Right up until the twentieth century fathers were legally considered the primary parent. Fathers received custody after divorce or separation, and they determined their offspring’s educational and matrimonial paths (as Steven Mintz and Susan Kellog argue in Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life). But since the French and American Revolutions, there has been a growing de-emphasis on patriarchal authority.
In At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present, Carl Degler, history professor at Stanford University, suggests that nineteenth century Western Europe and the United States saw mothers as detached from the corrupting world of business and politics, which in turn rendered them the most suitable care givers. And although a number of religious revivals brought fathers closer to their families by emphasizing their involvement as family religious leaders and teachers of restraint, the nineteenth century saw a gradual decline of men’s contribution to family life.
Fatherhood and masculinity are now identified primarily with men’s careers. Even today, long after the sexual revolution, there is a tendency to regard motherhood and fatherhood as if they were unchanging and historically unaffected structures. Yet, more women are pursuing their careers with equal determination as men, contributing to the family budget, and are even becoming chief earners. According to The 2000 U.S Census, the percentage of husbands whose wives’ income tops theirs has risen since 1970 from four percent to 22 percent in 2007. In October 2010, “Jobs and Economic Security for America’s Women Report, released by the National Economic Council, revealed that “In almost two thirds of families led by single mothers or two parents, women are either the primary or a co-breadwinner.”
So, just to what extent has this development influenced fathers? Should the ideals of masculinity have be reassessed in this new economical and social context? In other words, are we ready for the fatherhood revolution?
The fatherhood revolution started fairly recently, in the late 20th century. Yet it should be characterized by its intensity, not its age. Modern fathers have a clear goal—to be there for the people who matter the most: their families. As Richard Collier, a law professor at Newcastle University, suggests in Fragmenting Fatherhood, men now want to enjoy both rights to and obligations towards their children.
“Men today are far more involved with their families than they have been at virtually any other time in the last century,” says Michael Kimmel, author of Manhood in America: a Cultural History. And while there are still many who would choose a thrilling career over homemaking or a flexi work schedule, the general tendency is to be there for one’s children and partner. “Men don’t want to follow the example set by their fathers,” says Kenny Benjamin, a marriage therapist, in his blog American Man. According to a CareerBuilder survey conducted in 2007, 37 percent of working dads say they would leave their jobs if their other half earned enough to support the family. Another 38 percent of respondents would accept a pay cut if that would mean spending more time with their children.
As both a economic and social contexts transform, the population of SAHDs—stay-at-home-dads—tripled in the past 10 years, with over 165,000 full-time fathers in the country according to the U.S. Census. Yet despite the growing numbers, stay-at-home-dads are often branded lazy, irresponsible or simply unmanly. Some are undervalued in their ability to look after children. My friend Martin, dad to 2-year-old Elisa, recently talked to me about his experience: “One day, during our walk, Ellie decided to jump into the biggest puddle in the park. She was wet and looked like a drowned rat. I couldn’t help but laugh. An elderly lady happened to be passing by. She gave me a black look and whispered disapprovingly: ‘Children need their mother.’”
Today we know that men are just as capable of caring for children as women are. Dr Sven Aage Madsen in his study entitled “Men Too Are Competent Caregivers,” shows similarities in maternal and paternal care of children. Madsen notes that fathers of infants are equally concerned as mothers about leaving their babies in the care of others. Dads react to infant signals as effectively as mothers do.
Time spent with the baby—not gender—determines sensitivity to an infant’s moods and requirements. Fathers, like mothers, alter their speech patterns instinctively when interacting with babies using repetition, shorter sentences and a musical intonation that appeals to youngsters. And, according to Anne Storey, a researcher in the psychology department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, modern dads don’t only co-feel and co-anticipate, or take part in labor and change diapers—they actually undergo hormonal changes akin to their female counterparts.
