called ‘double-shift’ that many women face as workers and carers.(2) While these norms characterise the majority of situations, it is by no means automatic, natural, or efficient. Indeed, the effects of these norms around caring constrain everyone — women, men, and their children.

There are many examples of men taking on caring roles. Working in childcare and even teaching are largely female-dominated activities, but this does not necessarily have to be the case. In Europe, teaching was a largely male-dominated activity until the turn of the last century.(3) Similarly, working in early childhood care is an almost exclusively female occupation, but variations across countries are significant. Men are far more present in this field in Nordic countries, where higher qualifications are required and professionals are paid well.(4)

There are situations in which circumstances challenge these norms and men take on the primary care role. The English poet Henry Normal tells a moving story of how his father raised him and his siblings after the death of his mother in 1950s Britain, in the absence of formal childcare and even fewer stay-at-home fathers.(5) Nowadays, around the world, there is a small but growing number of men taking on a more significant caring role.(6)

This trend sends a signal about modern forms of masculinity, fatherhood, and more egalitarian households.
The Global Picture

Around the world, parenthood has a more significant impact on women’s employment patterns than men’s. In Europe, fathers’ employment rates tend to be higher than those of non-fathers, while mothers’ employment rates are lower than those of non-mothers.(7) Furthermore, mothers are much more likely to work part-time.(8) To add to this picture, evidence suggests that fathers’ remuneration is generally higher than that of their childless counterparts; however, this is not the case with mothers.(9) This is known as ‘the motherhood penalty’ amongst economists.

These patterns are borne out by statistics. Women, compared to men, spend between two and 10 times as much time on unpaid care work.(10) The gap is largest in the Middle East and North Africa — less than one hour for men and almost six for women, and smallest in Europe and North America, where men spend just over two hours and women around four on caregiving.

Income inequalities exacerbate this gender gap in time spent on care work. A more detailed study found variations in care time across countries according to the level of support provided by childcare services, and it was found that greater support did not alter the significant gap between women and men in time spent on unpaid care work.(11) While fathers spend around an hour per day caring for children in Australia, Denmark, Italy, and France, women spend between 2.5 and four hours engaged in childcare.

These patterns and norms tend to impact greatly on women’s role as carers and how they interact with paid work. For example, research from Australia showed how women use non-standard working patterns to work around their care responsibilities.(12) When men work non-standard hours, mothers tend to pick up even more of the care work. This picture is repeated around the world, as women are more likely to adjust their working times or -patterns when they have children.(13)

Dads they are a-changin’

In spite of these powerful social norms, the share of fathers taking an active role in the care of their children is rising. Research from the USA suggests that there were 190 000 stay-at-home fathers in 2018. While women still account for four-fifths of stay-at-home parents, the number of fathers not in the labour force due to providing primary care for their children has more than doubled since 2000.(14) These figures include only those mothers and fathers outside the labour market who are providing full-time care, yet we know there are many more who work part-time. In the USA, a broader definition of a stay-at-home father includes men who work part-time, suggesting that there are men in this situation.

Across the European Union, mothers are much more likely to work part-time than fathers — 33% compared to just 5%.(15) However, the variations across countries are considerable. Whereas 83% of mothers of at least one child work part-time in the Netherlands, this share falls to less than 10% in nine of the 28 member states. In the UK, the share is 49%. More fathers work part-time in the Netherlands (16%) than mothers in 12 of the 28 European member states. Indeed, the Netherlands has been described as the world’s first part-time economy.(16)

It is important to contextualise the phenomenon. There remain relatively few men who are stay-at-home dads, even in the most egalitarian of countries, such as those categorised as Nordic. In Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, the model of dual-earning suggests that it is not a case of simply exchanging stay-at-home mothers for stay-at-home fathers, but a move to a model of dual working and dual caring. We can see this in the very high employment rates of mothers and fathers in these countries and the low number of women who work part-time in Finland, for example.(17) There is no one-size-fits-all model.

