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The Responsibilities and Expectations of the New American Dad

father kissing daughter

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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.

father carrying baby

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To understand how fatherhood has changed, you have to look at the rise of women. Today, 28 percent of all American wives between 30 and 44 have more education than their husbands, while only 19 percent of husbands in that group have more education than their wives. (The remaining 53 percent have the same level of education as each other.) In 2008, the last year for which figures were available, the U.S. Department of Education found that women received 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees and 61 percent of all master's degrees. They receive 51 percent of all Ph.D.'s.

Women have soared academically during a collapse in the job market that has hit male-dominated vocations the hardest. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of February 2010, the top two professions among the unemployed in the U.S. were construction and manufacturing. And over the last four years, the male-dominated financial sector lost more than 500,000 jobs, found the Chicago job-placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. From 2008 to 2009, the unemployment rate increased 83 percent among men age 25 and over, compared with 57 percent among women age 25 and over. As a result, one in five men between the ages of 25 and 54 didn't have a job as of December 2009. That's the highest rate of male unemployment in this country since the BLS began tracking data in 1948.

Not surprisingly, women in dual-earner couples contribute an average of 44 percent of household income today. "The typical family is either a dual-income family or a single parent," says Dr. Gerson. "We're unlikely to return to an era where one worker is enough to support a household. The kinds of secure jobs that once characterized men's work are disappearing, and much more fluid, flexible ways of working are emerging."

boy playing with shirt

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For all of the advancements men have made in child rearing, they still lag behind women around the house. A recent study in the Journal of Family Issues found that husbands spent 23 hours a week on housework compared with 42 for wives. "Housework" was defined as cleaning, preparing meals, washing dishes, washing and ironing clothes, driving around family members, shopping, doing yard work, maintaining cars, and paying the bills.

"There's this idea of a lazy husband, but since the 1960s men have doubled the housework they do, from 15 to 30 percent," says Dr. Coleman. He adds that men would likely pull even more of their weight around the house if their wives would let them do it their way. "Research has identified that maternal gate-keeping is a problem in many marriages," he says. "A lot of wives have high standards about how things should be done, and that can make men less motivated."

One particularly motivated dad, Klint Ragsdale, has discovered that industrial-strength hand cleaner removes stains from his daughters' dress-up outfits, and he's been known to pull out the power tools to carve pumpkins. "I take things from the garage and use them for day-to-day housekeeping," explains Ragsdale, a part-time working dad of 6-year-old twin girls in Rochester, Minnesota. It's not the way Martha Stewart would do it, but you get the sense it offers him some autonomy.

"I used to be the breadwinner, then we were equal, then she overtook me, so my ego has been slowly chipped away," he says with a laugh. Their situation "came down to an education thing," he says. "She has a master's degree, and I went to vo-tech for auto-body repair." On a typical day Ragsdale gets his girls fed, dressed, and off to the bus; then he cleans the house and runs errands before selling cars for the rest of the afternoon. As his wife leaves her job at 5 p.m. to pick up their kids, he comes home to make dinner, and in the evenings he and his wife bathe the children and get them to bed. "It would be easier to watch the kids full-time," he says, "but I need a job for my self-worth. Taking care of children all day doesn't get you much appreciation."

father giving child kiss

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That's what women since June Cleaver's day have been saying. But today more dads are like Ben George: A creative-writing lecturer in Wilmington, North Carolina, and editor of the essay collection The Book of Dads, he stayed at home two days a week with his 3-month-old until she was 3. He, too, felt the need to make something of his life outside of the house. "When I was home with my daughter, I really enjoyed being a part of all the changes in her life," he says. "And who knows how that closeness will play out in her life -- maybe not at all for her, even if it does for me. But at the same time, I knew that I wasn't only a father. It's not my whole identity."

Some dads miss the satisfaction of bringing home a paycheck. Steve Kaback, a high-school teacher who works full-time while his wife teaches college, used to stay home with his children in Elmira, New York, when they were 3 and 6 (they're 9 and 12 now), but the arrangement eventually began to eat at him. "I loved hanging out with the kids," he remembers, "but I had just turned 40, and with nothing going on in my career, I sank into a weird place emotionally after a while. To not be contributing anything to our family finances was uncomfortable for me. I think back on that time fondly, but I also make a point to remember that I was pretty depressed too."

A lot of guys juggle two hats for personal and financial reasons. "The working dad in me is jealous of the stay-home dad I was," says Jeremy Adam Smith, a Web editor who works from home but spent the second year of his son's life taking care of him full-time. "There's a lot to be said for traditional, or reverse-traditional, arrangements," says Smith, who created a blog called Daddy Dialectic. "But in our case it wasn't going to work long-term because we needed the money." Like most dads who spend more time with their kids than their fathers did, Smith will tell you that the experience still leaves him feeling inadequate. "I work at home. I carve out a lot of time during the day to be with my son. That sounds great, but I also spend a lot of time on my laptop while I'm with him. And yet that's the choice I made, and that's the life of a parent in the 21st century."

father changing baby?s diaper

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Of course, plenty of fathers continue to keep a more traditional schedule and put in far greater numbers of hours at work than they wish. "We found that men, and women, who logged long hours would prefer to be working less. When asked if they'd give up more income for family time, most said yes," says Dr. Gerson. "But they fear that if they pull back, they'll be penalized or stigmatized by their employer."

This is why one dad didn't even want to be named when he shared his situation. He's the father of a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. He works in finance in New York City in a job that requires him to leave the house at 7:30 a.m. and not return until midnight or 1 a.m. on most days. He figures he works 80 to 100 hours a week on average and says that between that and business travel, he has "very little" involvement in the daily care of his children. He has breakfast with his kids; the rest is a maybe.

"The only real time I can help is on weekends, and often that is interrupted by work. It would be nice to take my kids to school and be more involved, in general," he says. "Just to be home for dinner during the week would be great." When he thinks about dads who can, for instance, take their kids to doctors' appointments during the day, he says he's happy for them. But it doesn't even vaguely resemble his life. "My schedule is the trade-off a person makes in my line of work."

Barron Bremner, D.O., an orthopedic surgeon in Des Moines and the father of three children ages 4, 7, and 9, occasionally finds himself in a similar bind. Every six weeks he spends a full weekend on call at a hospital. Though he helps with cooking, bathing, and reading to his kids during most weeks, "I have made it clear to my wife that I am not to be counted on during my on-call time," he says. "It's the price to be paid for earning what is a nice salary, I guess. I've tried to tell my wife that I am doing more around the house and at work than men of her grandfather's, or even her father's, era."

"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.