Are you feeling fed up and burned out, Dad? You’re not alone—a recent study from the Pew Center finds that most men are struggling to juggle work and family, just like moms. But believe it or not, that’s a sign of progress. And in many ways this is the best of times to be a father. Here are five reasons why.
1. There are more ways to be a good dad than ever before.
My grandfather’s generation showed their love by going to work every day and providing for their families—and woe to the man who dared change a diaper, for he’d be told he was doing woman’s work.
But thanks to women, that’s no longer true. Over three generations, women went to school and went to work, and they lobbied for changes at their jobs and homes to accommodate their needs as working mothers. That put new demands on men—your turn to make dinner, buddy!—but it also created new possibilities for them.
Enter the stay-at-home dad. Most men won’t become one—in fact, many very caring fathers are horrified by the prospect of full-time parenthood—but the image of a good father has expanded beyond breadwinning to include many different responsibilities and identities. Stay-at-home dads are the leading edge of that change, but there are millions of other fathers coming up right behind them.
Yes, dads, change is stressful. We have to succeed on the job and at home—and the mothers of our children are often struggling with the exact same problem. Many two-income families are burned to the limit. Not only that, but the ghosts of the past create stereotypes in the present. As New York City dad Vincent Young put it in a discussion on my Facebook page, “There is still a long way to go in dispelling the viral stereotypes of the humorously incompetent dad, the disconnected dad, the grudgingly involved dad, etc.”
But these negative stereotypes are not the whole story; they may, in fact, be only the vestiges of a Mad Men period that grows increasingly sepia-toned. More and more, fathers are benefitting from a shift in attitudes in themselves, their partners, and society at large.
So while making ends meet is stressful for just about everyone these days—dads and moms, families and singles—dads need not suffer the added indignity of feeling disparaged or marginalized for taking on their new roles.
In fact, according to San Diego-based daddy blogger Andy Hinds, the opposite may be true—these new roles can be a source of pride and admiration.
“We’re in the sweet spot as far as expectations,” he says. “It’s mostly acceptable for a man to be an involved parent (i.e., it doesn’t seem problematic to most people when a dad is out with kids unsupervised by a woman), and yet it’s still enough of a novelty that we get more attention and props than we deserve for being an apparently competent parent.”
I should mention that diversity in paternal identity goes beyond our relationships to children and co-parents. Dads today can now be gay, they can be in an interracial relationship (illegal in 17 states as of 1967, the year my interracial wife was born), and the number of single dads has quintupled since the early 1970s.
2. Men get more time with children through paternity leave and shared custody.
“My husband just took advantage of California’s paid family leave and it was great,” says new Santa Rosa, CA, mom Leilani Clark. “He took six weeks off work and had tons of time to bond with our newborn.”
Leilani’s husband is a lucky guy. Unfortunately, New Jersey is the only other state besides California that offers any wage replacement to men after the birth of a child. There is some unpaid leave: The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires all public agencies and private companies with 50 or more employees to offer unpaid leave to those who have worked there at least a year.
To be sure, that excludes a lot of people—and the paucity of paid leave for men led some of the guys in my Facebook discussion to argue that this is not at all a good time to be a dad. “US domestic policy is in some important ways anti-family,” said father and Shareable.net publisher Neal Gorenflo.
I agree, and I think men have a lot of work to do in winning public policies that will help them to be the fathers they want to be.
But as we advocate for policies like paid paternity leave, flextime, and sick days, we take heart from the fact that our fathers and grandfathers had no leave whatsoever, paid or unpaid—and they were deliberately kept out of maternity wards. They were breadwinners, period, and policies were designed to reinforce that limited role.
But the FMLA—along with leave policies in California and New Jersey—has created opportunities for bonding with children and gaining the skills we need to take care of them. A 2011 study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that 91 percent of working-class employees who used paid leave found it had a positive effect on their ability to care for their babies. Of 253 employers surveyed, 96 percent claim the program reduced employee turnover and 99 percent say it improved morale.
“When my son was born I took the max time from work, 12 weeks, and it was amazing!” said Stephen Hoffman, who works as an assistant producer for Southern California Public Radio. “A few dumb dad moments here and there, but I learned a lot about parenting, really formed an intense bond with my son that a lot of dads—especially generations past—weren’t able to do.”
This expanding time with children holds even if the marriage ends. Where once it was presumed by family courts that the mother should have primary custody after divorce, more and more states have enacted legislation presuming joint custody, and the number of fathers with primary custody has slowly but steadily increased over the past 30 years.
3. Men have the opportunity to develop new emotional skills.
We’re not just learning to change diapers. We’re also learning to practice kindness, compassion, and forgiveness—for ourselves and for wives. That’s good, and good for our kids.
