Father Care: The Other Child Care Option

By Glenn Sacks

The stay at home mom vs. working mom debate is raging again, following a report by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that children in day care are more aggressive and hostile by the time they’re in kindergarten than those in a mother’s care. One could make a case for either side in the debate but let me instead suggest a third option—father care. There is plenty of research to support the idea, but I’ll begin with my own research—my family.

Three years ago, at the birth of my daughter, we were a traditional family—I worked long hours, and my wife had left her job to be at home. My wife was unhappy at home and missed her career, and I was unhappy being away from my kids. My wife suggested that we switch roles. The idea had never occurred to me, but I decided to try it.

Our new roles worked better than I ever would have dreamed. My daughter and I have bonded as closely as any mother and child and have spent countless happy days together. Both family and strangers always comment about my daughter’s radiant confidence and self-esteem, as well as her attachment to daddy. She is happy, well-adjusted, and strong-willed—and a product of father care.

Can fathers do the job? Research says yes. A Yale study found that infants living only with their fathers were two to six months ahead of other infants in personal and social skills, and that older babies in father-care exhibited similar advantages. Another survey found that boys in father-custody homes have higher self-esteem, are more mature, more independent, and less demanding than boys in mother-custody homes. A recent Danish study comparing toddlers in single mom and single dad homes found that the father care children had fewer temper tantrums, were less-sensitive to criticism, less fearful, less likely to feel lonely, and more likely to have high self-esteem. Fathers were included in the controversial new National Institute study but in such small numbers that the results were not statistically meaningful.

Can men be as nurturing as women? If given the chance, yes. Men, in general, aren’t as nurturing as women not because of biology or testosterone but because it has never been men’s role to be nurturing. Men’s role has been to compete in the work world in order to provide for their families. The woman’s role has been to nurture. Give a man the role of nurturer and he’ll become nurturing. My wife often remarks upon how much calmer, patient and "centered" I’ve become since switching roles.

Are men more likely to lose patience with children and abuse them? Studies show that fathers are less likely than mothers to use physical punishments with their kids. According to the US Department of Justice, 70% of confirmed cases of child abuse and 65% of parental murders of children are committed by mothers, not fathers. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, adjusting for the greater number of single mothers, a custodial mother is five times as likely to murder her own children as a custodial father is. Children are 88% more likely to be seriously injured from abuse or neglect by their mothers than by their fathers. There’s no reason to think that children are safer in the primary care of a mother than of a father.

Can men be convinced to do it? Given the proper adjustments, many can. The idea never occurs to most men—just as it never occurred to me—but if they think about the advantages—loving care for the kids and plenty of time to spend with them, no supervisor breathing down their necks, a temporary release from the 40 years of work without interruption that is the fate of most men—many men will come to embrace the idea. Sometimes when I get frustrated with housework I remember days when I’d work until 10 and come home and carry my sleeping son around the house on my shoulder because I missed him so much and I realize how lucky I am.

Stay-at-home dads will have to struggle with certain prejudices. For one, our society exalts female sacrifice in mothering and housework, yet when a guy actually says "OK, I’ll do all that stuff—you go have your career" he’s immediately derided as a slacker or a leech, as well as unmanly. Unfortunately, some women’s advocates have helped to aggravate this situation by producing misleading studies specifically designed to portray stay-at-home dads as lazy.

Men will also have to approach the job in their own way—not as a poor copy of a stay-at-home mom, but as a dad. All baby-care products and rituals now revolve around women and men will need to make some changes. For example, in place of the standard changing table, which seems to be built for a woman who’s about 4’ 10", I built my own—one comfortable for a 6’ 2" male, with shelves above it, instead of cabinets below it. My wife says she can’t use it without a ladder, but that’s not important because it’s right for me and I’m usually the one who uses it. I keep us on a home-cooking only economy and to help myself I partially remodeled the kitchen, installing lots of ceiling racks and hooks to keep pots and pans up where I can get to them.

Can father care work economically? For some families, it clearly won’t. But many couples find that having a stay-at-home parent is much more economical than a two-income family. The second income is lost but the one-income couple saves on day care, taxes, food, and a thousand other expenses that two-income couples rack up due to a lack of time or workday flexibility. Having me at home has saved us tens of thousands of dollars not only because I’ve used my "female" skills (child care, cooking) but also because I’ve used my "male" skills (carpentry, woodworking, etc.) to fix our "fixer-upper" house where another couple would have to pay contractors.

As author Warren Farrell notes, in the beginning of the feminist era we were often told that "the best man for the job is a woman," and sometimes it was true. In the current child care dilemma, sometimes the best "mother" for a child is a father.

  • W. New York Family Magazine