Modern Dads, Old-Time Expectations
"I think this is a new dilemma," says Coontz. "In all the oral histories I've taken over the years, I have never heard men of older generations report the kind of conflict that men today do"?..."the indignation at their employers and doubt about their choices that men have been reporting recently."
With so many clashing expectations about fatherhood and work, attention invariably turns toward our uniquely American child-care dilemma. Fathers are expected to do more at home, be more involved in their kids' lives, make a living -- and do all of the above within a society in which child care is an often prohibitively expensive, informally organized, privatized hodgepodge. (It is publicly subsidized in France and publicly coordinated nearly everywhere else, says Dr. Gerson.) "I find that part shocking," says Ben George, when the subject arises of the meager-to-nonexistent societal safety net for child care in this country. "I had no idea before my daughter was born how difficult it was going to be to get all these moving parts working." (Amen, say the many, many mothers who have made the same complaint for the last three decades.)
"Today, there are both opportunities and dangers for marriages," says Dr. Gerson. "We're in an unprecedented era where the desire for sharing and egalitarianism is high. But if couples are so torn between work and child care, that creates tension. It'd be good for us if we could see this not as a couple problem but as a social problem. We need to make more room for mothers and fathers as a society."
Change like that takes time, of course. Until then, fathers, just like mothers, will have to get used to their conundrum. I won't lie -- it would be great to disappear every morning into a world where people act like grown-ups, the pay is good, and my work lends me status. But life as a neither does have its perks. Just yesterday, between writing assignments, I got to hold my daughter's hand and tell her about polar bears while the doctor gave her a shot, then I hugged her while she cried.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Parents magazine.