21st century dads pitching in

Today's fathers tend to be more involved in day-to-day child care than their predecessors




Test Caption

On most mornings, Hazel Dell dad T.J. Green makes breakfast for his two children, Alex, 4, and Ryland, 1, helps them brush their teeth and dresses them. He cleans up the kitchen and takes care of the house. When his wife, Alicia, returns from her job as a medical imaging technician, Green heads to his job as a restaurant manager, and Alicia takes over the children’s care.

The job description for many American fathers has been rewritten in the past few decades, from breadwinner to a more nuanced role that depends on each family’s situation, economic condition, culture and parenting philosophy. Generation X and millennial fathers who live in the home tend to be more involved in daily child care and spend more time with their children than their baby boomer predecessors.

Green’s version of fatherhood differs sharply from that of his father’s. Green’s father provided financially for the family with his job as a logger, while his mother was a homemaker until Green was in middle school.

“I have a different relationship with my kids than what I had with my dad,” said Green, 34. “We didn’t see my dad much because he worked long hours. I didn’t have one-on-one time with him.”

Green illustrates a national trend toward greater involvement in child care among fathers who live at home with their children. The average weekly hours of child care provided by fathers increased from 2.5 in 1965 to 7.8 in 2008, according to an analysis by sociologist Suzanne Bianchi of Americans’ Use of Time Study. Her analysis also revealed that fathers spent about 9.5 hours per week on housework, compared with 4.4 in 1965.

“The trend may grow, but slowly,” said Bianchi, sociology professor at University of California Los Angeles. “Mothers remain much more likely to cut back on paid work when they have children than fathers do.”

Lack of support in U.S. social policy for fathers to take leave from employment for child care and cultural perceptions that mothers are “uniquely responsible for children’s well-being” may prevent fathers and mothers’ time on children to ever reach equality, said Melissa Milkie, sociology professor at University of Maryland. Milkie worked with Bianchi and University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson in authoring the 2007 book “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life,” which examined fatherly involvement.

The trend runs concurrent with another: fewer fathers living at home. For fathers outside their children’s home, involvement in child care is minimal in comparison, according to the Pew Research Center.

But the trend within the family home demonstrates the increasing value society and fathers themselves place on staying engaged in the ins and outs of their children’s lives.

Growth in Clark County parenting programs for dads is one example of that. Nearly 60 percent of participants in the Parent Trust Support Group at the Vancouver office of Children’s Home Society of Washington are men, said Erinn Havig, program manager. The program allows parents to talk about challenges they face in parenting, celebrate successes and share advice.

“We’ve found an increasing percentage of dads in the program,” said Bridget McLeman, director of Children’s Home Society for Southwest Washington.

Children’s Home Society also offers a New Dads workshop at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.

Fathers still haven’t caught up with mothers in hours spent on child care and housework. Mothers spent an average of 13.9 hours per week on child care in 2008, nearly double that of fathers. They spent 17.4 hours on housework. But the gap between the two parents has narrowed, according to Bianchi.

“One thing our data time diaries don’t capture well is the responsibility for arranging and organizing kids’ lives, and here research shows that mothers continue to do the vast majority of this work,” Milkie said.

How much child care fathers provide often depends on the father’s work situation. And even when fathers are helping with child care, a division of labor still persists in many cases, said generational theorist Neil Howe.

Father involvement tends to come in the form of play, homework and attending school events, Howe said. A smaller percentage of men clean up after children or do other domestic chores associated with child care, though that number is on the upswing, Howe said.

“If it needs to get done, we do it, but (my wife) is more of a cleaner than I am,” said 27-year-old Vancouver dad Casey Marvin. “She always complains about my cleaning: ‘This isn’t clean.'”

Desire vs. necessity

Why are fathers more involved in child care? It’s a significant historical change, which began to develop with baby boomers. After World War II, there was a growing feeling that children needed attention from both parents, not just their mothers, Howe said.

“Fathers were expected to be more nurturing and engaged,” said Yoshie Sano, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver. “Fathers’ ideology that they want to be more involved has increased, but women also have begun to realize men can do (child care).”

As more wives and mothers joined the workforce, they noticed men could pitch in by watching the children.

