On any given weekday, you might find Jameson Mercier on his couch with his two daughters on his lap reading them their favorite books over and over — not exactly the picture of a paternal provider most people envision.
But Mercier says he could never work a traditional 40-hour a week job. “I wouldn’t get to spend this kind of time with my kids or do any of the things with them that I do now.”
Mercier, the Plantation father of 3-year-old Asrielle and 2-year-old Tamar, is among a growing number of stay-at-home dads who are child care givers by choice. These fathers are changing diapers, packing lunch boxes and even forming “at home dad networks” to bond.
While fathers still represent a relatively small percentage of at-home parents, 3.4 percent, the number is significant because it has doubled over the last decade. Experts predict the percentage of at home dads will continue to rise as more wives snap up high paying jobs and families make pragmatic decisions about who will take on child care responsibilities.
In a new study, released for Father’s Day, researchers from the Boston College Center for Work & Family interviewed more than 30 stay-at-home dads and found many are in that role not because they were laid off unexpectedly, but because they chose to take on the job. They also found there is not a particular “type” of man who is a primary caregiver. The men in The New Dad: Right at Home
study, ages 28 to 48, varied in backgrounds, but shared the commonality that their wives typically held jobs with higher earning potential, such as physicians, lawyers and business executives.
“These at-home fathers greatly enable their wives to pursue their careers in a much more assertive fashion without the limitation that virtually all working mothers experience,” said Brad Harrington, executive director of the center for Work & Family.
Contrary to what one might believe, these at home fathers were not unhappy in their careers before becoming the primary caregiver, according to the study. And, most of those who took on the role after a layoff reported seeing it as an opportunity rather than a setback. Even more, these dads see themselves as performing a good job of parenting, and their spouses strongly confirm their assessments, according to the study.
In addition to being full-time at home dads, more married men are becoming the primary caregiver, which means they may contribute some to the family income and still serve as the regular source of child care. That number has risen to 32 percent from 26 percent a decade ago, according to the U.S. Census. “A lot of men are doing a lot of the childcare, more than people believe is happening,” said Al Watts, president of the National At-Home Dads Network (athomedads.org) and a stay-at-home dad to four children. “These dads are happy doing it. They think it’s awesome to be involved in their kids’ lives.” Watts says his National At Home Dad Network has grown to 2,000 members will hold its 17th annual convention this October in Washington D.C.
Take Irvans Augustin. For the last 1½ years, the Miami dad has provided most of the child care for his two daughters. While Augustin holds a full-time job in information technology support, he also handles all homework, meals and bath time. Three to four times a week, his wife, Marta Viciedo, goes straight from her job as a research assistant to evening classes in urban planning. She still has almost two years left to get her degree from Florida Atlantic University.
“It has brought me closer to my kids,” says Augustin. “I’ve enjoyed the experience.” Augustin says he enjoys being primary caregiver so much that he launched www.facebook.com/DadsMiami for South Florida fathers to share their unique parenting experiences in a multicultural town, and he is working on a website. “I think you will see more fathers looking for places to talk about their challenges with other dads.”
In the Boston College Center’s previous study, 53 percent of fathers said that if their families could live comfortably on their spouses’ salaries they would consider being stay-at-home parents. While the perception of men as breadwinners still holds strong, at-home dads and working fathers share a definition for what makes a good father: “Someone present and involved in their child’s life.”
Hogan Hilling, an at-home dad in the 1990s who remains a spokesman for the At-Home Dads Network, says he’s seen an attitude change as men demonstrate they can be successful primary caregivers without losing their masculinity: “Most of today’s at-home dads are not afraid to publicly admit to being the primary caregiver and will not back down when people question their conscious, well-thought out decision to be the at-home parent.”
At-home dads cited a variety of reactions from others regarding their roles as full-time parents. Many stated that initially, their families didn’t always understand or accept why they were at home full-time, but upon seeing how well it was working for their families, eventually supported the decision. However, it was common for friends and neighbors of many of the dads to regard their role at home as temporary, wondering when they were going to get jobs.
Harrington says it struck him how similar the experiences are between moms and dads who stay home full time to care for their kids. For example, both struggle with issues of social isolation, loss of an adult network, uncertainty about future career plans and concerns about a stigma when they return to the workplace. “They know re-entry will be a challenge,” Harrington said. “But they also know they want flexibility in whatever position they take in the future.”
Harrington expects to see men create their own work arrangements — much like Mercier who has become a life coach and sees clients while his daughters are at pre-school. “I think we are seeing men trying to do what women have done for years, invent career opportunity in more entrepreneurial ventures that afford them greater flexibility and not force them back into highly constrained workplaces,” Harrington said.
Mercier’s wife, Herdyne, now expecting her third child, previously worked as a public school teacher and is now a full-time skincare consultant with Mary Kay Cosmetics. Formerly a clinical social worker, he tried to go back to work full time but says he quit after four months because of the long hours away from his family.
Meanwhile, Mercier, born in Haiti, plans to study minority fathers in America who are at-home dads as his thesis for his doctorate in marriage and family therapy. Based on his experiences, he says, minority at-home dads are more reluctant to join social groups and struggle more with issues of masculinity: “The stigmas are different than for white males.”
Mercier says surviving on a scaled-back income and dealing with male reactions to his status as primary caregiver have been challenging.
But he feels it’s a worthwhile struggle: “If I had to be absent much of the day and miss out on witnessing them growing up, I couldn’t accept that.”