We rightly value mothers for being nurturing and enormously important in children’s lives, not to mention bearing the burden of pregnancy and giving birth. We talk about “mom and apple pie.”
But why are fathers still considered second-class parents by so many Americans–a subject I address in my forthcoming book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life? (See: https://www.brookings.edu/book/man-out/.)
The longstanding trope has been that fathers work and mothers take care of the kids (even if millions of mothers now work too). Mothers are loving and touchy-feely. Fathers are remote and in the background. Traditional masculinity means being tough and not showing your feelings, while being feminine means being caring and emotive.
A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans believe that mothers do a better job at parenting, 45 percent think that mothers and fathers do an equally good job, but just 1 percent believe that fathers are better at being parents.
This sotto voce assumption that mothers are innately better parents has not only been a guiding principle of family law since the mid-20th century, but remains powerfully ingrained in public beliefs. Philip Wylie, in his 1942 bestseller, Generation of Vipers, called it “momism.” For generations, some psychologists and feminists, Hollywood, and even children’s books have tended to portray fathers as biologically unfit, dangerous, lazy, or useless. We hear a lot about “deadbeat dads,” many–but not all–who are louts, while we also hear about heroic, struggling single moms.
This belief that mothers are better has long been reflected in child custody cases. The old “tender years” doctrine meant that young children almost automatically went to mothers. The times are a changing, slowly, as 25 states are considering “shared parenting” legislation, with the presumption of joint custody. However, “shared parenting” is not equal parenting; mothers still get most of the time. Nationwide, divorced dads get about 35 percent of their children’s time, according to a new National Fatherhood Institute report.
Many believe that the ranks of “new,” very engaged fathers is rapidly growing. Maybe in a few highly educated enclaves. Another Pew study found that about 2 million of the nation’s approximately 36 million fathers of minor children are nominally “house husbands,” at home with their kids. Another 2 million are single fathers. Pew says that only about 20 percent of these house husbands stay at home intentionally to care for their children. The Census puts that number at just over 10 percent. And BLS puts the 10-year increase at a whopping 0.3 percent of working-age men.
Workplaces and laws reinforce these biases and behaviors. Employers are much more likely to give maternity leave, and many men are afraid to ask for paternity leave, fearing that they would be seen as not committed to their jobs or just plain wimps. This is a far cry from countries like Sweden, where fathers get at least 90 days of paid paternity leave or Finland, where they get 8 weeks of paid leave
“Because of the way that we structure work, and the difficulties of managing caregiving and work responsibilities, it can lead one parent in two-parent families to specialize in one and one in the other,”Katherine Gallagher Robbins, with the progressive Center for American Progress. told me. So, this division of labor generally leaves mothers as caregivers and fathers as providers, even if they want to stay home to play with or read to their kids. Moreover, “men are too often an afterthought in conversations about working parents and workplace flexibility,” Karyn Twaronite, global diversity and inclusiveness officer for Ernst and Young, told The Washington Post.
Mothers and fathers are not interchangeable. Although both should be caring and supportive of their children, they bring different strengths that kids need.
It’s still a long way off, culturally and legally, but fathers need to be treated as equal parents.