If you'd asked me a couple of months ago when the pop cultural trend of dads as primary caregivers began, I might have guessed the 1970s (when we saw an increase in single moms on TV). Turns out I'd have been off by a couple of decades.
Like many people, I associate the 1950s with nuclear families like those on Leave it to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and I Love Lucy. But the '50s also brought an avalanche of shows about single fathers, most of whom were widowers. The earliest example, My Little Margie, was about the relationship between a dad and his daughter, who was 21 but still lived at home (and would always be his little girl, etc).
In 1953, one-season wonders Bonino, My Son Jeep, and Wonderful John Acton all tried to jump on this bandwagon, as did Make Room for Daddy (later The Danny Thomas Show), which lasted until 1964 and unintentionally and briefly became about a widower when Jean Hagen, who played Danny's wife Margaret, left the show between seasons. However, Danny soon remarried and (like Mike Brady after him) was slotted back into a more traditional family unit as if nothing had ever been amiss. That show spun off The Andy Griffith Show, one of the most famous and long-running of the single father subgenre, which lasted from 1960-68. Similarly iconic and also starting that same year was My Three Sons (pictured), which ran for 378 episodes over 12 seasons and doubled up on father figures, with first the boys' granddad living with them and helping out with their care, and later Uncle Charley taking on that role.
A variation on the early trend for single fathers was for a man to foster or adopt (not always formally) a child in need, which was a quick way to foist responsibility on a character without giving him a sad backstory. (It would also presumably have seemed more heroic and far less scandalous than being divorced.) Bachelor Father, Fury, and The Great Gildersleeve all took this tack. The latter two are westerns, which made up a large proportion of single dad TV shows prior to 1970. (There was also The Adventures of Champion, Brave Eagle, The Rifleman, and the long-running Bonanza, which centered on a three-time widower and his sons, who were fully grown but still lived and worked on the family ranch. Meanwhile, Robert Mitchum took the trend to the big screen in River of no Return.)
Westerns in general were hugely popular at this time, a fact that's often attributed to fears about the Cold War and its potential to curtail American freedoms. The setting also makes sense for stories about single fathers because it's a male-dominated place concerned with reaffirming traditional masculine traits. There's also doubtless a parallel between literally conquering new territory without a road map and becoming a sole parent. Furthermore, setting a show in the past means that any criticism, for example, about the paucity of women, can be dismissed in the name of accuracy.
But while women don't always play a huge role, the majority of TV shows and movies in which a dad is widowed (and later, divorced) include some kind of surrogate mother, who often works or volunteers in a caring capacity (housekeeper, cook, teacher). This both "reassures" the audience that traditional gender roles are still in play and provides the possibility of (heterosexual) romance. In fact, in TV shows and movies with widowed fathers, it's common for kids to meddle in their parent's love life.
In films like 1993's Sleepless in Seattle and a TV movie I watched just last week, Dear Santa, a child wishes for a "new mom" so their widowed father will be happy. This strikes me as problematic not just because it seems callous for a child who's lost their mom, but also because it suggests both that men cannot be happy and functional without a love relationship, and that a dad cannot properly parent without a woman by his side. Although it often overdosed on angst, teen drama Everwood was more realistic in this regard, with sulky Ephram Brown resentful of his formerly workaholic dad's dating life and dismissive of his clumsy attempts to bond.
Although shows like this, Full House and My Two Dads all dealt with the impact of a wife and mom's death, as divorce became more common and less stigmatized in the '70s, '80s and '90s, single dads in pop culture increasingly tended to be divorced rather than widowed. This is especially true for TV, where a divorce allows for a larger cast and a wider range of potential stories (from custody issues to double the step-siblings). We've also seen an increase, albeit a slight one, in the representation of gay dads, stay-at-home fathers, and single dads of color.
While we're experiencing a boom in male primary caregivers on TV and in movies right now, it's interesting to bear in mind that this isn't their first time at the center of the zeitgeist, and worth wondering how long our current obsession will last — and whether a fascination with mothers might follow.