SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 1 in 5 American parents with minor children didn't work outside the home in 2016, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data — a number almost identical to what it was in 1989.

Hidden in the number, though, is a near-doubling of stay-at-home dads over that same time period, though the total was still small: just 7 percent of all dads, up from 4 percent, do not work outside the home. Seventeen percent of all stay-at-home parents in 2016 were fathers, up from 10 percent in 1989 — the year chosen for the comparison because it's the first year reliable counts of fathers who stayed home were available.

Although the percentages at both ends of the timetable are similar, the tale of stay-at-home parenting hasn't been a straight line. In 2000, the share of moms who stayed home sank to 23 percent, its recorded low. That same year, the overall percentage of parents who didn't work outside the home fell to 15 percent.

But as the recession hit, the numbers started climbing, "driven in part by parents who were at home because they were unable to find work. This was particularly true of stay-at-home fathers, one-third of whom reported they were home for this reason in 2010," the report says.

Frances Johnson plays with her children, Alistair Dale, Beatrice Dale and Tabitha Dale, center, in their home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018.
Frances Johnson plays with her children, Alistair Dale, Beatrice Dale and Tabitha Dale, center, in their home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

"There have definitely been fluctuations along the way, which seem at least a little related to what's going on in the labor market" said Gretchen Livingston, senior researcher at Pew, who wrote the report. "The share of women who are stay-at-home moms has been pretty consistent for at least 25 years."

The report includes parents 18 to 69 who live with at least one of their children who is 18 or younger, whether the children are biological, step or adopted.

Families and reasons

A Pew survey in 2014 found 55 percent of women and 65 percent of men think kids do better when one of their parents stay home, with variation depending on religion, ethnicity and education. But what used to be called "the Mommy Wars" has died down considerably. Experts say parents make decisions based on their family circumstances, though they don't lose sight of what their kids needs or how to provide that, whether both parents work or one stays home.

Jamie Beardslee, 48, became an inadvertent, although happy stay-at-home dad when he and his wife Lisa moved to Okemos, Michigan, from Colorado in 2014. He didn't plan to stay at home, but had trouble initially finding a job as a nuclear medicine technologist, the field in which he'd been working. It was a smaller town with fewer openings.

They'd moved into a home that was a half-century old and needed some work, and that sealed the decision. His wife Lisa had a good job and he had skills to work on the house. He started remodeling and working their acre of land and being home for the kids, now 12 and 9. "I had plenty to do," he said. Then he added coaching the kids' soccer and basketball teams and is paid four hours a week to be the outdoor lunch monitor.

Eagle Mountain, Utah, mom Ashley Charboneau, 26, worked at Costco full time and loved it, returning to work after the birth of her daughter, who's now almost 4. But when her son was born two years ago, the calculation changed.

Ashley and Chris Charboneau with Payton, 4, and Braxton, 2. Chris works and Ashley stays home with the kids in Eagle Mountain, Utah.
Ashley and Chris Charboneau with Payton, 4, and Braxton, 2. Chris works and Ashley stays home with the kids in Eagle Mountain, Utah. | Chesly Bailey

"It became cheaper, easier and less hectic to stay home," she said. Her husband had gone back to school full time and was also working full time. They were engaged in a "juggling act that seemed almost impossible and I decided to stay home." She's augmented their income a little by watching a couple of neighborhood kids. And she's avoided child care expenses.

Millcreek, Utah, mom Frances Johnson, 37, has three kids, ages 5, 3 and 2. When the first was born, she and her husband Andrew Dale lived in Washington, D.C., where day care was expensive. And she hadn't decided if she still wanted to work full time.

"I defaulted in some ways to staying home," she said. But her job was ideal to let her keep a hand in the work world and stay home with her children: She's in communications and marketing, "so it is easy to work as much or as little as I want to while the kids are still small. I get the best of both worlds.

"I usually consider myself a stay-at-home-work-from-home Mom. … Logistically, it doesn't seem like much but socially and logistically it is different from full-time stay-at-home moms," said Johnson, who also puts in a few hours a week in an office job.

"I'm in a good position that allows me to work more than a lot of women," she said, "so I was not forced into a decision I might be unhappy with."

Beardslee echoes the benefits of his chosen work-life balance. "We have zero day care and I get to see my kids a lot more. I don't have to worry about them," he said.

All three of their spouses work full time: Chris Charboneau is a mechanics assistant for an airline, Dale is a data analyst for a health care system and Lisa Beardslee is in pharmaceutical sales.

Jamie Beardslee with his son Jax and daughter Ali. The Okemos, Michigan, man is a stay-at-home dad, though he's thinking about returning to work now that the children are older.
Jamie Beardslee with his son Jax and daughter Ali. The Okemos, Michigan, man is a stay-at-home dad, though he's thinking about returning to work now that the children are older. | Lisa Beardslee

Charboneau's not sure what she'll do when the kids are in school all day. "We go back and forth," she said, noting her husband's job with an airline means they get some travel benefits that will be harder to enjoy if they're juggling two outside work schedules.

Johnson used to think she'd rejoin the workforce full time. Now she's not sure. She likes having time to serve as a parent advocate at school or chaperoning field trips — "even volunteering for political candidates and causes that I believe will positively impact my kids' opportunities and futures," she said. "... They have become really important to me — enough to pursue only work opportunities that leave me the flexibility to still do those things."

She's also benefitted from forming close friendships with other moms, who provide a "really deep bench" when she has questions or feels insecure in her parenting. She's formed the relationships through car pools and play dates and school-related activities.

Charboneau and Beardslee both mention not only a chance to draw closer to their children, but to the nonfamily institutions and individuals who are important in their children's lives. And they, too, have formed tight connections with other parents.

Charboneau hasn't given up her old friends and when she wants adult company, her sister-in-law, who's one of her dearest friends, lives just five doors down the street. Beardslee plays tennis twice a week with another dad who stays home with his kids and has his own network of friends. He figures, though, he'll take an outside job sometime in the near future, because his kids are getting older and won't need him at home.

Braxton and Payton Charboneau. Their mom, Ashley, went back to work after Payton was born, but when Braxton was born, she became a stay-at-home mom.
Braxton and Payton Charboneau. Their mom, Ashley, went back to work after Payton was born, but when Braxton was born, she became a stay-at-home mom. | Ashley Charboneau

He's never regretted taking a career timeout, he said.

Generational differences

In Pew's new analysis, three-fourths of stay-at-home moms say they're taking care of the home and family, while one-fourth of stay-at-home dads say that, "suggesting that changing gender roles may be at play," the report notes. Livingston said some could be taking care of elderly individuals, too.

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Livingston said she compared millennials and Generation X parents when they were the same age and noted "some slight differences between in terms of their likelihood of being home with the kids."

When members of Gen X were between ages 20 and 35 — prime parenting years — in 1999-2000, 17 percent were stay-at-home parents. Among millennials of the same age in 2015-16, the number was 21 percent. Specifically, 30 percent of millennial moms, compared to 25 percent of Gen X moms stayed home. For dads, the share who said they were home to care for family was 23 percent of Gen X back then, compared to 26 percent of millennial stay-at-home dads now.

"We can't be sure" what explains the difference, said Livingston, who said it might be higher child care costs or attitudinal differences, among other explanations.

There are many reasons parents stay home, including inability to work or find work, illness or injury, among others, but those who don't work outside because they want to care for family are more likely to be college-educated than other stay-at-home parents. Those who choose to stay at home for caregiving are less likely to live in poverty than other parents who stay home. They also tend to be younger.

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