My colleague had a baby and her husband decided to take a 12-month leave from his job to stay home with the newborn. We, her co-workers, were all surprised, if not shocked.
That was nearly 20 years ago. We likely would have been as surprised today. And we wouldn’t have been alone in our American reaction, as we are one of a handful of countries without mandatory paid leave for either parent. Though women have become a much larger part of the workforce in the last century, increasingly voicing the need for adequate parental paid leave, affordable day care programs, and flexible work schedules, American families are still worse off than those in other developed countries. And as fathers begin to join women in experiencing the joys and responsibilities for parenting, this Father's Day, we have a new opportunity to make parents’ voices heard.
In the early 1990s, my colleague was alone in how proud she was of her husband who understood her desire to go back to work to a job where she had an opportunity for a promotion. She actually had no desire to stay home, and didn’t consider herself the motherly type—yet another wrench thrown at our assumptions about men and women.
The father in this case was, at the time, in his mid-thirties and in an ascending, promising international development career. A full year off from work would certainly hurt him professionally, or so we all assumed. It was crazy, we said. Or, if not crazy, then just weird. What could have prompted him to shift directions so drastically?
Three years earlier, and before becoming a father, this man had survived a tragic, life-changing event. That he didn’t die was a matter of chance. By the time his daughter was born, he was in the habit of seeing things from a very different perspective, quickly grasped how precious and unique the first year of his daughter’s life was, and wanted to enjoy that experience fully. And so he did.
This meant confusion from his wife’s co-workers. So, too, did it mean mornings on the playground with nannies and moms (all women) and looks and questions he would get from strangers as well as friends and relatives. “Had he lost his job?” “Where was the mother?”
None of that changed his decision to go on as a full-time dad. Not even the loneliness of staying home during baby’s naptime, and the repetitive work involved in diaper changes, feeding, playing, bathing, sleeping, repeat. The joys of parenthood made the hard parts of the task worth it for him—just as so many mothers say it does for them. Still, by the end of his 11 months, he was, he said, tired of being treated as Mr. Mom and ready to go back to the office.
We know now that my co-worker’s husband is not alone, just as we know that it does not take a near-death experience to make fathers across America want to spend time at home with their children. But it often takes courage to go against the norm, even for something as benign as a dad wanting to enjoy the experience of caring for a new baby. Over the past 30 years, fathers have been increasing the time they spend with their children during the workday by 65 percent on average. And now, 50 percent of fathers with young children reported diapering and feeding their children more than once per day. (This, according to Promundo’s first-ever State of America’s Fathers.)
And so, in the early 1990s, a caring father was looked at by those around him (and, he has admitted, at times by himself), as Mr. Mom. A century into the women’s rights movement, parenthood and caregiving were still considered to be part of the realm of women, while whatever it is one needs to nurture a baby was assumed to be missing from men’s DNA.
Fast forward our story just fifteen years, however, and more and more men are finding fatherhood the most normal, acceptable, and satisfying part of their adult lives. More men than ever are stay-at-home fathers. According to census data, the number of stay-at-home dads has risen from just six, individual, self-identified fathers in the 1970s to almost two million fathers in 2012.
Fathers as primary caregivers of their children are still a small group, and mothers are still taking on more than their share of the childcare and domestic work on the whole. But there is reason to hope that more and more men will start embracing the caring role more fully, recognizing that all parents are full-time parents, even if they are not full-time present. And there is reason to work toward policies—like paid parental leave and flexible work—that make it easier for working men and women to have relationships with their children. Studies show that having fathers spend time with their children in their first five weeks has benefits for both the children and, in the case of heterosexual couples, for gender equality within the relationship. And there is reason to believe that norms and laws can be changed to create a culture where men and women alike can have full and balanced personal and professional lives.
I am happy for those fathers who have done so already—they are ahead of their time. I’m grateful for the way they have inspired their peers to approach fatherhood differently. And I look forward to a world in which “Mr. Mom” is just dad.