Becoming a father is a monumental transition in the lives of men. Yet, too often, it is recognized for a fleeting week (or less) of paternity leave before they are expected to carry on as if nothing has changed—a disservice not only to dads but also their partners and their children.
As they go about adapting to this new identity, there is a complex web of contradictory expectations regarding the roles fathers are expected to play both within families and in society. They are expected to provide, for example, but are met with surprise if that comes in the form of being the primary caregiver. They’re given praise for tasks that mothers do thanklessly when they are just doing what they should be doing—being a parent.
As a father, I’ve experienced this first-hand. As a sociologist, my research into how paternal mental health impacts father involvement and child well-being has further illuminated the systemic challenges that contemporary parents face when attempting to share equal responsibilities. But, just as women had to demand space for themselves in the workplace and world, men need to address the obstacles that are preventing them from engaging in fatherhood. Rather than simply accepting outdated societal and cultural expectations around gender, lagging workplace policies that assume only mothers are primary caregivers and the ways in which we stereotype fathers, we need to work together if we ever hope for true egalitarianism in families.
Societal expectations can block fathers out
Socialization into gendered behaviors around caregiving, household labor and other tasks associated with parenting begins in childhood. Although a new generation of fathers is pushing back against these norms, these institutions are strong, their policies are deeply ingrained in our society and change is slow.
As adults, for example, fathers are sent myriad mixed messages in parenting spaces that can treat them anywhere on the spectrum from a hero to a baffling babysitter. These are often amplified in society, where many fathers report feeling like they have inadequate resources when they have questions about navigating their new roles.
Specifically, messages suggesting dads are lesser parents are occasionally reinforced by institutions where moms and dads interact — which can negatively affect how fathers engage with their children and families. For example, many fathers report feeling excluded, ignored and unwelcomed by obstetricians and nurses during prenatal care. Often, this treatment can send a subtle message that discourages dads from taking on more family responsibilities, engaging in more care and being an equal co-parent.
Similarly, fathers often report that birthing classes and other prenatal programs make them feel sidelined and overlooked. Certainly, it is understandable that care is focused on the health of mothers and children. However, caring for mothers and acknowledging their partners are not unrelated, considering engaged parenting by fathers is associated with improved maternal health and child well-being.
We still rely on mothers, even as their other responsibilities increase
According to the Pew Research Center, mothers double up the amount of time fathers spend on educational tasks: They are also more likely to volunteer in classrooms, join the PTA, attend parent-teacher conferences and be highly engaged in other aspects of their children’s school lives.
While some mothers tend to have more daytime flexibility than some fathers, simply expecting this to be the norm reinforces the structures that many working mothers are still working to overcome—such as the fact they still make less money than their peers and are often (wrongly) viewed to be less committed to their careers.
Instead, we need to expect that fathers and mothers will both participate in their children’s school lives. This can be deeply valuable to both fathers and their children. Much like child health and wellbeing, children are cognitively and academically benefited by having fathers that are engaged in their schools and education.
Creating work-life balance isn’t just a women’s issue
Perhaps more than any other institution, however, the workplace impacts how dads engage with their families. Fathers report higher levels of work-family conflict than ever before—feeling torn between their responsibilities at home and in their careers. This is, perhaps, unsurprising. Work and family are inextricably linked with one another.
Despite significant changes in expectations around men’s parenting, the pressure to economically provide remains real and substantial.This means that employers play an important role in how fathers interact with their families. Yet, many employers do not offer family leave to mothers—let alone fathers—and there is no federally mandated paid leave. Even when fathers can take leave, they often do not. Work cultures can discourage fathers from taking the time they are entitled to, pressuring men to put their careers ahead of their families.
On the other hand, it’s clear that workplace cultures impact how men parent. Policies that help parents balance their responsibilities shows that even the most reluctant fathers become more engaged in their families when they are encouraged to do so at work. Personal experience has shown that when dads are encouraged to work regular work hours, be engaged in their kids’ schools and told to put family ahead of work—they do. At the same time, family friendly workplace policies are beneficial to workers and organizations, alike.
Social support matters, too
The problems associated with men’s parenting are not exclusively attributable to how they interact with institutions. One-on-one and personal interactions matter significantly, too. Many fathers feel that they are unwanted and treated suspiciously in public parenting spaces. These behaviors affect how dads feel about their parenting roles because, not surprisingly, people are far more likely to engage in these locations when they are welcomed and treated well.
Many changes would be relatively small and easily implemented. For example, changing stations in men’s washrooms, programs for fathers at schools and targeted invitations can do significant good. Providers that serve families should make a concerted effort to not fall back on the status quo, but instead integrate all family members into their efforts.
Other changes are more difficult, but necessary. For one, we still require substantial cultural shifts, including changes in media portrayals that emphasize fathers as equal co-parents, not secondary parents or partners that “help” moms. They are not and such attitudes are harmful to mothers, fathers and children alike. Similarly, we need sustained efforts to ensure that problematic and toxic masculine behaviors are changed.
Policy efforts that support a range of fathering behaviors are also needed. Family policies in the United States are weak and fail to support equal engagement by mothers and fathers. These policy changes should begin with paid family leave for both mothers and fathers. Mothers should not pay a financial and professional penalty for having a child. Such trends and the lack of protections serve to reinforce norms that place parenting burdens squarely on the shoulders of women.
Finally, personal responsibility is necessary
Despite these needed and necessary changes, men maintain responsibility for becoming good fathers. Dads need to realize they are more than a paycheck and must become increasingly engaged in the lives of their children, despite the many barriers which exist. Fathers must work hard to be seen, overcome these barriers and work to make important changes.
Doing so will benefit all members of the family: Engaged fathers report high levels of life satisfaction. Mothers who co-parent with involved dads report lower levels of stress, fewer mental health problems and greater levels of gender egalitarianism both at home and work. Children benefit immensely from engaged fathers across myriad outcomes — from physical health to mental health to educational outcomes.
Most of all, we have to ask ourselves what will ultimately feel like the biggest success as we look back on our days of parenting: Is it better not to lean in because that wasn’t the way it was done before? Or, what if we share effort, burdens and responsibilities because we know that on the other side of the obstacles are the greatest rewards of fulfilling family life. Because simply accepting things as they are never result in progress.
Originally posted on Medium.