What About Fathers?

The Bush administration and its allies like to tell us that Americans have forgotten about marriage, and that Americans have stopped caring about fathers. As good as it is to bring attention to the needs of fathers, on both points they are simply wrong: Americans believe very strongly in marriage, and rather than devaluing fathers, they are increasingly likely to adopt extremely high expectations for them. American men continue to provide for their families and are doing more housework and child care than ever before, but because men and women face so many economic and practical obstacles, marriage has indeed become more fragile than it was in the past.

In response to these changing times, advocates on the right have resorted to religious moralizing and public relations campaigns touting the benefits of traditional marriage and family values. Bush's family policies assume that pro-marriage public service announcements, billboards, and slick TV ads, along with faith-based counseling, will convince more (heterosexual) Americans to get and stay married, and that marriage will save our troubled youth and protect American society from decay. Conservative think tanks like The Heritage Foundation and the National Fatherhood Initiative repeat drumbeat messages about the benefits of marriage and fatherhood, as if Americans needed convincing. Calling fatherlessness a "social evil" and the "engine driving our worst social problems," they promote father presence as a panacea for poverty, failure in school, emotional and behavioral problems among boys, premarital sex and pregnancy among girls, suicide, child abuse, and even social inequality. But they typically define father presence in vague and nostalgic terms -- as in marrying the mother and serving as a "masculine role model" -- rather than taking responsibility for routine, everyday tasks like changing diapers or doing laundry. Wade Horn, former president of the National Fatherhood Initiative and now assistant secretary for children and families in the Bush administration, warned fathers against acting like mothers, saying the "new nurturing father ideal," in which a man "shares equally in all childrearing activities from the moment of birth," is "of course, nonsense."

But working fathers' problems are not, by and large, problems of values but of supports. (In fact, Americans harbor such idealized views about marital salvation that they marry and remarry at rates much higher than their counterparts in other industrialized countries.) Fathers involved in the details of raising children say that the inability to rearrange work schedules to care for a sick child, attend a school function, or coach soccer practice is a major nuisance. Others complain about low wages, which force them to work more hours, or mandatory overtime as reasons they can't spend time with their children. Lack of paid sick leave or paid paternity leave are further impediments, and many fathers say they want more paid vacation time to spend with their families. As a professor of sociology and family researcher, I've been studying fathers for 20 years, and I have come to the conclusion that workplace supports, not "family values," are key to getting men more involved in family life.


Opinion polls consistently show that the vast majority of Americans think of marriage as an equal partnership and endorse the ideals of sharing decision making, housework, child care, and paid work. According to national surveys conducted since the 1960s, the primary shift in American attitudes toward equality in marriage occurred decades ago, with small fluctuations since the early 1980s on specific issues. For example, in 1961 only 52 percent of Americans reported that husbands and wives should share household tasks according to individual interests and abilities (rather than according to "men's work" and "women's work"), but that percentage jumped to 89 percent by 1978 and rose to 94 percent by 1996. Similarly, in 1961, 67 percent of Americans were reporting that husbands and wives should have equal voice in making family decisions, but that percentage went up to 89 percent by 1978 and rose to 93 percent by 1996.

Contrary to the "family values" rhetoric of the right, recent studies show that marriages with more equal sharing are, in fact, the most successful. For example, couples in which only the man -- or the woman -- is the breadwinner are more likely to divorce. Contrary to stereotypes about traditional family roles, not only are educated women with steady incomes more likely to marry and stay married, but men who do more housework are also more likely than others to avoid divorce. Whereas American fathers from earlier eras were celebrated for their breadwinning, moral leadership, or stern discipline, contemporary fathers are increasingly valued for routine activities formerly considered "women's work."

