When my father and his first wife divorced in the late 1950s, he took custody of their three young children and raised them on his own. Back then, that was virtually unheard of. Today, it is merely unusual.
In 1960 only about 1% of children in the U.S. lived with a single dad, and only a small fraction of those fathers were divorced. Most were widowed, or married but with an absent wife. In 2003, about 4.5% of American kids lived with a single dad, and the majority of the dads were divorced.
"The fastest growing parenting demographic is single dads," says Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. Between 1993 and 2003, the number of children living with single fathers grew by 33%.
More fathers, the numbers show, are willing to not only provide for their kids financially, but they're also willing to fill many other roles. As a child from my father's second, much later marriage, I never understood why some people thought dads were supposed to be so inept at things besides carrying a briefcase. My dad seemed perfectly at ease whether he was quartering a chicken, making a bed, or reading me a story. He'd had some practice.
It's not just single dads, either. "There's a broader cultural acceptance of the role of the nurturing father," Warren tells WebMD. More men appear to be staying at home to take care of kids, and dads who go to work are determined not to let their jobs make them strangers to their children.
In 1992, Peter Baylies was working for the now-defunct computer company Digital Equipment Corp., near Boston. The company had been cutting workers by the thousands, and Baylies suspected he might lose his job in the next round of layoffs. He and his wife, Sue, a fourth grade teacher, agreed that if he did, he would stay home with their baby boy. The pink slip came, and he took a new position as primary caregiver to 6-month-old John, and then another son, David, three years later.
"I'm glad I did it," Baylies tells WebMD. But at first, he says it felt strange to be home alone with a baby all day. "It's a major life change," he says. He looked to connect with other dads in his position, using his technical savvy and a new-fangled thing called the Internet. He found them, and started a newsletter.
After doing this for several years, "I found myself running the same articles over and over," he says. "Once the dads' kids were in first grade, most of them ended up going back to work, then I would have a whole new group of subscribers, and they wanted to know the same information."
Last year, he compiled a decade's worth of advice from his newsletter in a book, The Stay-at-Home Dad Handbook.
How many dads stay at home with their kids? Is it a tiny niche, or a growing trend? It's hard to say for certain. In 2003, the census counted 98,000 dads with working wives who stayed home explicitly "to care for home and family." That is not a lot, but many men who fit the commonsense description of an at-home dad were not counted among that number.
About 1 million, or 4% of fathers with working spouses, were out of the workforce for various reasons. But that includes only dads who didn't work at all that year. According to the Census Bureau's definition, to be employed means doing anything professionally, not just drawing a regular salary or wages. So that 1 million does not include dads who worked occasionally, part-time, or those working at home.
Peter Baylies, for example, would not meet the Census Bureau's definition of an at-home dad because he has made some money from his book.
"I don't think there's any doubt that the most recent numbers are an undercount," says Brian Reid, who lives near Washington, and writes a blog called Rebel Dad. Although he has stayed at home to care for his daughter for two years, while his wife works outside the home as an attorney, he still takes on work as a freelance journalist. The census wouldn't count him, either.
"About half of our staff works out of their home. I did it for about five years myself," says Warren, of the National Fatherhood Initiative. "It really gave me a tremendous opportunity not only to be effective in the workplace, but also to be even more engaged with my kids."
Even without counting dads like these, there were about 29% more at-home dads in 2003 compared with 1994.
The Work-Family Fulcrum
"My father never changed a diaper, and he had four children," says Jim DiRenzo, of Lebanon, N.H. He, however, changes diapers for his daughter Isabella, who was born in January 2005.
DiRenzo also works full time as a cancer researcher at Dartmouth Medical School. His wife Erica, a clinical social worker, has been staying home with Isabella. "During the times when I'm home, we both make an effort to share the responsibilities," he tells WebMD.
From the get-go, he was eager to be involved with his baby girl, attending classes with Erica at the local women's health center, and he took paternity leave after the birth. He was prepared for the extra duties that would come with caring for an infant, but he didn't fully anticipate the fine balancing act he would have to perform once he returned to work.
"I thought I would be as effective at work as I was before Bella was born," he says. "What I learned after she was born, and after I went back to work, was that I had to start with baby steps."
Instead of going back to full workdays immediately, he worked half days for a while. Even now, he no longer works 11-hour days and weekends, as he did before. He has learned to squeeze the same amount of work into a much shorter day, he says.
"I do think that I'm fortunate to be in an academic environment because I know for certain that people who are in more of a corporate environment don't have that kind of flexibility."
He's quite right. A 2001 Society for Human Resources Management survey showed that only 14% of companies offered any paid paternity leave. What's more, according to the 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce, conducted by the Families and Work Institute, 45% of parents surveyed -- moms and dads -- said that work interfered with their family lives "some" or "a lot," and more working fathers than mothers said so.
One in three children born in the U.S. are born to unwed mothers, but that does not mean dad is always out of the picture, or that mom is necessarily alone.
The ongoing Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study, which looks at unwed parents in 20 U.S. cities, found that half of the fathers surveyed were living with their child's mother. Virtually all the dads said they wanted to be involved with their kids, and 93% of the moms said they wanted dad to be involved.
"I think regardless of the situation or how a father expresses his role, there is an overwhelming desire for more intentional, proactive fathering across the board," Ken Canfield, PhD, president of the National Center for Fathering, tells WebMD.
Research shows that fathers are important for much more than putting a roof over kids' heads and food on the table, as a generation of fathers were fond of saying. A review of four decades of psychological studies, published in the Review of General Psychology in 2001, showed that a father's love for his children has a potent effect on their development and well-being.
A growing awareness about dads' importance has kick-started a more thorough study of fatherhood. "The need for that reflects the fact that research about children has interviewed and talked about moms," Kristin Moore, PhD, president of the research center Child Trends, tells WebMD.
Most parenting education is directed at moms, too. "If a guy has an epiphany and wants to be a better dad, and maybe he didn't have a great dad, how exactly is he supposed to learn how do that?" Warren says. "Most of the parenting books are designed for women. All the magazines are essentially written for women."
Groups like the ones he and Canfield head aim to help dads hone their skills.
"What they invest in their fathering has exponential potential," Canfield says. "In other words, your children and your investment in their lives may be your message to a world you'll never see."