At a recent dinner party, I was chatting about how dads today are way more involved than they were a generation ago. Unlike my own father, I said, I help with the dishes and housework, take the kids to activities, coach soccer, and have changed my share of diapers -- while working full-time as a pediatric cardiologist.
My comments provoked an immediate round of eye-rolling among the mothers. "A father drops the kids off at school and everybody says, 'Wow, what a great dad,'" complained our friend Naomi, a working mother of two. "We moms get none of that." Naomi's husband, Neil, caught my eye and arched his brow as if to say, "Dude, you should know better than to try to talk about how hard it is to be a dad in front of a bunch of moms."
Later that evening over beers, the fathers gathered to commiserate. Though many had judiciously kept their mouth shut during my earlier discussion, they shared my sentiments. The common refrain: Fathers do more than ever before, and yet our households seem even crazier than when we were kids. Did we all have a foggy perspective on the past -- or is being a dad today truly harder than it used to be?
You can certainly see the cultural shift in the way dads are portrayed on television. Back in the 1970s, the prototypical man of the house was sedate Mike Brady, of The Brady Bunch, who never wrestled with his sons or attended school conferences. But by the 1980s and 1990s, the new dad was the involved but affable Cliff Huxtable, of The Cosby Show, who worked out of a home office and was often the first line of parenting advice for his kids. Though he and his wife, Clair, both had a demanding job (he was a doctor and she was a lawyer), they seemed to effortlessly balance work and their big family -- and we rarely saw them fight. Today, fathering is best captured by the frenzied and earnest Phil Dunphy, of Modern Family -- who chronically struggles with competing family demands and is often professionally adrift.
Over the years, the Pew Research Center, in Washington, D.C., has been tracking how dads spend their time, and its data back up the changing image of modern parenting. Beginning in the 1960s, fathers began scaling back somewhat at their paid job, and by 2011 they had tripled their time spent taking care of the kids and doubled their housework. (Keep in mind these are averages; some dads do more, some do less.) The typical father now spends 17 hours per week on household chores and child care -- about as much as a part-time job. (Moms spend 32 hours.) When you include paid work, fathers log more combined hours than ever before (a total of 54 hours a week, as compared with 53 for mothers). Like many moms, dads come home and work a "second shift."
As a result, the bumbling, inept dad is becoming less of an advertising cliché. Only a few years ago, a Huggies commercial got flak for praising the absorbency of diapers by dissing clueless fathers: "We put them to the toughest test imaginable: dads, alone with their babies, in one house, for five days." These days, companies know that's not cool. Instead, ads feature a dad washing his daughter's princess dress with Tide or using Clorox Clean-Up to handle the mess after a home science experiment.
Lots of us embrace this new persona -- and doing things our own moms used to do doesn't threaten our masculinity. "Many men are naturally nurturing and now feel free to let it show," says Doyin Richards, a father of two young daughters in Los Angeles, who blogs at DaddyDoinWork.com. However, when he did show his own fatherly side, it caused a social-media uproar. While he was on paternity leave in January, his wife challenged him to put his older daughter's hair in a ponytail. Richards strapped his baby to his chest, fixed his 2 1/2-year-old's hair, and captured the moment with a selfie. Within hours, the photo went viral, getting almost 200,000 likes and more than 3,000 comments. Although much of the reaction was positive, he later wrote: "I have a dream that people will view a picture like this and not think it's such a big deal."
As we navigate this new normal, the competing demands are complicated. We may want to step up at home, but in our post-recession economy, it's not easy to step back at work. Indeed, in a recent Parents survey, the number-one reason dads said they couldn't spend more time with their kids was that they couldn't afford to work fewer hours. Since women get paid less than men at every educational level and job category, it usually makes sense for dads to be the ones to work longer hours -- but that doesn't make it fair.
Deep down, many of us don't feel we're getting the credit we deserve for the daily juggle -- at least from our partner. The same survey found that almost half of dads said their spouse doesn't appreciate them as much as they wish she did. I can relate. Recently, my wife had to work late. When she got home, I proudly reported that I'd folded the laundry, done the dishes, and put the kids to bed. Eager for recognition, I waited for my share of wifely praise. None came. So I made the mistake of restating the list of tasks. My exhausted wife quipped, "Did you want a medal or a monument?"
There's good reason for this disconnect. While dads have cut back somewhat at work to be at home more, moms have cut back on housework and child care over the years. They now spend less time cooking and cleaning, but they're also working harder than ever, which explains why the moms at the dinner party weren't very sympathetic to my observations.
The truth is, we're all feeling stressed because parents together still put in really long hours at their paid job -- more than Europeans and the Japanese. And this occurs against the backdrop of the United States having no paid maternity or paternity leave. (We rank dead last in work-family policies among developed countries.)
Couples have to work together efficiently and be flexible in order to stay afloat. About a third of the dads in our survey actually do the lion's share of cleaning and cooking. "I can change the oil in the car and cut wood for the fireplace, but I can also make a killer risotto," says Adrian Kulp, a dad of three from Clarksburg, Maryland.
Not all couples have an equitable balance, of course. And it's important to remember that a quarter of all kids grow up without a male parent at home. In fact, Pew researchers Gretchen Livingston and Kim Parker describe modern parenting as a "tale of two fathers." While 21 percent of white dads live apart from their kids, 44 percent of African-American dads and a third of Latino dads do. In these families, fathering may be a very different experience: Only one in five dads living outside the home sees his kids more than once a week.
Real Role Models
It's only now, as an adult, that I can appreciate what my own father did for me. In a thousand small ways, he challenged his bookish son to explore the world and build up confidence. Working long hours, he rarely bought things for himself but set an example of selflessness. And though he died of a chronic illness before my own children were born, his gentle, self-possessed manner has shaped my parenting style.
At the same time, I wish we'd been closer. My dad lacked professional flexibility -- he never made it to parent-teacher conferences and knew none of my friends well. He grew up in India, yet we almost never spoke about his childhood. I couldn't bring myself to ask his advice about my crushes and relationships. And he and my mom had very different interests and worlds.
I hope that my own children won't grow up feeling the same way. There are, of course, no guarantees. But I try to be more present for my sons -- I drive them to their soccer games, which I coach, and we banter in a way my father and I never did. My wife and I have both soothed our children, helped them sleep at night, and gotten them ready for school -- small partnerships that have deepened our relationship. I don't have the studies to prove it, but I believe this kind of modern parenting is better for our kids and our marriage.
We all have the power to help redefine fatherhood -- even if we crave more praise for our contributions. When I asked Paul Tarr, a father of one in Brooklyn, how he and his wife shared child-rearing responsibilities, he confidently told me, "She and I are 60-40." Just then, his wife got home and overheard our phone conversation. "It's more like 80-20!" she called out. Tarr paused and then said, "All I know is I love being a more involved dad." No medal or monument needed.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Parents magazine.