Prior to Fathers’ Day and, to prepare readers for the expected spate of ill-informed articles about dads, W. Brad Wilcox published this piece. I’ve criticized Wilcox before for his complete failure to grasp – or apparently even consider – the many downsides of marriage for men. But his most recent piece is spot-on.
He takes on five myths about fathers. I’ll deal with them each, one at a time.
The first myth is that of the “Mr. Mom Surge.”
Open a newspaper or turn on a TV in the week leading up to Father’s Day and you are bound to confront a story on stay-at-home dads.
Yes, it’s astonishing that, all too often, in order to honor fathers, articles seem to have to make them look as much like mothers as possible. So a stay-at-home father manages to be acceptable to the journalistic powers that be where a dad who merely supports his family, provides food, shelter, clothing, school supplies, medical care and the like, in addition to hands-on parenting, for some reason is assumed to be lacking.
Wilcox points out what’s obvious from even a casual glance at, for example, Census Bureau data: there are vastly more stay-at-home mothers as there are stay-at-home fathers. The last time I looked the numbers stood at about six million SAHMs and under 200,000 SAHDs. And of course those figures undercount both. To meet the Census Bureau’s definition of a stay-at-home parent, one must have earned no income at all from employment over the previous 12 months and one’s chief use of time must be caring for one’s own children. Stated another way, if Mom earned $50 for cleaning someone’s house within the past year, and all the rest of the time she was at home with her kids, she’s not a SAHM.
Dads now represent slightly more than 5% of all stay-at-home parents, which means the vast majority of stay-at-home parents are still moms, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. For instance, in 2017, 267,000 of America’s 21 million married fathers with children under 15 were at home caring for their children. By contrast, about 23 percent (4.96 million) of those families had a stay-at-home mom (as of 2017.)
So there are a tad more SAHDs today than when I first checked the data several years ago. Wilcox’s point (and mine) is that, overwhelmingly, mothers prefer to care for kids and fathers prefer to support their families. Hence, Mom drops out of the workforce, either all or part of the way, and Dad ups his time working and earning. Countless couples choose that way to care for their children and support them. Whatever Brave New World assumptions we run into about men and women joyfully casting off the shackles of traditional sex roles, the reality is that, when little Andy or Jenny first comes along, those roles have a way of reasserting themselves.
The focus on Mr. Mom obscures another important reality. In most American families headed by two parents today, fathers still take the lead when it comes to breadwinning, even though mothers play a larger role in breadwinning than they used to. Specifically, married fathers earn about two-thirds of the income in married families with children at home.
Recall that, about four years ago, the Census Bureau revealed that 41% of households in the U.S. now have a woman as their main breadwinner. That was greeted by hosannas from much of the press. See, they said, it’s the Brave New World after all. Look at the progress we’re making toward gender equality.
It was nonsense of course. Yes, 41% of households had a woman as their main earner, but that was true because, in the great majority of those households, the woman was the only breadwinner. Her only competition was her children. The figure was a proxy for single motherhood, not how much more women are working and earning than before.
To get an idea of the latter reality, Prof. Margaret Ryznar looked at how many married couples had the woman as chief wage earner. In just 13% of those couples was that the case. That’s slightly more than the 8% of couples in the 1960s who did, but again, the reality remains that mothers prefer kids to paid work and rely on fathers to pay the freight. For their part, dads are happy to do just that.
They’d better be. That’s because the single event that best predicts a woman filing for divorce is her husband’s loss of his job. Men and women both value Mom staying at home with the kids. Men and women both value Dad bringing home the bacon. The Brave New World this isn’t.
Providership is important to protect children from poverty, raise their odds of educational success, and increase the likelihood that they will succeed later in life. Thus, the very real material contribution that the average American dad makes to his family can be obscured by stories that focus on that still relatively exotic breed, the stay-at-home dad.
If we want to honor fathers, and we should, let’s honor what they do, not what we fantasize about what we’ve decided they ought to do. Typically, fathers provide the money to support their families. They also provide a synergy of parenting styles between Mom’s and Dad’s that’s vital to children’s well-being.
Fathers aren’t worthwhile because they’re like mothers. They’re necessary to children just the way they are. Let’s not try to remake them in the image of their partners.