Asking the right questions around men, work and caregiving often matters more than the answers.
Consider two recent news stories – one in The New York Times, one in Bloomberg. They reported that more men were spending time on domestic chores and parenting responsibilities.
The stories featured men who were full-time caregivers – a role historically called a ‘stay-at-home dad’ but that we at The Company of Dads call a ‘Lead Dad who devotes all of his time to his family while supporting a spouse’s career’. (It’s longer but naming matters.)
Both also added the caveat that the number of men who were focusing full time on caregiving was “small” – one attributed the growth to the 2008 recession, another said the number was climbing.
I don’t quibble with any of this. It’s certainly true. My problem is with how pollsters and demographers ask the questions – that produce the answers that get written about.
The data in the stories came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which plays an important role in tracking jobs. Important but not terribly nuanced.
What we have found in our research is that there are some 25 million Lead Dads in the United States – out of 75 million fathers and 125 million men. These are men who are the go-to parents whether they work full time, part time or devote all their time to their families. In many cases, they are doing so to support the career of their spouse who may be a higher earner or have less work flexibility.
Generally, men who are Lead Dads fall into three buckets. There are men who are divorced, separated or widowed (18 percent of fathers) and men who spend all their time as caregivers (14 percent). There is a third category: men whose wives earn the same or more than they do, which is the case in about 48 percent of heterosexual marriages post-pandemic.
Why do surveyors miss such a large number of men? They’re not asking the right questions. A simple one would be: whether you work for pay or not, how much caregiving do you do in your home?
Now, this isn’t a perfect question. Men lie. They overestimate what they do. Or in some cases they pretend to do less – leading with their job, even if that job is highly flexible.
Is a former hedge fund trader who is the go-to parent to his daughter, a consultant who is trading his own account or a Lead Dad working his schedule around his family’s needs?
Is the commercial real estate broker who prioritizes the schedule of his wife – an attorney at a big law firm who often works late and travels – just a broker, or a Lead Dad who works full time?
The lens through which you view life colors what you see. I’m as guilty as anyone – I’m looking for Lead Dads everywhere!
But to open the aperture so that men who are the go-to parents can see themselves differently, we have to start with more complete questions. Recognizing and normalizing the role of Lead Dads in the U.S. will go a long way to improving the #nextnormal for men, women and companies.