Recently released Statistics Canada data say the number of stay-at-home parents has been declining for decades in Canada. At the same time, an American study published a couple of years ago by the reputable Pew Research Center found that the proportion of stay-at-home parents were actually increasing in the United States. So what accounts for the difference?1
What the Canadian data say
The number of Canadian stay-at-home parents has declined almost every year since 1976, from about 1,487,000 to 493,000 between 1976 and 2015.2
Among single earner families the proportion of stay-at-home dads has increased in recent years. About one in 70 dads were stay-at-home parents in 1976. By 2015, it was one in 10. However, the increase in the proportion of stay-at-home dads is largely due to the decline in the number of stay-at-home moms.3
Among single earner families where the mom is the sole earner, the portion of men who meet the Statistics Canada definition of a stay-at-home parent hasn’t changed much since 1976. In these homes in 1976, about 32 percent of fathers were stay-at-home dads compared to 35 percent in 2015.4 The majority of men in female single earner homes are looking for work, pursuing education or unable to work which excludes them from the Statistics Canada definition of stay-at-home dads, even if they function in that role.5
So what's going on?
It’s the definition of stay-at-home parent that may, in part, account for the difference in trends between Canada and the US. The proportion of stay-at-home parents increased in the US after 1999. But the American numbers count parents who were not earning income outside the home, as well as those who couldn’t find employment, were unable to work or were furthering their education.
Statistic Canada’s measure does not include job seekers, those unable to work or those pursuing education. While the exclusions make sense on one level, this definition may disqualify those who view themselves as stay-at-home parents, or at least function as such.
Balancing employment and unpaid work at home
As consumers of this data, it’s easy to conclude that families where both parents work mean dual full-time working families. The data don’t tell us about parents who work part-time in order to generate income and have more time for unpaid work at home. The statistics don’t talk about parents who perform a kind of hybrid role.
On average, mothers in the labour force work 16 hours a week less than men.6 This suggests that a significant portion of mothers in the labour force are working less than full-time. While these parents are not stay-at-home parents, they do represent a significant number of parents who are not working full-time and may be contributing a significant number of hours of unpaid work in the home.
In fact, when Statistics Canada measures labour force participation they are very broad about who they include in the labour force. They include those who:
- Are on paid or unpaid leave
- Do unpaid work on a family farm or business
- Are unemployed but seeking work
- Do part-time work while caring for their own children
- Work part-time or perform seasonal work7
Only in the strictest sense has the proportion of stay-at-home parents declined. Many parents are generating some income while also spending significant hours caring for children. Interestingly, Statistics Canada notes that the increase in the proportion of stay-at-home fathers declines during times of economic recovery. Some out-of-work parents choose to suspend their job search until the market picks up, functioning as a stay-at-home parents in the meantime.
As policy makers consider how to best help families, they need to think beyond the stay-at-home/employed full-time dichotomy. Policies should honour choice, allowing parents to navigate their multiple vocations and roles. The current policy direction that provides money directly to parents is one example. Given the diverse roles parents play, and the changing hours in which they do so, this remains the best and fairest option.
1. D’Vera Cohn, Gretchen Livingston and Wendy Wang. After Decades of Decline, A Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers. (Washington: Pew research Center, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/04/08/after-decades-of-decline-a-rise-in-stay-at-home-mothers/
2. Sébastien Larocheele-Côté and Sharanjit Uppal. Changing Profile of Stary-at-Home Parents. Canadian Megatrends. (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2016). Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-630-x/11-630-x2016007-eng.htm
6. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (2014). The second shift. Thoroughly modern motherhood. Doc Zone. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/features/thoroughly-modern-motherhood
7. Statistics Canada (2013). Guide to the Labour Force Survey, 2013, pp. 7-9. Retrieved from www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/71-543-g/71-543-g2013001-eng.pdf