Otis Johnson said he never fathomed becoming a stay-at-home father. But soon after he was laid off from his factory job in 2009, his first of two children was born. Even when his job prospects improved, he made the calculation that millions of mothers have made before him: "By the time I get a paycheck, it all goes to day care — or I can stay home and raise my own children."
Johnson is hardly alone.
Despite a recent small decline in the number of fathers who take care of children full time, their numbers have doubled in the past 15 years, according to new Pew Research Center data. And the main driver for the growth is the increase in men staying home by choice, not because of unemployment or injury. That shift reveals a structural change in gender roles in families and at work in the United States.
The number of stay-at-home fathers spiked from 2008 to 2010; it was mainly attributed to the recession and rising unemployment, which hit men hardest. So when Labor Department data showed that the number of full-time fathers began declining after 2010, people assumed the men had found work and hadn't intended to stay at home.
For some men, that was true. But taking a longer view shows a marked increase in the number of stay-at-home fathers, to 2 million in 2012 from 1.1 million in 1989, according to Pew. Even if fathers who can't find jobs are excluded from the data, there is still a notable increase since 1989 in stay-at-home dads, said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at Pew and an author of the report.
The most telling change is that just over a fifth of stay-at-home fathers say the main reason they are home is to care for family, up from 5 percent in 1989, and that segment is the fastest growing.
Thirty-five percent said they stay home because they are ill or disabled; 23 percent are unable to find work; and 22 percent are in school or retired.
The share of men staying home by choice might also be under-reported because of societal expectations for men and work, according to Karen Z. Kramer, an assistant professor of family studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied the issue.
There are many reasons for the shift. Women, now 47 percent of the workforce, are increasingly getting more education and earning more money than their husbands, so economic calculations like the one Johnson made are more common. His wife, Amy, is a nurse seeking to become a nurse practitioner, so they decided she has higher earning potential than he does.
The change can also be credited to evolving notions about gender roles at home, Kramer found in her research.
Now that men do more with housework and child care than in previous generations, equal numbers of men and women report trouble balancing work and home life, saying they would prefer to stay home if they could afford it.
Money explains some of the trend. Nearly half of stay-at-home fathers are living in poverty, according to Pew, and they are twice as likely to lack a high school diploma. Fourteen percent of fathers who live with their children did not graduate from high school, compared with 3 percent of those who earned a college degree.
But the increases are coming from those with college education; the share of less educated fathers has stayed the same.
Jamie Willett is one of the fathers in that growing segment. He has a college degree, did some graduate work, and was an independent film producer, modern dancer and photographer. When he and his wife, a software executive, had children, they decided he would take care of them.
"Ours was a conscious choice," said Willett, who lives in San Francisco and has three children, ages 8 to 18.
Public opinion lags the rise in fathers who stay home. In a Pew survey last year, just more than half said children are better off having a mother at home, while 8 percent said the same about fathers.
Willett has observed other signs of bias.
"I now know why women are so angry," he said. "For people in the work world, their opinions on anything are considered more valid than those who just take care of children. Here's the great line: 'Well, all you do is hang at the park all day.' "
"The gender switch has been difficult because of the outside world, but very rewarding in my internal world," he said.