Gayle Kaufman: We all win if we let dads be dads

By Gayle Kaufman

Social and political attitudes out of step with fathers’ will to care for kids.
Fathers who spend more time with their children bring a range of benefits to their families and society.
Fathers who spend more time with their children bring a range of benefits to their families and society.

Gayle Kaufman is Professor of Sociology, Davidson College.

Have you seen the T-shirt slogan: Dads don't babysit (it's called "parenting")?

This slogan calls out the gendered language we often still use to talk about fathers. The fact is, fathers are spending more time with their children than ever before. In fact, American fathers today spend 65 per cent more time with their children during the workday than they did 30 years ago.

According to the 2016 National Study of the Changing Workforce, almost half of fathers in heterosexual relationships say they share caregiving responsibilities equally or take on a greater share of caregiving than their partner.

This week we witnessed the release of the first State of America's Fathers, a report that draws on numerous social science research studies as well as new analysis of the 2016 National Study of the Changing Workforce.

As a sociologist who studies fatherhood worldwide, I think the most important message of this report is a simple one: Fathers are parents, too.

But dads' desire to "have it all," as we once talked about in relation to working mothers, means that they are also having difficulties successfully combining work and family. The report suggests, among other things, that the US needs to pass paid, non-transferable, job-protected leave. I agree.

Work-life balance is important to men, too

The State of America's Fathers report highlights that a majority of fathers experience work-life conflict, and that this has increased over time. For example, 60 per cent of fathers in dual-earner families say they struggle to balance work and family, compared to 35 per cent of such fathers in 1977.

This is likely due to the fact that a majority of fathers feel they don't spend enough time with their children. This situation may be due to the continued pressures on men to earn a good income. According to the 2016 National Study of the Changing Workforce, 64 per cent of Americans feel that fathers should contribute financially even if taking care of the home and children.

In my own research published in my book Superdads, fathers continually expressed frustration at not being able to balance work and family. It's no longer a question of whether fathers want to be more active in their children's lives, but how they will do so when workplace and government policies do not offer the support necessary.

Men need work-life policies as much as women

A big part of the problem is that the workplace has not really adjusted to working women and caregiving men.

Instead the idea of the ideal worker, someone (usually a man) who can focus entirely on work while a partner (usually a woman) takes care of everything else, still holds power among employers. But the State of America's Fathers report reveals that most workers have some family responsibilities, and only a minority of families fit the "traditional" breadwinner father, homemaker mother model. Only 20 per cent of couples live off one income. This means that most fathers have partners who also work, and more single fathers have shared or primary custody of their children.

Like working mothers, working fathers face stigma when they seek greater flexibility in the workplace. A similar number of fathers (43 per cent) and mothers (41 per cent) think asking for flexibility could have a negative impact on their careers.

In addition, there is evidence that leave-taking negatively impacts chances of promotion, frequency of raises, and performance evaluations, and these penalties are stronger for men than women. Men who seek flexibility are even seen as less masculine.

The benefits of father involvement

Why should we be so concerned about men's ability to balance work and family?

The simple answer is that fathers who take leave and spend more time with their children are really good for their families. Their children benefit from better cognitive, behavioural, psychological and social outcomes.

According to the State of America's Fathers report, these fathers also pave a path toward greater gender equality as their sons are more accepting of gender equality while their daughters feel more empowered. Their partners benefit because they are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships and less likely to experience postpartum depression. They are also more able to focus on their own careers, which has the potential to benefit the larger economy as well, with one estimate showing an increase of 5 per cent in GDP if women's labour force participation rate equalled men's rate. Fathers themselves benefit by engaging in healthier behaviours and creating more ties to family and community.

And in the end, men are just as capable of caring for children as women. Also, men's body chemistry reacts the same way as women's to close physical contact with infants. In other words, they can experience similar levels of bonding with their children.

Paid parental leave could help

In an analysis of policies in 185 countries, the International Labour Organization finds that the US is one of only two countries that does not guarantee paid parental leave.

Worldwide paternity leave is becoming more prevalent, with 71 countries now offering it. Fathers are most likely to take leave when it is specifically designated for them. Around 90 per cent of fathers in Nordic countries take leave.

• New Zealand offers 18 weeks paid parental leave for one parent. Last week Finance Minister Bill English used the Government's power of veto to block a bill by Labour MP Sue Moroney which would have increased this to 26 weeks. The bill had the support of a majority of MPs in Parliament.

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