And perhaps the association with the characteristics that were for centuries attributed solely to women put these men in danger of being called unmanly. Matthew, dad to 3-year-old Tom, posts his comments about the unfairness of the perception of SAHDs as losers on Stay at Home Dad PDX: “When I play with my son in the play area during week days, I often get the looks: why isn’t he working, did he lose his job? People don’t realize that it was my choice.” On the other hand, Ian, dad of 4-year-old Eric and an IT specialist working from home, shares a more positive experience: “Women look at me with appreciation and respect when I’m out and about with my son.”
With work and careers often equally split between partners, what exactly does it mean to be a man these days? How does the modern dad fit into old stereotypes? He clearly doesn’t. He takes his kids swimming, proudly attends little girls’ tea parties and little boys’ soccer matches. He knows which breast pump is the most efficient at its job and why it is a good idea to book those ballet lessons early. Is this something to be proud of? Or a reason to question one’s gender and purpose in society?
The blogger behind Stay At Home Dad PDX, known as Portlanddad, doesn’t feel emasculated in the slightest: “I know that my wife sees me as a strong man not just because I can open the pickle jar but because I can soothe a crying baby.” He hits the nail on the head. What actually makes a man? If it is taking care of his family and community, then it doesn’t matter whether one does it using a big paycheck or by looking after his kids.
“Masculinity has traditionally been associated with work and work-related success, with competition, power, prestige, dominance over women, restrictive emotionality,” says Aaron Rochlen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas. Rochlen sees a good parent as “expressive, patient, emotional, not money oriented.” Rochlen suggests that those men who embrace the modern idea of masculinity are happier, with more adaptable children, more successful marriages and healthier work lives.
Yet, it is not easy for both men and women to get beyond the masculinity of the old mould. We live in a stereotype-enforcing culture. Whilst femininity often tends to be defined against the strength of masculinity—think James Bond and the helpless women he has to save—manliness is often defined as the opposite of emotional and practical involvement in family life. For example, in this Wilkinson Sword Commercial , the father doesn’t come near his baby. All he is concerned about is his wife’s affection and her acceptance of his sexual advances. Fatherhood is merely reduced to competition for the partner’s attention. And even the baby is caricaturized as a testosterone oozing monster that is willing to kick his dad’s teeth in for his mom’s interest.
And thus the question arises: what was first—unflattering depictions of men’s incompetence as fathers, or the man who excuses himself from housework and playing with kids because he is used to being perceived as futile and accepts this at face value?
For centuries, women were told that they were not made for certain professions, that they were mentally and/or socially inept to attend university, to aim for a job of company director, or to become a priest. It took a few good examples of successful women to follow suit: Susan B. Anthony, the founder of the Suffragette movement who helped win voting rights for women in the U.S., Marie Curie, Nobel Prize winner in physics and chemistry, and Victoria Woodhull, first woman to run for U.S. President. Men, like women, need good examples, not discouraging representations of fatherhood.
Indeed, as Rebecca Cusey suggests in The Good, the Bad and the Bumbling, these portrayals have not only influenced gender politics negatively, but as a result they influenced decision-making regarding benefits for working parents. Nevertheless, there are more and more positive representations of fatherhood and masculinity in the media. Looking at father portrayals in Friday Night Lights, Ugly Betty, and Everybody Hates Chris, Cusey sees a considerable development in TV shows since Father Knows Best or The Cosby Show. As Cusey points out, dads matter. After all, studies show that kids who grow up with dads who care lead happier lives as adults.
The fatherhood revolution changes the way fathers perceive their role and the way they are perceived by society. It has been fighting stereotypes of men who are career obsessed and withdrawn from family life. It brings us a brand-new man, a man who shares the house chores and childcare with his partner, stays at home if necessary, and who feels good about his parental abilities.
Whole generations of men have missed out on participating in their kids’ development. Not only are economic, social, and demographic factors to blame, but the actual understanding of masculinity and femininity as rooted in unchanging human nature. Everything goes forward on the road of evolution, and as we leave the cave dwellers far behind, we discover that it is unmanly to refuse changing diapers.
The traditional roles that men and women were encouraged to play are slowly but surely following the path of extinction. In the meantime, it is important to remember that active fatherhood has to be supported, promoted and praised. It is an invaluable and irreplaceable ingredient in family life. Long live the fatherhood revolution!