Cross-national studies(18) show that, on average, there are limited differences in the time fathers spend on childcare, whether they are the only parent working, in a dual-working household, or even when they do not work at all. These studies show higher female employment at the national level, associated with slightly higher levels of unpaid work by men. Such results underline that stay-at-home dads are not those without work, but rather those who have made the choice to actively engage in caring for their children. For example, Tamm(19) has shown that men who choose to take paternity leave do more unpaid care tasks even after they have returned to work.

There is, furthermore, a qualitative dimension to this engagement. Being engaged in childcare means doing the full gamut of activities. Research tends to show that women are left with routine care tasks and activities with the child.(20) When men do get involved, it is often for non-routine tasks and those performed in the company of the mother. The routine and individualised caring tasks are more likely to impact paid-work schedules and availability in the office, and also to be incompatible with other multitasking possibilities.

These are care tasks that require real engagement, with less scope for combining it with paid work. Being a stay-at-home father should mean doing both types of activities.
Understanding the picture

Why are we seeing a change in these norms and behaviours, albeit varied, across countries? There are a number of drivers at home and in the labour market.

While the norms around masculinity have shaped men’s expectations around care, these norms are not static. There is the personal choice to care for the family and be an active father, but also wider changes in society around the expectations of men, as well as men’s desire to be actively involved in the lives of their children. Some have linked this to younger generations, who seek a different kind of balance between care and work. There is also a class dimension. Those with tertiary education and those in higher-level occupations have greater means and thus more options in being active fathers.(21) For some men, it may not be an option at all.

Research has shown that fathers’ active involvement in care responsibilities is positively related to the child attaining a higher level of education, the father’s attitude to equality, and the mother’s number of working hours.(22) However, even though research shows that fathers may reduce their hours when the mother is working, when asked for their own working time preferences, taking care of children is not a consideration.(23) This suggests that men either do not want to work shorter hours when they have children (while many do, indeed, reduce their working time), or they may feel unable to report this preference when asked.

The rarity of being a stay-at-home father can pose certain challenges for men, not least of which is that the social structures that exist for stay-at-home mothers may not be open to men in the same way, for example, mother-and-toddler groups.

Indeed, I was a member of the “English-speaking Mothers’ Group” in France when my children were small.  The chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, is well known for promoting more equal parenting, but she herself recognises that women need to support men who break the norm.

Studies suggest that some stay-at-home fathers face psychological challenges and discomfort in interacting with other adults, possibly reflecting sensitivity to stereotypes around the role, even though they are happy spending time with their children.(24)

Across the world, women’s increased participation in employment has been a common feature of labour market trends in recent years. There are numerous reasons for this, ranging from increased investment in education, failing marriages, women’s emancipation, and changing demands in the labour market.

One of the outcomes of these trends is that women have gained access to more top jobs, and, while significant gender pay gaps remain, there is an increase in the share of households in which women are the primary earners, thus reversing some of the foundations of the ‘male breadwinner model’.(25)

The changes in the labour market have also increased job insecurity and raised the likelihood of men in dual-earner households losing their jobs. This trend was first observed in the financial crisis of 2008,(26) and is again noticeable in the COVID-19 pandemic.(27) While dual-earning provides some cushioning in the instance of individual job loss within the household when the man loses his job, it creates a de facto female breadwinner. However, whether this creates a male carer or stay-at-home father ultimately depends on the circumstances and the expectations of the couple.(28) Similarly, illness and disability in men may cause them to become carers, as they are unable to undertake paid work.

Although less common in South Africa, same-sex couples having children has become a widespread phenomenon in some European countries and the USA.(29) In a male same-sex relationship where one parent chooses to become a stay-at-home parent, there is a de facto stay-at-home father. While not common in all countries, this is yet another example of society’s changing norms leading to a greater diversity of male primary carers.