We know from longitudinal and time-use studies that fathers’ time with children has tripled since the mid-1960s. But we don’t have other studies that provide a good empirical picture of how this experience has re-shaped men’s emotional lives—a giant blindspot in the research. We can’t know for sure if today’s fathers are better than their grandfathers at empathy or patience.
But we do have lots of compelling anecdotal evidence. “Compared to the dads of my father’s generation, this generation is allowed to show much more affection and be much more involved in their children’s lives,” said Craig Wiesner, co-founder of Reach And Teach, a peace and social justice learning company.
“I feel sorry for the generation of dads who parented in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, when being a dad looked a lot like what would now be called being an a**hole,” said Hunter Cutting, a father of two in San Francisco. “The social customs, rules, and models for being a dad are so much better now.”
In interviews for my book The Daddy Shift, which is about breadwinning moms and caregiving dads, many men and their partners talked about how caregiving fatherhood helped them to expand their emotional skills.
“Now that he has to think about what children need, he’s much better about time management and being prepared,” says San Francisco mom Angela Dorantes about her husband, Joey. “He thinks about other people.”
The couples I interviewed said that sharing care and work demanded a high degree of emotional intelligence—a sharp departure from the hierarchical marriages of the past. They talked about learning to respect the different ways that men and women take care of kids; recognizing and appreciating each other’s contributions; constantly communicating, negotiating, and forgiving; and being open to change.
These developments can only be good for men—and for their families.
4. We’re more networked and we’re looking to each other for community.
When it came time to interview my grandfather for The Daddy Shift, I was terrified. We didn’t discuss topics like “fatherhood” in my family—and, indeed, my grandfather’s answers were predictably terse.
Dads today aren’t like that. We’re a comparatively talkative generation, and we’ve started a conversation about fatherhood that is unfolding in churches and barbershops, across popular blogs and rarified academic journals, and over Saturday afternoon BBQs and Thanksgiving dinners.
Lance Somerfeld co-founded New York City Dads. “Dads across the nation are finding ways to connect with other dads, both online and face-to-face,” he says. “This newfound camaraderie, sharing of resources and best practices, and expression of what we are going through both successfully and with challenges, enables dads to link up and see that they are so fortunate to be involved in their children’s lives.”
As fathers organize themselves into groups and networks, they’re pushing the language around work-life fit to include them. “Our public dialogue and imaging about families has to include fathers,” says Jeff Gillenkirk, author of the novel Home, Away, about a divorced baseball player’s struggle to connect with his son. “Fathers need to be included in the picture, and when excluded for any reason, they need to insist on being in the picture. Kids need their father, and fathers need their kids.”
Gillenkirk adds, “And for fathers who have left the raising of their kid(s) to others, how did it feel when your father did that to you?” This is another side effect of our growing consciousness as fathers: We’re pushing each other to be better. As Bay Area author and former youth worker Shawn Taylor puts it, “An increasing number of men are willing to hold other men/fathers accountable (and offer support) in regards to child rearing.”
Research suggests Shawn has a point. In 2006, for example, Trent W. Maurer and Joseph H. Pleck interviewed over 100 parents in order to understand how feedback from others shapes parenting behavior and identity. They found that new fathers were not looking to their own fathers for guidance—an unfortunate result of the generational break in parenting relationships. Instead they looked to their peers, as well as mothers.
5. We can tell our children a new story about fatherhood.
When I raised this question—“Why is this a good time to be a dad?”—to people in my online and real-life circles, many of them pointed to consumer products. “Diaper technology is great these days!” “You can buy your daughter baseball mitts and basketballs!” “You can play video games with your boys!”
Buying stuff and playing with stuff can be fun, and what we buy and how we play is important. But as the definition of a good father moves away from just making money, I’d like to hope that Father’s Day offers an opportunity to go beyond buying things—and to explore the meaning of our experiences with our partners and kids. This is how we can one day prepare them to take care of kids of their own.
In her blog post “20 Questions to Ask Your Father,” my colleague Christine Carter made a great suggestion: On Father’s Day, put aside the gifts and take just a little bit of time to learn about Dad. Her questions include:
- Did your parents or grandparents ever lose their jobs? What happened? How did they start over?
- If you could go back to one day in your childhood, which day would that be? Why?
- How are you most different from your parents and grandparents? How are you the same?
You can put these questions to your own father. I encourage your family to make up their own questions, with the goal of revealing what culture, values, and history you bring to fatherhood.
It was once the case that we told a specific story to our children about what their lives would become: We raised our girls to be homemakers and our boys to become breadwinners. Those allegedly good old days are now gone, and they are never coming back. We can’t assume our kids will even be heterosexual, let alone fall into traditional roles when our grandchildren come.
While many have construed this change as some kind of assault on marriage and fatherhood, I would argue that it is precisely the opposite. This “crisis” is, in fact, an opportunity for revival and renewal—to tell a new story to our children that will help them thrive in the 21st century.