September 8, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
It’s possible to monitor the zeitgeist regarding fathers and children by paying regular attention to newspaper and magazine articles, blogs, television programs, movies, advertising and the like. No one article, ad or movie tells it all, but in the aggregate, they give a fair idea. I’ve said many times that the culture will have to change before the laws change, and the laws will have to change before the judges change, but slowly, the culture is coming to realize that fathers are necessary to children’s well-being and that they’re not the ogres feminism would like them to be.
I think this article, including its flaws, is a fair indication of times that are a-changin’ for the better (Boston Globe, 8//13). In the first place, it’s generally (although not entirely) accurate and it doesn’t slant the facts in the anti-dad/aggrieved mom way with which we’re so familiar. The writer, Kara Baskin, doesn’t have an ax to grind; her real motivation seems to be to track changes to the workplace and family structure that impact fathers, mothers and their relationships to their kids. She talks to fathers, and quotes them, a fact that, by itself is a departure from what we often see in the same genre — fathers who are talked about, but who are permitted no voice.
Also, she includes the Center for Work and Families among her sources. It’s one of the organizations studying fathers, mothers and work that’s generally reliable. The one quibble I have with its work is that it sometimes substitutes what people say their attitudes are about, say, fathers as primary caregivers, for what people actually do when it comes to allocating time at work and time with children.
According to US Census data from the National At-Home Dad Network, 32 percent of married fathers — 7 million dads — are a regular source of care for kids under 15, up from 26 percent in 2002. That’s good news for working moms, and it’s great news for fathers who want to cast off traditional parenting roles.
Indeed, the sitcom stereotype of dad as a frazzled Mr. Mom who can’t fold laundry or warm a bottle has grown quaint. As moms have done for years, dads are cobbling flexible work schedules, downshifting to part-time to make parenting a priority, or in some cases opting out of the workforce entirely, at least for a while.
“In an increasing number of families, dads are no longer the backup parent,” says Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family. “Many of these fathers are natural nurturers who might be more adept at parenting than their spouse.”
All of that is true, including the part about the slow decline of the incompetent “Mr. Mom.” He was always one of the culture’s primary weapons deployed against the possibility that we might accept fathers as real, loving and able parents. Our culture has for decades demonstrated considerable anxiety about the idea that men might be something other than what feminists have always claimed — a danger to children and mothers. But over the years, a combination of objective facts and pro-father advocacy has eroded the silly and false narrative of Dad as clueless about the simplest things regarding his children.
I like Baskin’s use of the data showing a dramatic increase in fathers who provide regular care for children. It’s far better than statistics on stay-at-home parents, the definition of whom by the Census Bureau is so restrictive as to give a poor picture of the reality of how much care fathers provide for their children.
And more to the point, a new generation may be voting with their feet. According to various sources, the CWF being one of them, younger parents may be more amenable to switching roles than have generations past. One reason for that may be that the American school system has gone “all in” for the education of girls and women. With almost 58% of college enrollees being women, they’re obviously going to be the ones with the higher earning ability in a large percentage of couples. That would militate in favor of Mom working and Dad doing childcare in the same way the converse did in days gone by.
The Pew Research Center recently released a study noting that more mothers than ever are their family’s primary (or sole) breadwinners. Today, four out of 10 households have mothers as the primary provider, and women comprise nearly half the US labor force. As debates intensify over work-family balance or whether women can “have it all,” it’s important to note the flip side: Many dads are picking up the slack.
Baskin needs to look further. As I’ve pointed out before, the Pew Center data are accurate enough, but, recited alone, obscure an important fact — in about 62% of those households with a mother as the major earner, she got that way by being the only earner. Either by divorce or deciding to have children alone, most of those mothers have no adult competition for the title of chief breadwinner in the household. As Prof. Margaret Ryznar pointed out in the Huffington Post a month ago, when single mothers are taken out of that data, only 15% of mothers outearn their husbands/partners. That’s not much different from the way it was in 1960 when 11% of married mothers earned more than their husbands.
But of course the Pew figures represent the economy as a whole. They include everyone from 16 year-olds working part-time to 75 year-old college professors. They reflect, not just the youngest generation of workers, but everyone. And many of those — indeed, probably most of those — workers represent a time in which men, far more than women, were expected to leave home, work and earn to support their families. Therefore, if a new generation is going to reverse rolls, the fact won’t be seen in data gathered from a cross-section of the U.S. populace.
Now, what that younger generation actually does is another — and as yet unanswered — question. There are mighty forces, some cultural, some biological, some legal that encourage the maintenance of the status quo. We’ve never seen a time when children were mostly tended to by fathers and women brought home the bacon. With a track record that’s literally thousands of years old, the smart money doesn’t bet on change.
And yet, times are changing. Women are working more and at more prestigious and better paying jobs than was mostly true in the past. That is a fact. Another fact is that someone has to take care of the kids. Yet another fact is that fathers are loudly beating the drum for fathers’ rights in family courts and the justice of their cause cannot be denied.
All of that points to a refiguring of sex roles, and the only question is how extensive will be the change. Women are still the main ones to opt out of work. Men are overwhelmingly the major earners. Women still do the lion’s share of childcare. The courts are stuck somewhere back in the early 20th century.
Where we’ll find our “angle of repose” is anyone’s guess, but both men and women are altering what once was. The Globe piece is a fair reflection of that.
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