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Stay-at-home dads’ psychological well-being gauged in new study

There’s a rusty old riddle that goes something like this:

Two color orange horizontal divider

There’s a rusty old riddle that goes something like this:

A man and his son were in a car accident. The man died on the way to the hospital, but the boy was rushed into surgery. Upon arriving in the operating room, the surgeon said, “I shouldn’t operate on this child—he’s my son!”

How is this possible? The answer, of course, is that the surgeon is the child’s mother.

Decades ago you could confound somebody with that puzzle, but now it’s not so easy. More women are doctors, CEOs and sheriffs, while an increasing number of men are nurses and schoolteachers. Research suggests several hundred thousand males also are staying home, changing diapers, warming bottles and pushing strollers.

Aaron Rochlen

Dr. Aaron Rochlen

Dr. Aaron Rochlen, a counseling psychologist in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, has done several studies addressing the mental health, adjustment and barriers for men in non-traditional work roles. In several projects completed earlier this year with educational psychologist Dr. Marie-Anne Suizzo and several graduate students in the Department of Educational Psychology, Rochlen turned his focus to a rapidly growing demographic—the stay-at-home dad.

Rochlen and his team surveyed 214 men nationally and interviewed local stay-at-home fathers. In the national study, Rochlen used measures to evaluate the factors that predict psychological well-being and relationship satisfaction.

“According to U.S. census data, there were around 5.5 million stay-at-home parents in 2003,” said Rochlen, “and 2006 census data indicate there are about 159,000 stay-at-home fathers. The number of stay-at-home dads has grown over 60 percent since 2004, but getting an accurate number for just how many there are out there is very difficult.

“The census doesn’t count dads who are the primary childcare provider but who earned any income in the previous year, are part of a same-sex couple or are single fathers. It’s a new phenomenon to even be counting stay-at-home parents. ”

Of the more than 200 men who participated in Rochlen’s national survey, the average age was 37, about 97 percent had been employed prior to becoming stay-at-home fathers, 30 percent reported working part-time and 98 percent of them were married. About 72 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher and the average number of children was two.

Of the 14 men interviewed, the sample included individuals from professions as diverse as law, construction, education, the military, law enforcement and information technology, and the majority of them left jobs where they were earning $100,000 or more.

“Even though the social and economic climate has changed tremendously in the past several decades,” said Rochlen, “the belief that child raising is a mom’s job and that the mother is the best parent is still, for many, a fundamental perception. We were particularly interested in seeing how much stigma these stay-at-home dads reported feeling, if any, and if they suffered mental or emotional discomfort as a result.

Stay-at-home dad gives a bottle to his baby daughter

According to U.S. census data, the number of stay-at-home dads has grown more than 60 percent since 2004.

“The results of our study offered a very positive representation of changes in gender roles and parenting. More people are doing what makes them happy and determining what’s best for their families rather than worrying about society’s expectations. An increasing amount of men are shifting their ideas about what it means to be a ‘provider’ and most of those we surveyed seemed very content in their new role.”

The national survey of more than 200 men revealed that those who reported receiving support from their mate, family and friends also experienced high levels of psychological well-being and relationship satisfaction. Fathers who said they felt confident about their parenting skills seemed much happier. Of those, the ones who encouraged their children to develop independence and who felt comfortable being nurturing and affectionate with the children expressed the highest degree of satisfaction.

Describing his philosophy of childrearing, one interviewee stated, “I’m encouraging my daughter to develop into herself, to be a person who can confidently and enthusiastically pursue what she wants.”

Another commented, “I just want her to grow up without having the stereotypical limitations. I want her to feel she can do anything she wants to do, be anything she wants to be.”

Men taking the survey also were asked to rate themselves on various measures of conformity to traditional male values (for example, feeling it is inappropriate for a man to show emotion, be nurturing, make less money than his spouse, etc.). According to Rochlen, most survey respondents reported less conformity to traditional masculine norms than men of a similar age in their community and those who had lower scores reported being more satisfied with their lives and relationships and having much lower levels of psychological distress.

