The Responsibilities and Expectations of the New American Dad

Fathers are expected to do more than ever. Do they feel like they're measuring up? We got their honest take.

The New Neither

father kissing daughter

Many men today are what I'll call "the new neither," neither stay-at-home dads nor primary breadwinners but guys who work a little and parent a little and likely spend a fair amount of time worrying about not doing so hot at either. Take my situation: My better-educated wife makes a nice salary in a rewarding, stable career. I make less than she does in a flexible job that is taking a beating in the downturn. The cost of child care being prohibitive for us, on most days I'm the one doing the juggling act: serving up the Wheaties, making sure the minivan is fit for driving, and keeping my share of the pay coming in. But I am nothing special: Fathers are now the primary caregiver for about one out of every four preschool-age children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

I have to steal time for work, and that means a good portion of the contacts on my iPhone are babysitters, girls whom I text for gigs in alternating sequences in order to spare them from burnout. Once I do line up child care and find my way to my desk, my brain has a hard time shifting gears. Did I remember to thaw the chicken breasts? Why did my daughter eat the whole tube of her brother's Thomas the Tank Engine toothpaste? Is that safe? Is that even normal? Did I tell the babysitter no TV until 4 p.m.? The last time I paid her for an afternoon of child care, I returned to my 6-year-old's happy news that she had watched "Curious George, then Martha Speaks, then WordGirl, then Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman." Fantastic.

Increasing Expectations
"Expectations of fatherhood have increased," says Stephanie Coontz, who is director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF). "But at the same time, expectations of men as totally committed workers have not decreased. This is why men now report feeling more work-family conflict than women do, which is an interesting reversal from 15 years ago."

Most men in my situation want a marriage where both partners can talk about their job at the end of the day. "The two-earner home where each partner pitches in equally is the one that 80 percent of women and more than two thirds of men hope to create, regardless of whether they grew up in a single-parent home, a dual-income home, or one with a traditional breadwinner," says Kathleen Gerson, Ph.D., professor of sociology at New York University and author of The Unfinished Revolution: How a New Generation Is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America. And most of today's "neithers" want to get their hands dirty in the work of parenting.

"The American father still gets a lot of his identity and self-esteem from his job. However, he's also much more determined to be engaged in the lives of his children," explains psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., CCF cochair. We refuse to pick one of these goals over the other, even though it would make a lot more sense.

There is no single experience of fatherhood, of course, but it's clear that men are increasingly taking care of their children. The reasons for this are wide-ranging and include the bad economy, the tag teaming required of couples who find themselves working staggered shifts, and the hunger for something more out of a period of life that goes by pretty fast. These expectations have triggered a broad range of feelings in men, from pride to exasperation. But the heightened expectations also offer them the potential for a deeper experience of parenting, and trading the devotion to a career for that of a job title that never gives out pink slips: Dad.

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