When men become stay-at-home-fathers (SAHFs), they develop new masculine identities that best support their caregiving role and experiences, according to new research by Joyce Lee and Dr. Shawna Lee.


The last decades have witnessed significant changes in the balance of work and family life for men and women in the United States. Yet, the enormous increase in working mothers, has not resulted in similarly dramatic increases in the number of fathers who are primary caregivers of young children. The U.S. Census defines stay-at-home fathers (SAHFs) as married men with children younger than 15 years old and who remained out of the labor force for at least 1 year to serve as primary caregiver for their children while their wives worked outside of the home. Although the number of SAHFs more than doubled from 93,000 in 2000 to 211,000 in 2014, only 16% of full-time stay-at-home parents were fathers. Sources that use broader parameters to define a SAHF report even larger numbers (e.g., approximately 2 million in 2012 according to the Pew Research Center).


Given the growing number of SAHFs, we sought to understand SAHFs lived experiences with a focus on how becoming a SAHF might contribute to shifts in men’s perceptions of masculinity. We also hoped to examine the challenges of being a male primary caregiver, and how SAHFs navigate such challenges. To do this, we conducted an interview-based study of 25 SAHFs in the U.S. We examined themes through the perspective of caring masculinities (Elliott, 2015), which argues that engaging in care work helps men develop caring forms of masculinities and nurturing identities. For our analysis, we used grounded theory methodology where the data is broken into smaller concepts and then organized into different categories that are compared to each other throughout the study. This constant comparison contributes to the larger structure of conceptual categories, building a theory from the ground up.

We conducted telephone interviews and asked SAHFs about their employment history, reasons for becoming a primary caregiver, changes in their roles and responsibilities around the house, changes in their relationships, and their views on masculinity and gender role norms. We included fathers who were cohabiting and married, as well as those who reported working for some pay so long as they identified themselves as primary caregivers. Most fathers indicated that they were unemployed or not working full-time. Of the final sample, about three quarters of the SAHFs reported being a primary caregiver since the birth of the focal child.


Through analysis of the interviews, we found that the majority of SAHFs voluntarily changed their employment status, suggesting that they entered the SAHF role by choice. Most SAHFs reported financial reasons for becoming a SAHF, and these reasons included high costs of daycare and their partner’s high earning potential. For the most part, SAHFs did not experience significant changes in their relationships with their spouse or partner as a result of becoming a SAHF. When asked about their relationships with their children, the majority of SAHFs mentioned that they enjoyed being able to see their children grow and meet developmental milestones.

One of the major findings of this study is the change in attitudes and masculine identities men experienced as a result of becoming SAHFs. Men reported that caring for their children is inherently masculine and that it helped them become nurturing and sensitive parents. They also mentioned that they were able to better relate to others emotionally and had developed a general respect for caregiving. We also identified social isolation as one of the main challenges against SAHFs’ attempts to construct and maintain caring masculinities. Moreover, we found that SAHFs have multiple networks of social support—including family members, friends, spouse or partner, and fellow SAHFs—to help them overcome social isolation and related challenges.


Overall, our findings add to the increasing evidence base that involvement in care work engenders more caring and nurturing attitudes in men, as well as lend support for the argument that when men get involved in care work, they are likely to develop affective and emotional aspects of care. Our findings collectively suggest that men’s gender role norms, attitudes, and masculinities can become more fluid as they become SAHFs and that SAHFs are likely to incorporate masculine and feminine characteristics to develop new masculine identities that best support their caregiving role and experiences.

Read the complete study here.

joyce-leeJoyce Y. Lee is a doctoral student at the Joint PhD Program in Social Work and Developmental Psychology. She completed her Master of Social Work at Columbia University and worked as a licensed social worker for two years at a youth empowerment agency in New Jersey before joining the Joint PhD Program. Her research interests include the role of the father in children’s development and welfare, positive father engagement among low-income men, and father friendly technology-based interventions. For more information about Joyce’s research, please visit www.joyceylee.com.

shawna-leeDr. Shawna J. Lee is Associate Professor and Director of the Parenting in Context Research Lab, at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. Dr. Lee has published over 40 research articles and book chapters, with primary focus on father-child relations, fathers’ parenting behaviors, and their effects on children, child maltreatment prevention, and the effects of parental corporal punishment on child wellbeing. For a full list of publications, presentations, and grants, please visit www.parentingincontext.org.

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