The Benefits

As a father who spent time as a stay-at-home dad, I know how lucky I am to have had the privilege of spending time with my children. I enjoyed breaking the norm and being the odd one out. However, for many, this option is not available, due to their household resources, circumstances, or the sheer weight of societal norms regarding who should provide childcare. The trend of fathers playing a more active role in their children’s lives is gaining traction, but progress is slow.

Beyond the joy of spending quality time with our children, there are additional reasons why women, men, children, and wider society can benefit from more active parenting by fathers. The first is the most important. The rewards of being an active father and building a lifelong relationship with one’s children are priceless.

In a study of the top five regrets of the dying, author Ware (2012)(30) found that nobody said they wished they had worked more, but many reported reflecting on time not spent with their loved ones. Our children are often at the top of this list.

We need to actively help men challenge gender identity norms, as these constrain both men and women, and, ultimately, gender equality. Moving towards a fairer distribution of paid and unpaid work holds multiple benefits, ranging from reducing the double shift women work, to sharing household income risks in times of uncertainty, to supporting a greater variety of household forms in society that help normalise this diversity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for the economy and society. On the one hand, the pandemic has reversed some of the gains that women have made in the labour market and negated the benefits of regular schooling, as their children have had to be home-schooled (a task falling heavily upon women). On the other hand, job loss among men is increasingly creating households with no earners or with female breadwinners.(31) Men need an environment in which their roles, perhaps as unpaid carers, is recognised and valued by society, not only to support them in their roles as fathers but also to maintain their self-esteem and support household stability.

Fourth, dual-earning is the reality that many households now face. The model of a stay-at-home mother, in fact, has a short history, and some form of dual-earning has become the norm. Falling male breadwinner wages and rising costs mean that dual-earning may be the only means of survival. A model of dual caring and dual working ensures shared risks at the household level(32) and supports prelateship stability(33) and wellbeing.(34) Valuing men as carers as well as workers can support sustainable dual-earning households, as it will help normalise both paid and unpaid work being undertaken by women and men.

South Africa’s birth rate is burgeoning while, around the world, from Austria to Hungary and China to Germany, birth rates are falling. Population maintenance is key to ensuring an adequate labour supply and bolstering economic development. While population growth could be a boost for the African economy, in conditions where caring and working are not compatible, families do not resort to the old model of a male breadwinner, but, instead, have fewer or no children. Worldwide, social reproduction takes second place to economic security and a rewarding career, so it is the responsibility of men and women to make both working and caring possible at the household level.

Men’s greater involvement in the raising of their children will make them present fathers who can act as role models for the good of society. As well as running a major mining corporation, Mike Teke has made it one of his missions to promote active fatherhood in South Africa.(35) Raised by his grandmother, he did not benefit from an active father and is acutely aware of the consequences of boys growing up without engagement with their fathers. A future generation of boys who grow up having known, loved, and been loved by their fathers could hold significant societal benefits for future generations, including respect for care work and greater equality amongst the sexes.

Overall, the opportunities offered to men who take up some of the duties in the unpaid and often unrecorded work of caring will bring this valuable responsibility out of the shadows. It will also provide numerous opportunities for society. For men, perhaps the greatest gift is to themselves and their children.


Mark Smith

Mark Smith is Director-elect at University of Stellenbosch Business School (SA). He is former Faculty Dean & Professor Human Resource Management at Grenoble Ecole de Management (FR). At Grenoble, he was Faculty Dean (2016-20), Director of the Doctoral School (2013-16), Head of Department (2012-13), and research team leader "Work Life Careers" (2012-15). Prior to working in France he worked at Manchester Business School (UK). His research interests focus on careers and labour market policy & outcomes for women and men including working conditions, working-time, and work-life integration. He has authored or co-authored over fifty books, book chapters, and journal articles. He publishes regularly in the media about his research and the management of business schools. He has also been a member of the editorial board of Work, Employment & Society.