The Art and Science of the Modern Father

My own brand title, The Art & Science of Mom, nags at me. I’m all about making sure everyone feels included, and as much as I value building up communities of women, in this modern age of more fluid gender roles, it can feel outdated to leave out fathers when we are discussing parenting. Although some parenting issues really are unique to women and mothers, most are not, or should not be. And by building up and uniting mothers, are we perpetuating the very complaint that fathers don’t do their part? Are we leaving out fathers and then wishing they would do more?

 SCENE: In the car, starting a rare date night on a Friday night.

Me: I’m writing about modern fatherhood . . . there’s this tension between men doing more at home than ever, but women still doing more than men and speaking up about it, so both people feel under-appreciated.

Husband: So where do you think we fit in in terms of equal distribution of home stuff?

Me: (Long pause) Do you WANT to start the night with a fight?

The clearest shift in the role of fathers over the last 50 years or so is from the breadwinner-but-absent dad, to the hands-on dad who may earn less than mom or even stay at home with the kids. Clearly, a lot of gray fills the space between these extremes since family compositions vary so much in our modern world. These loosening gender roles can both liberate and add stress to the modern father.

I wonder if the plight of the modern father has been lost in the noise of all other parenting struggles, mostly voiced by mothers.

The Art of Fatherhood

Social norms defining fatherhood have leapt from the one-dimensional traditional Mr. Cleaver and bumbling Homer Simpson, to the more 3-dimensional dad juggling professional and home worlds, Adam Braverman style (Parenthood). Personally, I think the more nuanced media representation is good for fathers, but what is happening in real life?

Digging deep into this issue, I read many articles about and by fathers addressing modern fatherhood. Although the shift away from the traditional breadwinner-but-absent father is clearly liberating for many men (and their partners), there is also a struggle in finding and fully embracing this new Dad identity.

I saw one statistic that the number of stay-at-home fathers grew 50% between 2003-2006. The financial crisis of 2008 hit male-dominated industries harder, leaving more fathers unemployed than mothers. Women are now earning most of the higher degrees, elevating their professional value in the workplace.

I wonder if the plight of the modern father has been lost in the noise of all other parenting struggles, mostly voiced by mothers.

These economic realities combined with the crippling expense of childcare have meant that it makes the most sense for some dads to stay home with the kids. Other dads have chosen it, throwing social norms to the wind.

What does it mean as a man to be the stay-at-home parent? They describe getting suspicious looks from the stay-at-home moms at the park, and feeling bereft of a professional identity even as they cherish the moments with their children they never had with their fathers. They are charting new territory without a template, both exercising a choice to expand the traditional definition of Dad, and often feeling isolated and unsure about how they fit in as Dad.

However huge the increase in the number of stay-at-home dads, they still make up a very small proportion of dads. Most modern dads are balancing demanding jobs while adding more hours doing household work and childcare than ever before. Some numbers to back this up:

  • Since the 60s, men have doubled the housework they do from 15% to 30%

  • Average work hours are almost the same (53 for moms, 54 for dads; and let's take a minute to let THAT average sink in . . . SO many work hours!)

  • Average household/childcare hours are still lower for dads than for moms (23 versus 42)

We moms may feel justified in our argument that "we still do more," but a psychologist studying this has pointed out that research has shown the barrier of "maternal gate-keeping." Although it most commonly refers to issues around childcare, household "gate-keeping" describes the phenomenon of moms' standards or expectations for how chores should be done dictate them doing more chores so dads don't do them "wrong." Some of us moms may have to take a closer look at how we are setting ourselves up for the burden we carry. 

With a wider range of gender roles comes less clarity and more mixed feedback as those men who take on more traditionally defined “feminine” tasks (eg, cooking, laundry) may feel judgment from men still ascribing mostly to traditionally masculine roles. At the same time, many of us women have also shifted from an expectation of submissive subservience to “leaning in” and “having it all” pressures, which means we probably speak up more now than ever before, leaving our male partners feeling like there’s no winning.

Back to the drive on date night:

Husband: I want to know what you think, because I know what I think.

Me: (Long pause to carefully weigh how to approach this.) I think you do a lot more than many fathers . . . but I don’t think we are 50/50.

Husband: How so? I do all the home maintenance, I cook 70% of our meals, I do the yard work . . .

Me: Yes, and I SO appreciate all those things because I don’t want to do them. But I manage our finances, coordinate doctors’ appointments, play dates, extra-curricular activities, research child care, plan the birthday parties, do all the paperwork for everything our children do . . .

Husband: Like that thing you wrote about a few weeks ago?

Me: Mental load. Yes.

The Science of Fatherhood

Portrait of OUR Modern Dad

Portrait of OUR Modern Dad

The field of psychology should bear some blame for excluding fathers, as it has historically focused on the influence of mothers on child development and child mental illness. Of course, this includes the unfair and mistaken blaming of mothers for children having organic brain differences, like autism and schizophrenia. But it also maintains the focus on the centrality of the mother, leaving out fathers.

I know from experience, however, that often mothers are more likely to participate in research, so there’s a bias that keeps fulfilling itself: moms are easier to study so we know more about moms.

Fortunately, psychological research is finally catching up to modern day parenthood and there have been some very encouraging studies. Present and involved fathers have been found to relate to all sorts of positive childhood outcomes, like a decreased risk of behavior problems and substance abuse, and more confidence and positive self-esteem.

Recent research has also strengthened a biological argument for the importance of fathers to be present in their children’s lives from the very beginning. There has been a mountain of evidence for the biological ways mothers and infants form attachments, but now there is more and more evidence that men’s hormones change during their female partner’s pregnancy and during the first few weeks of their infant’s life. Testosterone appears to decrease, and estrogen increases, to make the dad more responsive to his baby’s cues. (Insert soapbox for better paternity leave laws!)

Embracing the Modern Dad

So men ARE built to be nurturing dads tuned into the emotional needs of their children. I think the shifting norms for hands-on, emotionally available dads removes limits for fathers to feel closer to their children, and it’s better for our children and their future of being parents.

But it’s important to pay attention to the unique stress this shift places on men trying to balance contradictory social and cultural expectations. As their partners, we need to work on how to NOT leave them out of the parenting conversation, on the ground at home, and in the larger national dialogue. (And some of us may need to let go of how we want things done, and let our partners do childcare and household chores their way.) 

Speaking of conversations, here’s how our date night dialogue ended:

Husband: So maybe I feel like I do so much because what I do takes a lot of hours and is very physically exhausting.

Me: . . . (thinking my stuff also takes many hours) well, it could be interesting to track the time it takes for each of our tasks . . .

Husband: But I can see that what you do is more mentally and emotionally draining and more of the bigger picture.

Me: And I can see that both of us are so aware of what we are each contributing, that we don’t think as much of what the other one is doing. Maybe I haven’t been really thinking about all that you do because I’m so focused on what I do.

(We arrive at the new brewery in town and get out of the car. Fight averted; dialogue achieved, likely because I had been researching and writing about this all day. Another win for my blog making me a better mom and wife . . .  sometimes.)

*Another caveat around inclusion/exclusion: I am aware that this angle on modern fatherhood excludes two-father families, another newer dynamic to explore. But I will take this opportunity to emphasize that all research to date supports that same-sex parent households provide the same supportive environment for children as opposite-sex parent households.  


Meet the Modern Dad

Doing-it-all Parenting for Modern Dads

The Responsibilities and Expectations of the Modern Dad

Resources: (UK)