Skip to main content

The redefinition of fatherhood demands new public policies

Jeremy Adam Smith, Editor, Greater Good Magazine | June 6, 2012

In anticipation of Father’s Day, the International Museum of Women put together a gallery on “the changing role of the modern dad,” which includes a global facts and figures, a three-minute video on how mothers around the world view fatherhood, a documentary about stay-at-home dads in Hungary, and profiles of fathers in South America and Africa. They also invited me to contribute an essay on why and how fatherhood has evolved in North America, which I thought might be of interest to Berkeley Blog readers…

In 1946, when my grandfather mustered out of the army and married my grandmother, he set up what looked like the ideal family at the time. His wife quit her job and he started work driving a crane in a quarry—a job he would do for the next forty years, working up to six days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. When I asked him if he faced any challenges raising his three children, he replied, “I never did. My wife took care of all that. She brought the kids up.” This arrangement came with a rigid hierarchy: “She worked for me,” said my grandfather of his wife. “I always said, ‘You work for me.’”

By the time my mother and father met in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, more and more people were starting to question this division of labor between men and women. The following year, the Unites States Congress formally abolished sex discrimination at work. I was born in 1970. “I wanted to be closer to you than my father was to me,” my dad told me when I interviewed him for my book, The Daddy Shift. “I wanted to participate more in my kids’ lives.” Even so, my parents never questioned for a moment that he would make most of the money and she would change most of the diapers.

By 1988—the year I graduated from high school—only 29 percent of children lived in two-parent families with a full-time homemaking mother. And like many Baby Boomer couples, my parents split in 1991—the same year I met the woman who is today my wife. By the time we became parents in 2004, my wife and I were stepping into a family landscape that was totally different from the one my grandparents faced in 1946.

For one thing, we never assumed that one of us was the natural breadwinner and the other a natural caregiver—instead, we saw those as roles that we would share and negotiate over time. For a year, I took care of my son while my wife went to work, and as we visited playgrounds, I met many other dads who took care of their kids while their female partners were at work.

This personal reality reflects one that has been empirically measured. For almost every decade for the past 100 years, more and more women in the United States have gone to college and work. For most of the past three years, men have been much more likely to lose their jobs than women, who are concentrated in fast-growing, high-skill industries like health care and education. Between 2009 and 2010, men with college degrees saw their median weekly earnings drop three percent while the income of women with degrees grew by 4.3 percent. Today, young women’s pay exceeds that of their male peers in most metropolitan areas.

Not coincidentally, fathers now spend more time with their children and on housework than at any time since researchers started collecting comparable data. I call it “the daddy shift” — the gradual movement away from a definition of fatherhood as pure breadwinning to one that encompasses a capacity of caregiving.

The right-wing “family values” movement has painted these trends as a crisis, but no one I know experiences them that way. Instead, we seem to share a positive (if often unarticulated) vision of the family as diverse, egalitarian, voluntary, interdependent, flexible, and improvisational. Many people hold these ideals without necessarily being conscious of their political and economic implications—and they’re not making politically motivated choices. In researching The Daddy Shift, for example, I didn’t interview any breadwinning moms and caregiving dads who adopted their reverse-traditional arrangement for feminist reasons. They almost always framed their work and care decisions as a practical matter, a response to brutally competitive labor and childcare markets.

Indeed, I don’t believe that a political force like feminism has driven men and women to share roles more equally; it seems more accurate to say that feminism has tried to teach people to personally adapt to broad, deep economic and technological changes that made equality more possible and desirable—and the movement has fought for public policies that would support our new roles at home and at work.

Rising inequality and economic instability has meant that many families can’t afford specialists anymore, with one focused on career and the other exclusively on taking care of the family. And so couples are moving from a family model that prioritizes efficiency to one that tries to build resilience in the face of economic shocks. In the ideal resilient family, both women and men are capable of working for pay and working at home.

But families often fall short of this ideal, partially because of lingering structural and interpersonal sexism, and partially because men lack support for their new caregiving roles at both home and work. Studies consistently show that 80 percent to 90 percent of mothers still expect fathers to serve as primary breadwinners (and very few will consider supporting a stay-at-home dad). At work, only seven percent of American men have access to paid parental leave, among other structural limitations.

