Sound familiar? It’s one of the most common myths of the American family, and in the past it may even have been a mostly true description of how some families functioned. But the world as we were shown it in the black-and-white simplicity of Leave It To Beaver never really existed. Even if it had, times have changed and so, too, must our ideas about what it means to be a good father.
This Father’s Day, we share with you a look at The New Dad a series of reports from the Boston College Center for Work & Family that explore the evolution of the modern American father.
In 2010, the Center published The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood within a Career Context. Based on interviews with new fathers, this report explored how shifting cultural and attitudes about parenthood and work, along with new economic realities, were contributing to higher numbers of men determined to “fully embrace their roles as fathers.” What the authors saw was a new generation of men looking at the traditional role of father as economic provider and deciding they wanted to be more than just a breadwinner. Becoming fathers changed their lives, they said, made them realize how important all the little moments of parenthood were. They wanted to be present and involved in meeting their children’s physical and emotional needs.
Unfortunately, as we know, wanting to be there for your child and being able to do so are often two very different things.
For the 2011 follow-up report, The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted, Center researchers surveyed nearly a thousand working fathers, hoping to better understand how they were really coping with balancing a career and their desire to be more involved parents. The picture that emerged was one of increasing work-life conflict for men. Despite having the desire to be as involved as their partners in their children’s lives, most working fathers admitted they were unable to make this a reality, especially when their vision of fatherhood was competing with high aspirations for a satisfying and meaningful career. Often, they said, work responsibilities only seemed to increase in the time following the birth of their child, and many of the men reported that job responsibilities often intruded during time they hoped to dedicate to family.
How much of this conflict comes from actual pressure from the job versus what is self-imposed isn’t exactly clear. Most of the men asked admit that their supervisors were understanding and accommodating when it came to working around family commitments. And even though men are often reluctant to take advantage of all the available accommodations, the authors note that working in an family-supportive culture can reduce the level of work-life conflict and improve overall employee morale.
But what of dads who decide they’d rather be full-time caretakers for their children?
Recently, more and more fathers have chosen to forgo the balancing act and commit to being stay-at-home dads. It’s the experiences of these men that are at the center of the most recent New Dad report. In The New Dad: Right at Home the authors sought to understand the driving forces behind these fathers’ decision to leave the workforce, the impact of this decision on their family, and whether or not they have noticed a shift in how others perceive them or they perceive themselves.
Even among men who considered their employment a career or calling, most reported that they were happy with their decision to stay home. However, making the choice doesn’t mean that the transition was always easy. For any parent making the move from employment to stay-at-home, there’s going to be culture shock, a period of adjustment of figuring out just what it means to exist in a domestic and child-centered life.
For fathers, whether they are balancing work and home or choosing to stay home full time, there are more complex issues involved in their adjustment than usually exist for mothers. The existing stereotypes about gender and parenting can have a significant impact on how fathers view themselves and how they are viewed as caretakers.
In this week’s For Our Babies podcast, Jonathan and George discussed how there is still an assumption that mothers are the default point of contact for issues involving children. They also talked about how they have been perceived in public, having strangers doubt their parenting skills. The fathers interviewed in Right at Home echo these experiences, sharing stories of having their parenting abilities questioned or even being confronted by law enforcement for “suspicious” behavior with children in public. While somewhat disheartening, we can’t really consider these stories surprising. After all, when we’ve spent so long buying into the idea that fathers are less involved in their children’s lives, it’s going to take time to make a cultural shift to seeing them in a hands-on nurturing role.
In the end, what all these reports show is that, just like mothers, fathers often struggle to balance work and home in the way that will best support their children emotionally as well as financially.
To all the dads out there still figuring it out, as well as those who have found the answer that works for them and their families, we at For Our Babies wish you a happy Father’s Day.