This summer, writing for The Atlantic, Ann Marie Slaughter explored the current day options for working women in an article titled  “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

As she intended, the article generated discussion of feminism and the lives of women. Though there were numerous responses critical of Slaughter's own assumptions about gender (she references "a maternal imperative" when it comes to why she thinks women have a harder time than men with work/life balance. She later clarified what she meant here.) I could not find any that raised this possible solution: that men stay home with children.

I've been wondering why that is.

The number of dads who are primary caregivers is still relatively small in comparsion to women who take on this role, of course. The New York Times reports that around 626,000 men serve as the primary caretaker of children under 15 while their wife works.

So maybe this particular solution to work/life balance just isn't on our radar.

But then I still want to know, why not? Does the idea of men staying home have so little appeal? Is the growing number of stay-at-home dads just a side effect of a downturn in the economy? Is it possible that even women with lucrative careers think the idea of having a spouse stay home is laughable? Do men simply not want to stay home?

I took the questions I had to Karen Kramer, an expert in nontraditional division of labor and how they can be related to our attitudes about gender. I'm so grateful for her explanations.

Dr. Kramer, I’ve read your reports on how the number of dads who provide primary childcare in their families is growing at a great rate- and that the numbers are even greater if dads who do some work outside of the home are counted. I’ve also read that this cannot wholly be explained by economic downturns. Is this right?

 A central question in research on stay-at-home fathers should is how to define stay-at-home father families. The real question is who is the PRIMARY caregiver. The problem is that whenever a family is identified as one in which the father is working (full-time) and the mother is not working or working part-time, it is immediately assumed (correctly most of the time) that the mother is the primary caregiver. This is not necessarily true when mothers are working full-time and fathers are not working or working part-time. In many of these families the wife has a second shift at home as the primary caregiver. While economic conditions may force families to non-traditional division of paid work, gendered role perceptions are less likely to change. Research shows that these fathers help more at home but because values and norms in society change very slowly the exchange is not “perfect”.  

Answering your question, yes, I find that while economic downturns increase the number of stay-at-home father households substantially, once unemployment returns to pre-downturn levels, the proportion of SAHF (stay-at-home-father) households is still larger than pre-downturn. In addition, there is a smooth small increase in the proportion of SAHF households over time that, to me, means a slow gradual change in perception about gendered roles.

 As a mom whose husband stayed home with our children, it kind of offends me when people still assume that dads would only stay home if there were an economic reason- as if no family would want a man caring for the children by choice. I also get told that only women earning large incomes can afford a stay-at-home dad, but that does not make sense to me because women with large incomes can afford a number of arrangements- like a nanny. I get the sense that even very liberal people (like the academics I usually have these conversations with) still cannot acknowledge what must just seem simply true in many families today: dads can enjoy and be great at taking care of children during the day.

 My answer for that is “values and norms in society change really slowly!”

There are two theories that can be used to explain why fathers stay-at-home to take care of children. Exchange theory provides explanations that are based in power relations, and, at the core, argues that the person with the more power in the relationship gets to make the family related decisions. Power in this theory is determined by who earns more money. This is not surprising given the economic roots of this theory. This theory would predict that gender should play no role in family decisions.

A second theory I use is gendered role perceptions that combines both sociological and feminist thought. According to this theory gendered roles that come from the dominance of masculine and feminine norms assign women to caregiving roles and men to paid roles. When norms are violated (a woman that earns more than her spouse) women will overcompensate in the caregiving and housework roles to neutralize the “deviation” from the traditional social expectations (discussed in theories that mention “gender display” and “gender deviance neutralization”). I think research supports both theories and in reality both are complimentary. When women earn more than men, men do more at home but not as much as an identical “traditional” couple.

More specific to your question, there is a study (can’t remember the authors) that was done among university students (who tend to be more liberal) and examined the perceptions and expectations of students from their future spouses. Female students were had very negative perceptions on spouses who want to stay at home with children (lazy, incompetent…); male students overwhelmingly preferred a wife that would stay at home to take care of the children. There are other studies that show how women who work are perceived as less competent mothers than women who do not work, as well as lower in “warmth”. I think even very liberal people still believe, strongly, in gendered roles. And, for the record, my husband also stayed with our kids when they were born.

In my own experience, the gay couples I know find nothing odd about one spouse staying home to care for children. Is it possible that there a kind of gender bias that heterosexual women themselves still maintain against the idea of a man not working outside of the home?

 I think I answered this before. Yes, most individuals (men and women) still hold this “ideal family” image with a career father and a stay-at-home mother, or, at most, a mother with a job (a trailing spouse). As for gay couples, I think here the economists may have it right: it is much more efficient to divide paid-work and housework/caregiving work between spouses. As each person specialized in their own domain, the household as a unit of production is becoming more efficient. Again, gender in that conceptualization plays no role so it should be the same for heterosexual and gay couples.

The humorist and essayist Sandra Tsing Loh just published an article, also in The Atlantic, called “The Weaker Sex:  How the new gender economics has more and more professional-class women looking at their mates and thinking: How long until I vote you off the island?” In it she makes a case for how “monstrous” she has become to live with, now that she has economic power. She is not as chivalrous as men used to be when they were the main income makers in a house. I found her case confusing, to say the least, but also nicely provocative. Have you thought about whether women with stay at home partners have had to (or might need to) learn new manners for dealing with the unpaid assistance of someone in the home?

 That’s an interesting idea but I don’t think I agree with it. First, most men that stay at home (80% in my data) are doing it because they have to, not because they want to (ill, disabled, unable to find work). Second, because economic changes (like the rise of the professional women, the growing gap in education between women and men) are much faster than social changes, I doubt this is the reality in most stay-at-home father households (or households in which women earn more than their spouse). The gender-deviance neutralization theory I discussed before would suggest the opposite and while it had come under some criticism lately (Sullivan, 2011) it is still empirically supported in studies across Europe, Australia, and the U.S.

Karen Kramer is a Visiting Assistant Professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Human and Community Development. Karen received her Ph.D. in Family Social Science from the University of Minnesota Twin-Cities. Her research concentrates on understanding the division of labor (paid and unpaid) in families. She is interested in families that choose nontraditional division of household labor, where the mother is the primary breadwinner and the father is the primary caregiver. The proportion of these families has been growing steadily in the last few decades and in her research she tries differentiating "pull" and "push" factors that make families choose such nontraditional division of labor. Karen also studies pathways to upward mobility of low-income working families and, in particular, what facilitators and barriers low-income families face in in their effort to achieve upward mobility.

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