The Good Brigade | Getty Images
Closing The Gap

The coronavirus pandemic probably won't launch a stay-at-home dad revolution

For many families, it's been months since they've been able to send their children to day care or school. In fact, about six out of 10 American parents have weathered the pandemic without any type of outside child care.

But that's beginning to shift as more companies start to reopen and ask their employees to return to the workplace. And yet, this may mean parents will need to make some tough decisions about what to do with their kids. While states are starting to allow child-care facilities to reopen, providers may be slow to return because of strict capacity and operating rules that create financial burdens for providers.

And some may never reopen. The U.S. could lose up to 4.5 million child-care slots if providers can't weather the shutdown and reopening process, the Center for American Progress estimates.

But with the coronavirus pandemic upending so much of child care, could there be a shift in who stays home? Probably not. Anyone who thinks that the pandemic will inspire a stay-at-home dad revolution is probably out of luck, says Brad Harrington, executive director and research professor at Boston College's Center for Work & Family.

In fact, women are still bearing more of the burden when it comes to child care and homeschooling right now, according to a recent report from the Boston Consulting Group. Just over a third of parents say women are the primary caregiver, while only 14% agree that it's men. In fact, women are spending an average of 15 hours more per week than men on domestic labor during the pandemic. 

Source: Boston Consulting Group

Of course, that's not always the case. Riley Adams, a 31-year-old senior financial analyst for Google, is currently taking care of his eight-month-old son two days a week while his wife works. 

Originally, the San Francisco Bay Area-based couple wanted to have some child-care support but they weren't planning to put their son in day care until he was at least a year-and-a-half. Their game plan was that Riley's wife, Lily, who is a physician, would work three days a week with one of those days being Saturday.

On the two weekdays Lily was at the clinic, Riley would work from home. They discussed hiring a nanny to look after their son down the line, but in the interim, Lily's mom was driving in from Sacramento to watch her grandson once a week. "It was a pretty good arrangement," she says. 

Covid-19 disrupted child-care plans for many

Unfortunately, the couple was only able to put their plan into practice for a few weeks before the pandemic hit and the seven counties of the Bay Area collectively issued shelter-in-place orders in mid-March. Lily was furloughed, Riley was sent to work from home, and it was too risky to have Lily's mom watch their son. 

For about a month, both were home and splitting up parenting duties on a daily basis, but at the end of April, Lily was able to find a new job working two days a week, both of them weekdays for now. 

Riley's company allows fathers to take up to 12 weeks of paternity leave within the first year of his son's birth. "I haven't really taken any of it yet," Riley says, adding that he's saving it since he's able to work from home as needed for now. But with more of the child care falling on his shoulders, Riley says he's considering breaking up some of that time off to use when he needs to watch his son. 

Lily and Riley Adams with their son on Mother's Day 2020.

On days when Lily is working, Riley blocks off time on his calendar to work when his son is napping. But in order to get his work done, he's getting up earlier and working later, sometimes even on the weekends so he doesn't fall behind.

It's a routine that doesn't seem to be changing any time soon. "It will be my new normal for the foreseeable future," Riley says, adding that at least now, people are understanding about having to juggle child care and work. 

Pandemic hasn't really shifted the reasons why dads stay home

Stay-at-home dads, whether they remain employed like Riley or take time out of the workplace, are still relatively uncommon among American families. In the U.S., about 7% of fathers are not working outside the home, according to the latest research from Pew Research Center from 2016. That adds up to roughly 4.9 million fathers, based on census data

But that data doesn't take into account who acts as the primary caregiver. The National At-Home Dad Network says stay-at-home dads should not be defined by employment status, but rather by whether they're acting as the daily caregiver. The organization believes the most accurate estimate is somewhere around 1.4 million stay-at-home dads, according to a 2009 study by Beth Latshaw, a sociology professor at Widener University. It's perhaps a testament to how uncommon stay-at-home dads are that the most recent trusted study on the subject is over a decade old.

Whichever data point you prefer, it's undisputed that stay-at-home moms vastly outnumber stay-at-home dads in the U.S. And the pandemic probably won't change that. There are a number of reasons why parents decide to stay home with their kids, and the pandemic hasn't really impacted those motivators, Harrington says. 

Part of the issue is financial. "One of the reasons dads tend to do less at home is because they make more money," Harrington says. Prior to the pandemic, men earned a roughly 19% higher median salary than women, according to PayScale's report on the state of the gender pay gap in 2020. But women had actually surpassed men in the workforce, representing 50.04% of those employed earlier this year. 

The shutdowns and job losses resulting from Covid-19 may widen the pay disparity and shut more women out of the workforce. Of the over 20 million jobs lost in April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 55% of those cuts affected women. And it may take longer for women to bounce back. While 2.5 million jobs came back in May, women accounted for only 45% of those gains. In fact, the BLS reported that in May, women made up 49.2% of the workforce, the lowest level of employment among women in 12 years. 

The social norms that we've had for so long are so ingrained. It's like you have to go through generations to get to the place you want to be.
Jonathan Heisey-Grove
president of the National At-Home Dad Network

Yet Harrington says that while the financial aspects are a major factor, his research shows that determining which parent stays home isn't just about who makes less money. Personality also plays a role. In 2012 research, Harrington found that men who were stay-at-home dads tended to be in what he describes as helping professions: social workers, counselors and teachers. "Not only were they making less money, but they also had a personality that lent itself more to being a nurturer," Harrington says.

Social norms also play a major role, especially when it comes to employment situations, says Jonathan Heisey-Grove, president of the National At-Home Dad Network. It really boils down to what the work environment is like, he says. Is your employer permissive of you taking time to deal with child-care emergencies? Do they offer paid parental leave?

This can have a major impact. And for most men, the support simply isn't there. Nearly three out of four dads reported there wasn't a lot of workplace support for fathers, according to a 2018 survey by Promundo and Dove Men+Care. Additionally, about 20% of dads surveyed said they were afraid of losing their jobs if they took the full amount of paternity leave their company offered. 

"The social norms that we've had for so long are so ingrained. It's like you have to go through generations to get to the place you want to be," says Heisey-Grove, who is a stay-at-home dad to his two kids. 

Yet with child care uncertain and more and more employers recalling employees back to the office, parents are going to face tough choices, Harrington says. And he believes, if both parents are still employed, there will be a tendency to think it will be the woman who will make the choice to stay home.

 "I don't think that the knee-jerk reaction has changed much," Harrington says. Of course, that's not every family. But in the end, it will depend on each family's individual circumstance. 

And maybe, just maybe, there will be enough dads who opt to stay home to move the needle ever so slightly. 

Don't miss more in this series: 

make it

Stay in the loop

Sign Up

About Us

Learn More

Follow Us

CNBC.COM