There he stumbles across our screen, failing to plait his little girl’s hair, or work out how the washing machine works, or soothe his baby. The underlying message of the pervasive, hapless dad stereotype is as subtle as a sledgehammer: dads are second-grade caregivers, their value lying elsewhere.
However, analysis suggests that for an increasing number of men, this stereotype is not only outdated, but wide of the mark. The number of stay-at-home fathers – who can, one imagines, have a decent stab at a French braid and know which compartment the fabric softener goes in – has risen by one-third since 2019.
One in nine stay-at-home parents are fathers, up from one in 14 in 2019, according to analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics. These figures are, of course, only a snapshot and the reality is that women still vastly outnumber men in the ranks of stay-at-home parents. But the number of stay-at-home mums is, for now, dropping, by 11% in the past three years.
So, what’s going on? In the maelstrom of the pandemic, some suggested there could be a sliver of a silver lining in the pitch-black cloud: nothing less than a fundamental shift in parenting roles, which includes, perhaps, fathers seeing full-time caregiving as a possibility. Research suggested that while women bore the brunt of childcare during lockdown, were less likely to be able to work uninterrupted and were being hit harder economically, the amount of time men were spending with their children surged. For many men, it may have transformed not only how they worked, but how they saw their role within the family.
And at least some of that metamorphosis seems to have endured. Research from the Fatherhood Institute charity shows men are spending 18% longer on unpaid childcare than they did in 2015 and 14% longer on domestic work. The shift in homeworking has also been remarkable: working fathers spend 37% of their work time at home (up from 6% in 2014-15), compared with 27% of working mothers’ time (up from 6%).
It is possible that an enforced period at home and many more hours with their children honed the skills of many fathers, and perhaps gave some the confidence to take time out of work to become primary carers.
Some of this may be economic: the long view shows the numbers of men (data specifically on fathers began only in 2018) who are inactive due to family and home reasons ticking up after economic crises, rising in the 1990s and the 2010s. We already know that more than 600,000 “missing workers” have been lost from the UK economy since the pandemic.
Experts have speculated that the pandemic triggered a Great Resignation because of burnout and a re-evaluation of priorities. It seems likely that many working parents found they liked spending less time commuting and more time with their children. As one father put it: “If I’d been in the office, I don’t think it would have crossed my mind to become a stay-at-home dad.”
Perhaps it is a data blip, but a growing body of research suggests parenting styles are changing – mothers are working more, fathers are caring more. Why does it matter? As recent research into gender role attitudes suggests, these “new fathers” could prompt “exponential growth in gender egalitarianism over generations”. Fingers crossed.