In response to Charles Murray’s piece about celebrating the social value of stay-at-home wives and mothers, my colleague Jim Tankersley asked (via Twitter) an excellent question: Why focus on stay-at-home women rather than stay-at-home men, given that women are accumulating more human capital than their male counterparts? Young women are more likely to get college degrees today than men are; doesn’t that suggest that women’s comparative advantage might lie in the workplace, while men’s lies at home?
W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, respondedto point out that conversations about homemakers tend to focus on women in part because women have stronger preferences for staying home than men do. And that’s true; when asked “if money were no object, and you were free to do whatever you wanted, would you stay at home, would you work full time, or would you work part time?” mothers of children younger than 18 were more likely than fathers to say they wanted to stay home. (The vast majority of both said they wanted to work at least part time, though.)
But here’s the rub: These moms who say they want to stay at home are by and large already getting their wish. The dads aren’t.
The charts below show the poll data I cited earlier (on stated work status preferences) alongside Labor Department data on actual workforce participation rates among parents:
Among fathers, 16 percent say they’d ideally stay at home, if money were no object. Just 7 percent of them are actually abstaining from the labor force. Now look at mothers: 22 percent say they would ideally like to stay at home and not work, while 30 percent actually do so.
In other words more dads say they want to stay at home than actually do, and fewer moms say they want to stay at home than actually do. Both genders also have much stronger stated preferences for working part time than their real-life work arrangements suggest, with nearly a third of fathers and half of mothers saying their ideal work status would be part time.
So what accounts for the divergence between stated work preferences and actual work arrangements?
Let’s start with the barriers to taking part-time work: Some jobs are just not easy to divvy into part-time hours, either because of the nature of the work or the costs to the employer associated with hiring and managing more staff. Part-time jobs also tend to pay less on an hourly basis than their full-time equivalents and may not be remunerative enough to justify paying for child care. So, many parents who would ideally like to work part time instead choose full-time jobs that pay a little better. Or — more often for mothers than for fathers — they stay out of the workforce altogether, which means they can provide child care themselves.
Fathers may feel relatively reluctant to drop out of the labor force — even when that is their preference, or when they prefer a part-time job but can’t find one – for two main reasons: A) They are still more likely to be in higher-paying careers than their children’s mothers are (a trend that may change as women obtain more education, as Tankersley suggested); and B) compared with women, men may feel greater social pressure to be breadwinners rather than homemakers, part of the so-called “masculine mystique.”
Which suggests that perhaps the conversation around stay-at-home spouses at spouses and parents is indeed somewhat misdirected: Maybe commentators (including myself and Charles Murray) should start making a bigger effort to support and celebrate the desires of would-be stay-at-home fathers, if indeed we believe that stay-at-home parents and spouses are good for society.
Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post.