How can the daddy shift continue? The to-do list is long. It includes an education campaign to help men of all social classes understand what workplace and public policies can help them be the fathers they want to be — and legal campaigns that will defend their jobs against backward attitudes at work. Men whose mindsets are still shaped by the sole-breadwinner ideal need explicit permission and encouragement from both their female partners and their bosses to take advantage of leave policies and participate in family life.

We also need to shift the language we use to discuss work-family issues in a more inclusive direction, so that it includes fathers as well as mothers. That language should stress resilience and meaning to men instead of the language of equality that has mobilized women. In the end, it’s up to guys to tell the stories of our lives and speak up for what we want. No one will do it for us.

Comments to “The redefinition of fatherhood demands new public policies

  1. National estimates in the 1970’s and 80’s indicated that women had sole custody of the children approximately 85% of the time, and men retained sole custody 10% of the time, with the remaining 5% spread over a variety of custody arrangements, including grandparent, split or joint custody. More recent data sets indicate that father custody figures may be closer to 15%.

  2. I raised my children the same way I was raised. If you were good you got rewarded, if you were bad you got punished. There is too much outside influences these days that affect children. The best way to stop the outside influences is to start early, have boundaries and be consistant. When my kids did something that they knew they weren’t suppose to do, they knew the consequences.

  3. Could you provide the source of your note about young women and their pay exceeding that of young men. Thanks

  4. Being a relatively new grandfather, most fortunately married to my 1963 Cal classmate, everytime we babysit our granddaughters I am motivated to focus on The Greater Good for the best interests of our newest and all future generations, to meet the challenges of change that are overwhelming us today, as they have continuously over the history of civilization, including:

    — Climate change
    — Amygdalas that dominate our prefrontal cortex due to greed
    — Overpopulation that exceeds resources and perpetuates uncontrolled poverty
    — Political and social institutions that ignore the Golden Rule
    — Religious based morality that varies with circumstances
    — Oligarchies that rule and/or control us more often than not
    — Failures of the Rule of Law to protect We The People
    — Political attacks against civil rights, especially including women’s rights
    — Lack of intelligence, compromise, education, thinking and opportunities
    — Power of money that dominates science and education, preventing peace, equality and economic stability
    — Historical failures of politicians and intellectuals to meet the challenges of change

    QUESTION: How can we produce and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for all future generations?

    Meanwhile, as Will and Ariel Durant concluded, you can’t fool all the people all the time but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country, which is a major political problem that we must overcome during the 2012 elections using the latest social communications technologies and tools available to our newest generations, giving them the power to control their own destiny for the first time in history.

    • Too bad I can’t ever get an answer to my QUESTION from the Berkeley Academy.

      But the truth is that we really don’t seem to have come up with any better answers than Socrates did when he asked philosophical questions about concepts like compassion, happiness, and altruism.

      Yesterday, by coincidence, the journal Nature published a paper on latest DNA studies of bonobos, which was surprisingly more different from chimpanzees than previously thought. Now it remains to be determined whether humans are more like aggressive chimps or more peaceful bonobos.

      So my question might be rephrased to ask whether humans are more make love, not war or make war, not love? Reminds me of FSM “Make Love, Not War” chants in the 60s, a habit we appear to be even further from achieving today.

      Good luck to you folks at the Greater Good Science Center in achieving your goals of compassion, happiness, and altruism for the human race.

  5. A nice piece, but you fail to mention family law that still gives sole or primary custody to mothers in 83% of cases in the U.S. and more than that in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, as Douglas Allen and Margaret Brinig have shown, the reason (“that swamps all other variables”) that 70% of divorces are filed by women is that they know they won’t lose their kids. Fathers, by contrast, know full well that they will. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, some 35% of children of divorce have little or no contact with their fathers shortly after divorce. Until we change custody law, fathers and mothers will never be equal in divorce court. And with mothers bearing the majority of childcare responsibility, they’ll never catch up with men in earnings, savings, promotions at work and retirement security.

    So you call for changes to public policies, but not to family law that does more than anything else to ensure that children lose their fathers post-divorce and keeps mothers at the low end of the earnings scale. Why?

Comments are closed.