Being a Good Dad Means Being an Equal Caregiver

Blog Post
William, his wife Emily, and their son Otto / Photo courtesy of William J. Scarborough
Feb. 22, 2021

My two-year-old is just starting to form sentences, but one phrase he has perfected is “Wake up!” Each night he sits between my spouse and me as we read a few books before bed. Dad reads a book, then Mom, then back to Dad, and so forth. Between turns, Mom or Dad take micro-naps: two or three minute snoozes. When it’s time to switch readers, our son playfully says, “Wake up, Dada!” or “Wake up, Mama!”

We share some giggles and make light, but the reality is that moms and dads everywhere are exhausted. The pandemic has largely erased the caregiving supports families relied on to balance work and family responsibilities. Without in-person schooling or daycare, many parents are now balancing full-time homeschooling and caregiving while simultaneously working to fulfill unchanging, or even growing, responsibilities at work. In our case, we split our workdays in half (alternating morning and afternoons), then make up the time after our child goes to bed, leaving us with about four hours of sleep a night—hence the micro-naps during story time.

Parents are struggling. But when we look at aggregate trends across the U.S., the reality is that pandemic parenting is a challenge mostly experienced by mothers, with dire consequences. Research from the past year shows that mothers have taken on the majority of new caregiving and homeschooling responsibilities brought on by the pandemic. This has come at major costs. Mothers labor force participation has dropped precipitously. They report higher levels of anxiety and restlessness than fathers. And those who have remained in the labor force are missing out on raises and promotions, which have disproportionately gone to men over the past year.

In short, the pandemic is hard on parents, but it is mostly mothers who are shouldering this burden while fathers appear to be continuing “work as normal.” As we take a sober look at the expectations and burdens placed on mothers, many onlookers have asked, what about fathers? After all, where are they in all of this? Shouldn’t they be chipping in more? Can’t they see the challenges their partners are experiencing!

I have no sympathy for the fathers who skip out on caregiving to play video games or watch sports. But I do believe these fathers are few and far between. There is good evidence that nearly all fathers today are committed to being good dads and good partners. They want to do the best for their children and family. Recent research shows that the vast majority of men feel that caregiving responsibilities should be divided equally between mothers and fathers. Other studies have shown that a majority of Americans support gender equality at work and at home. The problem is that we haven’t yet fully developed a good picture of ideal fatherhood that fits with contemporary society. According to the Pew Research Center, people are 40 percent more likely to feel it's extremely important for fathers to provide income to their family than mothers, while at the same time feeling that mothers and fathers are equally responsible for teaching values and instilling discipline.

In other words, when it comes down to it, many Americans continue to believe that fathers’ main duty is providing income. While this may have been true 40 years ago, it is simply false today when mothers are the breadwinners in 42 percent of all households with children and co-breadwinners in an additional 22 percent. This means that nearly two out of every three families in the U.S. rely on mothers’ income.

When the pandemic hit, many fathers may have thought they were doing the right thing by focusing on their jobs. After all, families need economic stability, and one of the worst things that could happen is for a parent to lose their job and an important source of income. But the idea that fathers’ primary responsibility is breadwinning is not only old-fashioned—it doesn’t make economic sense. Most families need two incomes to get by today and that’s a reality that is unlikely to change any time soon. If mothers’ employment is not supported, or if it’s sacrificed now to address short-term care demands, families will suffer. We need to shift our ideals of fatherhood to match our contemporary reality.

Just as economic responsibilities are now shared equally, so too should caregiving duties be shared. We already adore images of fathers spending time with their children. But we also need fathers doing the invisible, and often thankless, labor involved in child rearing. Changing diapers. Calming their little one in the middle of the night. Homeschooling. Managing laundry and planning meals. Coordinating with daycare and schools. What families need today is an ideal of fatherhood that is defined by equal caregiving.

Most fathers already want to be good dads. When we redefine fatherhood as being an equal caregiver, we can also adopt a new playbook to help us work toward this goal. The challenge is that old habits are hard to break, and despite our best intentions we can fall into routines that end up reproducing old-fashioned divisions of labor between moms and dads. Here are a few practices that I’ve found useful in my own efforts.

  • Canaries in the parenting coal mine. If you listen closely, your kids will let you know when you're slacking on being an equal caregiver. For example, you might start to hear “Mommy, come help me,” much more than calls for daddy or general calls for help. To me, these are warning signs that inequalities are starting to grow and that a change needs to happen immediately. When this happens in my family, I intervene by making sure I’m the first responder on call in the household. I feel affirmed when our toddler comes to me for assistance.
  • Persist with difficult parenting tasks even when your skills are lacking. Some jobs are easier than others. Whoever does baths in my household is bound to get soaking wet. And the utmost skill is required in negotiating with our toddler to get him out of the bath, dried off, and in his pajamas. My spouse and I rotate this task every night. At first, she was definitely better than me. She would convince him to come calmly out of the bath and lay down for his pajamas. For me, it was several nights of tantrums and frustration. But I prevailed. Mom did not intervene and I developed the acumen of a top-notch toddler-negotiator.
    There is certainly the pull to just “have mom do it because she’s better at it.” But in many cases, this type of specialization can snowball into larger inequalities when it prevents dads from developing the skills necessary to be an equal caregiver. Nobody intrinsically knows how to negotiate with toddlers. Gender stereotypes presume that mothers are better at it, but if we think of fatherhood as being an equal caregiver, we give ourselves the opportunity to develop these skills too.
  • Be ready for the American Time Use Survey. A lot of the data we have about gender inequalities in housework and childcare come from the American Time Use Survey. This survey is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and asks a nationally representative sample of U.S. residents how they spend their time. Researchers use data from the survey to compare the time fathers and mothers spend on childcare tasks. I always try to imagine what my household would look like if we were surveyed. Would we be one of the many homes shown to have gender inequalities in housework and childcare? Or would we be an exemplar of an egalitarian family dynamic?

Considering both the research on gender and caregiving as well as my own experiences with family and friends, I strongly believe that most fathers are not trying to undermine their partners’ careers. Instead, the ideals of fatherhood we have to guide us are poorly suited for families’ needs and badly outdated. Fathers focusing on their careers instead of childcare are missing out on the best, if not the most challenging, experience of their lives. They are also making it harder for their partners to balance work and family responsibilities. What we need now is an ideal of fatherhood that resonates with the circumstances of modern families. Equal caregiving is that ideal. Dads who play an equal role will be the caring and loving parent their children need and provide the support to their partner required for them to advance professionally.

Gone are the days of fatherhood defined by careers and income. I, for one, welcome a new ideal of fatherhood defined by equal caregiving and equal opportunity for moms, dads, and kids to thrive.

William Scarborough is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas.

Related Topics
Gender Equity