Generation Xers expanded men’s child care role with the concept that men didn’t necessarily need to be the breadwinner, Howe said.

“The Generation X attitude is much more non-normative; it’s basically whatever works,” he said. Millennials (born beginning in 1982) have continued that trend. Millennials are exceedingly pro-family and believe in spending lots of time with their children.

The idea of relieving men of the role of breadwinner still hasn’t gained widespread popularity, but it’s a growing minority, Howe said.

“I’m trying to do it my dad’s way, where I bring home the bacon,” Marvin said. “That’s how my wife was raised. That’s where we’d like to be at, but unfortunately, with the economy the way it is, we need the second income.”

The recession may have contributed to growth in involvement by fathers, Howe said. Since 2008, more parents are out of work. More households, like the Marvins’, also need two incomes to survive.

“For guys, that means more have a chance to be around their kids,” Howe said.

That was what prompted Green’s heavy involvement in care for his own children. During the recession, Green lost his job designing houses. His now 4-year-old daughter, Alex, was a baby at the time. Green’s wife continued her job while Green took on the primary responsibilities of child care.

Better or worse

A father’s involvement can aid in the healthy development of children as long as it’s positive engagement, Sano said. That’s defined as being supportive, having high expectations and setting limits, she said. A father that doesn’t offer those things may have a detrimental effect on a child’s development. Fatherhood is not regarded an essential ingredient for a healthy childhood, but having caring adults is essential, she said.

It’s unclear how good a job fathers are doing. A Pew Research Center Social Trends survey in 2007 indicated a larger share of both men and women think fathers are doing a worse job than dads 20 to 30 years ago, but women, especially working moms, had a higher opinion of dads than men did, according to a 2012 Pew report on the survey. About 55 percent of men said dads are doing a worse job; 40 percent of women did. About a third of both men and women said dads are doing about the same as before. But among working moms, 72 percent said dads are doing either a good or better job at raising kids than men did a generation ago, the Pew report stated.

Still, on average, surveys show dog and cat owners feel closer to their pets than adult children feel to their fathers.

Increased pressure

A focal point in the shift toward more women in the workforce has been increasing pressure on women to balance professional and home lives. Yet men, who now are expected to spend more time with their children and provide for their families, now face the same pressures, Howe said.

“Dad is still expected to be the primary earner, but he is also expected to spend time with kids and be a good dad,” he said. “That is putting more pressure on dads.”

The phenomenon is reflected in media depictions, he said. The AT&T commercial for Talk & Surf is a good example. The

commercial depicts a dad in a nursery, changing his daughter’s diaper, while talking to a buddy on the phone.

“G-dog, what’s up?” his friend says. “Tell me you caught the game last night.” The dad scrambles to upload streaming video of the aforementioned football game on his phone, while still distractedly fumbling with his daughter’s diaper and talking to his friend.

“The idea of multi-tasking dads, this is new,” Howe said. “The feeling that they have to satisfy different constituencies is new for men.”

That’s also reflected in Pew surveys. About 60 percent of people say it’s harder to be a dad today than it was 20 to 30 years ago.

The idea of supermom was followed by the development of superdad in the 1990s and 2000s, said Jess Robertson, family educator at the Vancouver Children’s Home Society.

“They’re still expected to be providers, but they were also expected to be very hands-on,” Robertson said. “To some degree, it’s good because parents are more involved, but also, trying to be perfect can be wearing.”

Marvin knows the feeling. After he takes care of 6-month-old Noah all day, he starts work in the evening after his wife returns home. He spends about 60 hours per week on his guitar production and repair company.

Fatherly rewards

Sano said more fatherly engagement reaps clear rewards for fathers, who experience higher self-esteem and personal satisfaction.

“I hate having to work after my wife gets home, but I absolutely love being home with him,” Marvin said.

Green said for the first year and a half of his daughter Alex’s life, while he was unemployed, he was with her.

“I was the one who woke up with her in the middle of the night,” Green said. “I watched her develop and grow. I didn’t miss anything. I was there for her first words, her first steps. I wouldn’t give that up for anything.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com./Col_Trends; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com