NEW YORK — Jeff VanderHeijden didn’t expect to be a stay-at-home father for his 3-year-old daughter, especially after getting a raise and promotion as a counselor last year at a residential program for troubled teenagers. Two weeks later, he was fired.
That’s when VanderHeijden, 35, of Carlisle, Pa., joined the growing ranks of U.S. men spending more time caring for a child. One-third of fathers with working wives are now a regular source of care for their children, the result of the depressed economy and large numbers of out-of-work men, according to the Census Bureau.
“Certain projects like refinishing the basement kind of had to go on hold, but it really pays off in the long run,” said VanderHeijden, whose wife works as a teacher. “You can’t put a price on a father-daughter relationship.”
The number of dads regularly caring for children under age 15 increased to 32 percent in 2010 from 26 percent in 2002. Among those fathers with preschool-age children, one in five served as the primary caregiver, meaning adults such as VanderHeijden who spend the most time with their child, the census found.
The recession has increased the number of fathers with an active role in child care, a trend that has been growing since at least 1988, said Lynda Laughlin, a family demographer at the Census Bureau.
“The economy hasn’t completely rebounded, particularly for men,” she said. “What did they label it, a ‘mancession?”’
The economic downturn initially had a greater effect on men than women, with males losing more net jobs between December 2007 and May 2011, according to a July report from the Pew Research Center. Men have regained jobs more quickly in the recovery, the Pew study found.
During recessions, fathers spend more time as partial and primary caregivers of children, Laughlin said, partly because unemployment or changes in work hours increase their availability to do so. “It also can reduce available income to pay for child care outside of the home,” she said.
The recession isn’t the only reason. Women are increasingly contributing more to family income than men, and there is a growing desire among men to take part in the lives of their children, according to Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the New York-based Families and Work Institute.
“The good news is that kids are with their fathers more,” Galinsky said. “The bad news is that families are so squeezed economically.”
The new statistics, from the Census Survey of Income and Program Participation, showed that 54 percent of unemployed fathers with a working wife and preschool-age children are primary caregivers, while 17 percent of employed fathers in the same situation fill that role.
Some couples decide that the cost of child care cancels out the income from a lower-wage job, regardless of the recession.
“If I’m making X and my wife is making X plus 10, who do you want making the money?” said Patrick Spillman, 42, of New York, who’s the primary caregiver for his 3-year-old daughter. “It’s a matter of dollars and cents.”
About three years ago, Lance Somerfeld, 38, found there were few resources for fathers like him after he decided to stay at home with his newborn son. He started the NYC Dads Group and watched it grow into 500 men who share ideas for museum trips, classes, play groups and other activities.
Most of the men in the group weren’t laid off. Instead, he said, they have wives who are making more money or are further along in their careers.
“I just see dads wanting to be a part of their kids’ lives,” Somerfeld said.