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Happy Homemakers?

A comparison of male and female homemakers

The rise of happy (male) homemakers?

There has been a recent rash of media coverage of stay-at-home fathers, nearly all of which focuses on upper-middle class men (For example: Kantor and Silver-Greenberg 2013; Williams 2012). In addition to the popular media attention, a number of academic studies have investigated men’s motivations for entering the homemaker role and their satisfaction in this role; these men tend to be well-educated and socioeconomically advantaged (Chesley 2011; Fischer and Anderson 2012; Rochlen and McKelley 2010; Rochlen et al. 2008b). In other words, compared to similarly-aged married men in the US population, the stay-at-home fathers profiled in these studies have higher-than-average levels of education.

Given that the typical stay-at-home mother tends to have relatively low education and low earnings potential, it is somewhat paradoxical that stay-at-home fathers would be socioeconomically-advantaged. There are two alternatives: (1) Men stay home under different circumstances than do women, or (2) Prior studies do not accurately represent the population of stay-at-home fathers. Indeed, extant studies of male homemakers generally rely on small convenience samples which may yield biased results (Chesley 2011; Fischer and Anderson 2012; Rochlen and McKelley 2010; Rochlen et al. 2008a; Rochlen, Suizzo, and McKelley 2008b). These qualitative studies are invaluable in providing insight into the lives of the primarily middle-class fathers that they profile, but it remains unknown whether these men are typical of male homemakers.

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The current analysis

To further understanding of male homemakers’ typical traits and family context, I used a combination of four large, national datasets, including US Census data, to examine and compare the characteristics of both female and male homemakers. In addition to comparing male and female homemakers, I also compare these men and women to their breadwinning counterparts. In the US Census data I define homemakers as parents who are employed in paid labor at most part time (20 hours per week). In the other datasets I analyzed (see acknowledgements below), homemakers self-identify by selecting “keeping house” or “housewife” as their employment status.

On average, male homemakers are found in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged families; this is evident in all the datasets I considered. For example, male homemaker families have the lowest household income and male homemakers tend to have low levels of education. Female homemaker families also have lower income than the other family forms and female homemakers have less education than working women, but the male homemaker families are noticeably more disadvantaged than the female homemaker families. Interestingly, black men are disproportionately likely to be homemakers, perhaps in part due to barriers to employment and to the tradition of female breadwinning in the African-American community. In contrast, black women are disproportionately unlikely to be homemakers.

I also found that male homemakers disproportionately suffer barriers to paid labor, including disabilities that prevent or limit work, little education or job training, substance abuse, poor mental and general health, and past incarceration. For some of these men, homemaking might not reflect a true choice—paid employment may not have been a viable option, essentially forcing them into the homemaker role. Female homemakers are also less advantaged on many of these measures, compared to working women, but the difference tends to be larger for men. For example, past incarceration is over twice as high among homemaking men (48%) as among working men (22%); the difference is much less dramatic among women (10% and 7%). If many male homemakers have been pushed into the role because they lack other opportunities, such men are unlikely to be happy as homemakers. Indeed, compared to working men, working women, and homemaking women, male homemakers are the least satisfied and most stressed with their role as a parent.

Conclusions

For the most part, existing studies of male homemakers have depicted men who are relatively well-educated, socioeconomically advantaged, and satisfied with their role. The popular media in particular frequently profiles upper-middle class men with high-earning wives. But I find that this profile does not represent the majority of male homemakers. Instead, these men generally have low levels of education, low household income, and suffer many barriers to employment. Because these disadvantages are also evident among female homemakers, albeit to a lesser degree, it seems probable that some homemakers may have entered their role reluctantly—their poor employment prospects left them little alternative. Forced homemaking is likely to be especially common among male homemakers, given their higher level of barriers to employment. This supposition is consistent with male homemakers’ greater dissatisfaction with their parenting role, compared to female homemakers and to breadwinners of either gender.

Doubtless, there are many stay-at-home fathers and mothers who truly choose to stay home and embrace their homemaking role. Nevertheless, these findings highlight the need to provide parents of both genders with practical support finding fulfillment and balance in work and caretaking roles. Likewise, male and female homemakers are found in families of every socioeconomic level—there are certainly many homemakers of either gender who enjoy the advantages of high educational attainment and a high-earning spouse. But on average, male homemakers families in particular suffer high levels of poverty and economic hardships. It is important that future research on stay-at-home fathers examines these men’s experiences.

Acknowledgements

This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website (http://www.cpc.unc.edu/addhealth). No direct support was received from grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis.

This research uses data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. The collection of data used in this study was partly supported by the National Institutes of Health under grant number R01 HD069609 and the National Science Foundation under award number 1157698.

This research uses data from the US Census 1980-2000 and the American Community Survey 2001-2011. Both are collected by the Bureau of the Census and were accessed through the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series of the Minnesota Population Center.

 

Elizabeth Aura McClintock, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

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