The XX Factor

Being a “Good Dad” Still Means Something Different From Being a “Good Mom”

We know you love her. But have you ever booked a well appointment?

Tommaso Tagliaferri/Thinkstock

In honor of Father’s Day, journalist Joshua Kendall wrote a paean to President Obama’s parenting skills, arguing that fatherhood may be “a key component of his legacy.” Writing in the Washington Post, he points to Obama’s commitment to his family, unprecedented among presidents, which involves dinners together five nights a week (when Obama’s traveling permits, presumably) and an avoidance of Camp David because trips there often conflict with Sasha’s and Malia’s schedules.

This evolution in fatherhood, from previous presidents “who were consumed by politics and spent little time with their children,” to our current president and his “perfect attendance record at his daughters’ parent-teacher conferences,” is one that can be found outside the White House as well. Obama may have a higher profile and far more demanding job than most dads, but his commitment to fatherhood is, thank goodness, not unusual. Sociologists and enthusiastic dads have been praising the emergence of a “new fatherhood,” or dads’ ongoing transition from breadwinners to co-parents and nurturers, for a few years now, and there’s plenty of data to back them up. It’s to be expected then that, come Father’s Day, we’d hear a chorus of cheers for this new dad, including stories explaining “Why Dads Are the New Heroes”; sentimental advertisements featuring dads playing with their children (I cried a little); and words of praise for fathers such as Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, who’ve made a point of showcasing that powerful men can incorporate child-rearing into their busy days.

But now that Father’s Day has come and gone, I’d like to remind everyone that, as great as new dads are, they’re still not doing as much as moms. And I’ve got data to back me up, too. Women still do more care work than dads, even when both parents work full-time. This includes things such as managing their children’s schedules and taking care of their children when they are sick. Today’s dads spend 65 percent more time with their children than their dads spent with them, but it’s still only half as much time as today’s moms spend with their children. And while stay-at-home dads are on the rise—16 percent of total stay-at-home parents in 2012, up from 10 percent in 1989—only a fifth of them say they are there primarily to take care of their family, compared with the vast majority of stay-at-home moms. Now, not all of the Father’s Day praise ignored this reality, nor are all dads comfortable with the status quo. Still, all the buzz surrounding the new dad can make it easy to tune out all that hasn’t changed.

The fact is that a dad’s career is far more likely to take the lead than a mom’s career, which tells us that there are larger forces at play here beyond any one couple’s personal preferences. There are lots of structural reasons (lack of paid leave, inflexible work environments) as well as cultural reasons as to why men’s career paths tend to remain unaltered by the birth of their children, and while not all dads are complicit with this, they still benefit from it. (By the way: Please don’t praise a dad for “helping his wife” with changing diapers and rocking a baby to sleep, as Kendall does in his piece. The phrase “help” infers that she holds the primary responsibility and he just assists her out of the goodness of his heart.)

Here’s another story about another modern-and-proud-of-it dad and hard-to-shake cultural assumptions about parenting. This past fall, my husband (under the influence of his feminist wife) signed up to be one of two class parents for our son’s class. (There was only one other dad class parent in the whole school.) The school year has now passed, and he did almost nothing. This was due in small part to his failure to take initiative and in large part to the fact that our school just wasn’t used to working with class parents who it didn’t see every day at drop-off or pick-up. He wasn’t in the loop. By late winter, all the dads had been dropped off our class email list. The reason, though never articulated, was clear: Dads rarely responded, and moms often did. I wasn’t surprised when I arrived at the class’s year-end party and saw no dads there, even though the vast majority of their wives work, too. Our takeaway from this well-intended, if poorly executed, experiment is that getting dads involved is much harder than we thought.

In a terrific essay in the New Statesman, a writer who goes by the enviable pen name Glosswitch argues for a curbing of enthusiasm among the new generation of eager dads who really don’t want to be called babysitters. She begins by pointing out how far we are from domestic parity, noting that dads are more likely to partake in the fun parts of parenting (storytime, trips to the park) than the drudge work (booking doctors appointments, ordering diapers, putting a million tiny toys into plastic bins). Then Glosswitch questions whether women should keep nodding in encouragement while these dads anoint parenting as the next best thing or tell them to cool it:

This is a common dilemma for feminists when dealing with gender. Do we let language run ahead of reality on the basis that this in itself will change expectations of what should be, creating a virtuous circle of cause and effect. Or do we assume, as I tend to, that any linguistic manoeuvre suggesting that equality has already been achieved will be used to suggest that women have nothing left to fight for?

I agree with No. 2. That dads are changing is a revolution worth celebrating, but there’s a real risk in doing too much celebrating before the revolution is won. Today’s bread and roses are dads who don’t just play with their children but also immerse themselves in less fulfilling parenting rituals, like answering class emails. The new fatherhood is not there yet.