- There is no justification for demeaning, demoralizing, and denigrating fathers as a group by promoting the belief that most of them are sexist, selfish slackers when it comes to childcare. Tweet This
- Recent studies confirm that the main reason dads do not spend more time with their children is the demands of their jobs and the competitive culture at work. Tweet This
As Father’s Day approaches, it seems fitting to address a few false and damaging myths about fathers and childcare. Many of these myths were promoted in Darcy Lockman’s book, All the Rage: Mothers, fathers & the myth of equal partnership, released on Mother’s Day 2019. The book was featured in a New York Times article titled, “What 'Good' Dads Get Away With,” which I responded to in a letter to the editor.
One myth is that there is a large and unfair imbalance in how much childcare fathers and mothers provide. Another myth is that this supposedly huge childcare imbalance is mainly due to men’s selfish, sexist attitudes. The third myth is that fathers do not find enjoy spending time with their children as much as mothers do. In short, most dads, the story goes, are shiftless, selfish, sexist slackers.
If we look at recent studies using large national sample sizes, how true are these beliefs?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2015, mothers did roughly 65% of the direct childcare and men did 35 percent. Taken on its own without any additional information, this 30% difference can be twisted into “proof” that dads are shirking their childcare responsibilities. So, let’s consider the research that gives us a more accurate picture of what’s going on.
First, most fathers shoulder most—or sometimes all—of the financial childcare, especially until all of the children reach school age. In the BLS national reports, 25% of moms only work part-time and 40% don’t work at all when children are under the age of six. For children of all ages, only 5% of their mothers work 50 hours or more a week, compared to 22% of their fathers. In fact, when dads work 60 hours or more, moms are three times more likely to quit their jobs. Also keep in mind that from 1979 to 2009, most women chose jobs that required shorter work hours—which in turn contributed to men working longer hours, making higher incomes, and consequently having to shoulder the greater burden of financial childcare. In fact, there is no gender pay gap for men and women who work more than 50 hours a week.
As for fairness, in a series of studies from the Pew Research Center, when the total number of hours of paid and unpaid work are added up, moms and dads workloads are not significantly different (see more on this topic in tomorrow's post from Robert VerBruggen). And the more equal their incomes and total hours at work, the more equal the time in direct childcare. In families with two full-time working parents, moms do 80 minutes a day of childcare and dads do 60. The moms with full-time jobs spent 7 hours less time at work each week than the dads, yet the moms only spent 20 minutes more on childcare than the dads. In short, in most families, both parents contribute equally, but differently, to their children’s care.
Moreover, each family’s childcare arrangement is primarily determined by each parent’s income, total hours at work, flexibility of work schedules, nature of jobs, costs of day care, and age of the children—not by the father’s sexist beliefs about parenting. In reviews of the literature, there is no clear link between a father’s gender role attitudes and his hours of childcare. Even though many couples hope and plan to equally share the hands-on childcare before they become parents, financial realities often throw those fantasy plans off course. Recent studies from the Boston College Center for Work & Family, the Pew Research Center, and the Family & Work Institute consistently confirm that the main reason dads do not spend more time with their children is the demands of their jobs and the competitive culture at work. Indeed, one of the leading teams of experts who have studied housework and childcare for decades concluded that adding up housework and childcare hours in order to prove gender bias is a mistake.
Equally important to remember is that our society’s policies also influence families’ childcare plans. In a 2016 study of 22 of the most economically developed countries, dads were far more involved in childcare and both parents were less stressed by the demands of parenting in countries with paid paternity leave, free or inexpensive day care, and more employed mothers. It is no coincidence that the U.S. ranked last in these family-friendly work policies and had the largest gap in happiness between parents and non-parents. In contrast, Nordic countries have the most father-friendly policies in the world and enjoy the highest rates of father involvement in housework and childcare.
Furthermore, one of the most frequent complaints of working-class and white-collar fathers is that their jobs prevent them from spending more time with their kids. Most dads long for more fathering time and experience as much or more work-family stress as employed mothers. Most fathers do not consider childcare a “burden.” In fact, in the 2010 American Time Use Surveys, fathers reported being happier and less stressed than mothers were when they were engaged in child caregiving.
Of course, there are couples who believe moms should do most of the direct childcare, while dads shoulder the financial childcare burden. In these traditional gender-role families, childcare is not an “undesirable task” hoisted on powerless mothers by their powerful, sexist husbands. Instead, their childcare decisions are based on both parents’ wishes.
There are also fathers who want to do more childcare but whose wives resist or will not allow it. This situation is known as gatekeeping, which means the mother is closing a metaphorical “gate” between the father and the kids. For example, in a study with 112 married parents with four-year-old children, when the dads were actively involved in caregiving, there was more conflict between the parents, and the moms were more undermining and less supportive of the fathers. Moreover, gatekeeping is more apt to undermine fathers’ relationships with daughters than with sons. In a gatekeeping situation, the dad wants to do more fathering but the mother blocks his efforts and hoards the parenting time for herself.
Nobody is denying that some men want little to do with childcare, or that many men and women still choose to have gendered parenting roles. But this does not justify demeaning, demoralizing, and denigrating fathers as a group by promoting the belief that most of them are sexist, selfish slackers when it comes to childcare. Doing so not only ignores decades of research, but it is also an insult to the millions of fathers who love their children and long for more time with them.
Linda Nielsen is an Education Professor at Wake Forest University, and the author of Fathers and Daughters: Contemporary Research & Issues (Routledge, June 2019) and Between Fathers and Daughters: Enriching and rebuilding your adult relationship (2006).