A substantial body of scholarly research shows adherence to strict gender role definitions is related to a variety of psychological and physical maladies, including depression, anxiety, marital problems and substance abuse. In a recent study completed by Rochlen, he found that not only do men who conform to traditional roles suffer, but they also don’t seek professional help for their dissatisfaction or reach out to family and friends for support.

“It wasn’t that the fathers didn’t encounter any negative reactions from others,” said Rochlen, “but most of them expressed a lack of regard for the criticism and emphasized that it wasn’t important to them how others defined masculinity. These are men who still discuss sports, fish, hunt, mow the grass and work on their cars as well.

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“One explicitly stated, ‘If others are judging me, they’re wasting their time,’ and another one said that he didn’t feel there should be such black and white distinctions between masculinity and femininity in the first place. It was interesting how many men pointed out they had a personality better-suited to staying at home and caring for the children—and their wives agreed.”

Findings from the national survey were supported by responses to the qualitative interviews of 14 Austin men.

As for reasons behind the increasing number of stay-at-home dads, Rochlen noted several motivators, with the first being economics.

Current census data indicate that about 25 percent of adult working females earn more than their spouses, and for some of these families it seems to make financial sense for the husband to stay at home with the children. One of the respondents even stated that, at the time he left work to be a stay-at-home father, his wife was making about four times as much money as he was in his profession. Many of the stay-at-home fathers described their wives as finding their jobs extremely fulfilling, enjoyable and being highly successful in their careers.

“We had our oldest son in daycare for his first year,” says Rick Lucas, an Austin stay-at-home dad and freelance writer, “and every day was so anxiety-filled as we worried about the quality of his care. Plus, he was sick quite a bit and my wife and I often had to miss work to be with him.

“When my boss told me that I had to make a choice between work and my family, it was an easy decision! My wife made more money and had good insurance, and I could do freelance writing, so I began to stay at home with my son. My in-laws probably had some serious doubts about my staying home, but, really, most everyone has been very accepting of our situation because I think they can see how happy we are.”

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In addition to the matter of money, another primary reason for the growing number of stay-at-home dads is that many couples value a parent being home to raise the children and elect not to leave them with a caretaker outside the home. When temperament, income and skills are considered, dad often comes out ahead of mom for the job of caretaker.

One dad simply stated, “I find it weird when people go, ‘My God, who’s going to care for our kid?’ It’s your kid—I would start there first.”

Finally, Rochlen pointed out that a significant reason more fathers are electing to stay home is because primary childcare responsibilities appear slowly to be shifting from a mother’s role to a parent’s role. His data seem to support the conclusion that more dads being at-home caretakers means more men and women are defining their own family roles and gender identity in flexible, personal and less restrictive ways.

For men considering a leap from the office to the nursery, Rochlen’s findings are encouraging.

“Studies on stay-at-home dads who deliberately chose to be full-time childcare providers are scarce,” said Rochlen. “I was very interested in developing a more comprehensive understanding of how stay-at-home fathers perceive reactions from the different people in their lives and how all of this information might prove useful to other men who are filling, or thinking of filling, the same role.

“It’s easier to navigate the waters if you know what to expect, how to set up support networks and have some idea of how to respond to others. One dad we interviewed said his grandfather still asks for ‘the man of the house’ when he calls and the dad answers the phone, but that it’s just seen as a joke, not something to undermine his confidence and self-worth. Most of the men who are doing this are very secure, strong, say they’re quite happy and have successfully divorced their self-concept from the size of their paycheck.”

Rochlen points out that stay-at-home dads who may feel isolated or overwhelmed by the enormity of their new job can turn to online resources like rebeldad.com and dadstayshome.com to connect with other fathers. Playgroups for stay-at-home dads and their children have become more common and there even is an annual stay-at-home dads convention in Kansas City, which Rochlen attended this year.

“There is not a day that it feels like I go to work,” said one dad. “I still feel like I’m getting away with something. There’s such sweetness to that…these are very pleasant days.”

By Kay Randall

Photo of Dr. Rochlen: Christina Murrey

Banner illustration: Guy Kingsbery