Perhaps as a result, research shows that men are doing significantly more family work. Since the 1960s, the time American women spend on housework has declined by about one-third, whereas men's contributions have doubled. Overall, experts estimate that men's relative contribution to routine indoor housework is now about half that of women's. Even more change has occurred in men's performance of child care, with fathers now spending three times as many hours on child care as they did in the 1960s, and performing a wider range of tasks. Women's time in child care has also increased, but differences between men and women are declining. Surveys show that fathers are available to their children about three-fourths as much as mothers, interacting about two-thirds as often on weekdays, but more than four-fifths as much on weekends. Thus, men in two-parent households now spend more time with their children than at any time for which we have comparable data. These trends also reveal that there are fewer households with highly unequal divisions of family labor and more households with equal divisions than ever before. Similar trends in labor sharing are evident across Europe.

In large part, men's increased contributions to family work are a direct result of women's employment. Studies show that employed women do one-third less family work than non-employed women. Employed men, like women, also do more housework when they work fewer hours. Similarly, fathers who work less and have more flexible work schedules do more child care than others. In addition, overall work hours (paid labor plus unpaid family labor) are now about equal for men and women in dual-earner couples, whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, women in dual-earner households disproportionately shouldered the burden of a double workday.

This is good news for gender equality, but raises new problems for balancing work and family commitments and meeting the needs of children. Men, like women, now report that their workplace circumstances make it difficult to meet family obligations. For example, both woman and men who work in occupations dominated by men enjoy fewer programs designed to lessen work/family conflicts. As men's and women's paid and family work patterns have become more similar, so have their solutions to balancing the work/family tension: Both men and women in dual-earner households with children are more likely than those without children to refuse a promotion or decline extra work hours. There are, of course, still differences. Mothers are more likely than men to cut back on work after having children, while fathers tend to increase their job hours after a birth. Studies also show that women are more likely than men to change work schedules and to feel distracted and less productive at work because of family matters. In these situations, dual-earner American couples are forced to find private solutions to work/family dilemmas because -- unlike most European nations -- our leaders have assumed that work/family balance is not a public issue.

There are some model programs in industrialized countries. Parents in Denmark are eligible to take up to 52 weeks -- a whole year -- to care for seriously ill children with two-thirds wage replacement. In Norway, parents of children with more routine illnesses are paid substantial wage replacement for an average of 10 days a year. Men tend to have higher earnings than women, and because women are therefore more likely to withdraw from the labor force and men are more likely to increase their work hours, some European programs focus on ways to encourage fathers to use leave benefits. Not only are both parents eligible for paid parental leave in Nordic nations, but fathers are entitled to special use-or-lose "daddy days." Such programs have increased fathers' leave-taking dramatically.

Here in the United States, however, we have been slow to adopt such policies. Although U.S. family-leave programs like the Family and Medical Leave Act have increased available options, because they are unpaid and available to only those working in large firms, they have not substantially relieved the burden on working fathers and mothers. What's more, even when these workplace initiatives are open to men, they are often only used by women, with men reluctant to take parental leave or to acknowledge that they need benefits to care for their children. Men, however, should not be afraid to use these resources. On-site child care, paid family leave, paid sick time, affordable health insurance, flexible scheduling, and home-based work opportunities relieve work/family stress and increase employee job satisfaction. Such policies increase workers' sense of balance, instill motivation, reduce absenteeism, minimize employee turnover, and lower employer recruitment and retraining costs. Although electing these benefits sometimes carries the stigma of joining a less-serious "mommy track" for women, when men take time off to tend to children, they often report that employers see them as stable "family men" with management or partner potential.

Fathers need federally supported programs that acknowledge and appreciate the everyday details of parenting. Workplace policies focused on supporting men's connections to and responsibilities for children are much more important than family values media campaigns promoting abstract ideals of marriage and fatherhood. Fathers can be genuine role models for their sons and daughters when they have the time to care for them and when they have the wages to support them. Men will be better fathers and spouses when they have the workplace policy supports to be equal partners. tap

Scott Coltrane is professor of Sociology and associate director of the Center
for Family Studies at the University of California, Riverside, and a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families.