What Do You Call It When Dad Stays Home With the Kids?

What Women Really Think
Feb. 8 2012 3:00 PM

Are Stay-At-Home Dads Just Babysitting?

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A stay-at-home dad.

Photo by TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

KJ Dell’Antonia, formerly of this blog, has an interesting post up at the New York Times Motherlode, which she now helms. She’s discovered that the U.S. Census Bureau considers moms who care for their children to be the standard, whereas men who care for their children are, in essence, baby-sitting. The bureau's view of what constitutes normal family life is revealed in a report called “Who’s Minding the Kids?” When moms take care of the kids the government considers it standard, the language of the report reveals; when  dads do it, that’s called a “child care arrangement.” Which is weird because, as Dell’Antonia points out, the number of children cared for by their fathers is growing.

I stopped working for almost a year after our daughter was born, and during that time there was a sizable number of stay-at-home dads in our Bronx neighborhood. For some reason, they tended to congregate at one playground, which was my favorite. The dads were doing all the same stuff as the moms – pulling out Ziploc bags of cheerios, brokering arguments over doll strollers, filling up tiny water balloons at the fountain so their kids could throw them, leaving the ground littered with tiny bits of wet rubber. (It’s as annoying and satisfying as it sounds.) Like the moms, they weren't being paid, and like the moms, they came every day and considered this their work. Their presence there constituted parenting, not an “arrangement.” It may well be that in most American families, the mom is the “designated parent,” as the Census Bureau puts it, but in the face of demographic change, it seems time to reconsider what we label deviation from the norm.

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.