Stay-at-home dads were not the norm in Israel when Karen Kramer had her first child in 2001.
But she was nervous about being a new mom, and her husband, Amit, was a natural with babies. So the couple decided she would continue working full time as a college instructor and researcher while he took on most of the child care.
“He knew exactly what to do,” she says now. “He was amazing.”
Kramer returned to work two weeks after giving birth and faced plenty of criticism. Her employer was supportive, giving her the flexibility she needed, but friends and others couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to stay home to take care of her newborn.
“I always felt like I needed to explain why we decided on a different way of raising our daughter,” says Kramer, now a visiting professor of human and community development at the University of Illinois.
Kramer’s research shows an increasing number of dads are staying home to raise their children and suggests that even those forced into that role by joblessness choose to remain the primary caregiver after the economy improves.
The Kramers’ arrangement worked well until their baby was 8 months old, when Amit Kramer was drafted by the Israeli military — with just 24 hours’ notice. It was, in a word, “crazy,” she says.
With no time to find a full-time sitter, Karen Kramer scaled back her teaching, recruited relatives to help and didn’t sleep much.
When her husband returned, she expected to get some of her classes back. But the government law promising that draftees’ jobs will be protected didn’t apply to a spouse, even though she was the primary breadwinner.
Meanwhile, the soldier who replaced Amit Kramer in the military was killed just a few days later. The Kramers had always hoped to continue their graduate studies abroad, but that sped up their timetable.
In 2003, Amit Kramer — now a UI professor of labor and employment relations — enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota. Karen Kramer began working full time on her doctorate in 2005, four months after their second daughter was born. Her husband again played a key role in child care.
This time, the Kramers felt much more support — perhaps because times had changed, perhaps because they were in the U.S., she says. Kramer later switched her doctoral research from aging to stay-at-home fathers.
In a recent study, Kramer examined 34 years of data from a monthly survey of 60,000 U.S. households by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
She found that the number of households with stay-at-home fathers — also known as SAHF — grew from 2 percent in 1976 to 3.5 percent in 2009.
That may not sound like a huge increase, but Kramer looked only at the strictest definition of a SAHF household: a married couple with a husband who was not employed and earned no income, a wife who worked 35 hours a week or more and at least one child under 18 still at home. Under that analysis, an estimated 500,000 households with more than 1.1 million children were run by stay-at-home dads during the last decade.
The number would be much higher if the category were broadened, Kramer says. For example, if it included households where the mom worked 35 hours or more a week and the dad worked 20 hours or less, the total would have been 8 percent in 2008.
On top of that, the proportion of dads staying home to take care of their children — as opposed to those who simply can’t find a job or are unable to work because of a disability — rose significantly.
From 1976 to 1979, less than 1 percent of stay-at-home dads said they stayed home to take care of their families. From 2002 to 2009, that figure rose to 22 percent, or more than a fifth of all SAHF households.
Kramer also found the number of stay-at-home dads rises with unemployment in every economic slump but does not return to prerecession levels once the economy rebounds, resulting in a steady upward trend.
Kramer sees two explanations: a shift in the labor market and a change in the perception of gender roles.
Over the past few decades, women have achieved higher levels of education and entered the labor force in greater numbers, translating into more earning power. That gives them more clout in negotiating who will stay home to raise the children, Kramer argues.
Also, unemployment rises during every recession, but it tends to affect men more than women, she says. For example, the most recent recession hurt the construction, finance and car industries, whereas fields with high concentrations of women, such as health services or education, were safer.
A father who has assumed an important role as caregiver in the household while unemployed may be more selective about what kind of job he will accept once the economy improves, Kramer argues.
Fathers may also simply like staying home with their children and understand that they have a role beyond breadwinner, she says.
Kramer also found that households with men who chose to stay home had higher incomes and wives with more education and greater earning potential than families in which the father was home because he was unable to work. From 2000 to 2009, household income averaged $64,300 and $33,135 for those groups, respectively.
And almost 80 percent of stay-at-home dads still say they were forced into that situation by unemployment or illness, she notes.
“Values and norms in a society change really slowly,” Kramer says.
But more women than men are attending college, and the income gap is narrowing as greater numbers of women enter higher-paying occupations formerly dominated by men, she says. That will likely mean more stay-at-home dads down the road.
Julie Wurth writes/blogs about families and kids and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, firstname.lastname@example.org  or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Photo: Karen and Amit Kramer visit Meadowbrook Park in Urbana earlier this month with daughters Noam, 7, left, and Stav, 10. Karen has done extensive research on stay-at-home fathers, and Amit played a major child care role after his girls were born. Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette