It's a mild Saturday afternoon, a perfect day for watching baseball, mowing the lawn, or running errands. Instead, a group of guys in blue jeans gather in a sunlit room behind a storefront in Brookline, Massachusetts. Sitting on the floor amid yellow Boppy pillows, each has a baby cradled in his lap or parked in a car seat next to him. These men have gathered to do something their own fathers would have mocked or, at the very least, misunderstood: bond with each other -- and their babies -- at a popular program called "Time for Dads."
"My father harasses me about this class," Paul Muniz, 27, an oncology nurse, jokes afterward. "He says, 'You're doing what?'" But Muniz thinks the program -- a bunch of guys sitting around yakking about baby stuff -- has been great. "It gets us dads actively involved in the process," he says as he gently rocks 3-month-old Connor. "We are no longer just a side note."
Meet the 21st-century father, a guy who proudly wears spit-up on his shoulder as a battle scar, not an embarrassing stain. No longer is he satisfied with a supporting role in his children's lives. Now, in addition to attending childbirth classes, memorizing the pediatrician's number, and helping pick out baby gear, the modern dad is staying home when a child is sick, doing the daycare drop-off, and enrolling in programs like "Time for Dads."
Though their numbers are still small, more guys than ever are scaling back on work or quitting altogether to help raise a family. And even those who stick to the most traditional breadwinner role are different from dads of the past: Many say they feel freer to be more nurturing, affectionate, and emotionally expressive parents, without any concern that their manliness might be questioned.
"From what I see, the number of men interested in coparenting is higher than it's ever been," says Parents advisor Kyle Pruett, MD, clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale University. In his child-development courses, he says, young men talk about wanting to be more hands-on with their children. "They're not comfortable having so few memories of their dads being involved in their lives. They plan to do things differently."
The new sensibility reflects the convergence of many trends: Lots of today's young dads are the sons of working mothers and grew up with more flexible views about gender roles. Many of them have working wives -- who can afford to live on one income anymore? -- and are expected to help out on the home front. What's more, the workplace is no longer the rigid Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5, in-the-office environment it used to be; technology has made it easier than ever to work anytime, anywhere.
Make no mistake -- it's hardly a revolution. The typical dad spends 6.5 hours a week with his children, less than an hour a day, and far less time than the typical mom spends. Still, that's more than double the 2.6 hours weekly that men devoted to their families 30 years ago. And, by most accounts, dads' time with kids is not watching-sports-while-tapping-on-the-BlackBerry time -- it's real quality time. A 2007 report from the Minnesota Fathers & Families Network found that, of the nearly 600 dads surveyed, 92 percent said showing love and affection to their kids was their most important role. "I'm a very different kind of father than my dad was," says Neal Pollack, 38, a Los Angeles writer, blogger, and father of Elijah, 5. "Affection, smooching, cuddling -- my son and I have no problem with that. It's not like my dad was cold and distant, but he was a guy, I was a guy. We never talked about our feelings. We watched karate movies. I do that with my son, too, but I also sing lullabies to him."
A generation ago, the idea of a changing table in the men's room or baby gear designed for guys would have been fodder for a stand-up comedy routine. Not anymore. At roadway rest stops and at retailers like Barnes & Noble, Toys "R" Us, and Whole Foods Markets, bathrooms are equipped for dads to do diaper duty. Baby supplies designed for men are starting to crowd the marketplace. "Some of our dad diaper bags are so popular we can barely keep them in stock," says John Brosseau, cofounder of DadGear, a company that makes products for men to carry baby supplies. Brosseau and his business partner, Scott Shoemaker, started the company in 2005, and in three years, sales have quadrupled. "Fathers now are not only proud of their children; they're also proud of being active parents," Brosseau says.
Look around, and you'll see evidence of the new daddy pride everywhere. In the workplace, men are bragging about their kids to colleagues, and whipping photos out of their pockets as if they were business cards. On weekends, they're wearing their newborn proudly on their chest, sitting down for storytime and tea parties, and feeding kids raisins while pushing them through the supermarket.
Celebrity magazines are filled with images of dads like Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Ben Affleck strutting around town with their babies and toddlers in tow. And on television, comedians like Jon Stewart and David Letterman exchange stories about their kids with male guests. Prouder-than-ever pops are even evident in the macho world of sports: In the hours before this year's Super Bowl in Phoenix, several of the New England Patriots players brought their kids on the field for some pregame fun. "Fatherhood is chic, it's in, it is no longer costing these men their masculinity," says Dr. Pruett. "That's a big societal shift."
Slowly but surely, that shift is showing up in quantifiable ways. In a 2007 poll by Monster.com, a job-hunt Web site, fathers cited a flexible work schedule as the employee benefit they most appreciate, followed by telecommuting and on-site childcare. The survey also found that 71 percent of dads with a child under age 5 said they'd taken time off from work to care for a child when their company allowed it.
"When I was sick, my dad would never stay home from work," says Pierre Kim, 39, who runs an athletic-wear company and lives in New York City with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. "My wife and I basically look at our schedules and see which of us can take off more easily. My father never took me to the doctor when I was a kid. I'm there for all my daughter's appointments."
Some young dads even alter their work schedule completely to accommodate children. Geoff Cisler, a software engineer from Boston, works part-time, while his wife, an art curator, works full-time. "I was laid off right before our twins were born, and then I got a two-day-a-week gig," he explains. "After the babies came, we decided I would stick with the part-time job so I could be home with them. And that's where I really wanted to be."
Many couples decide who will work and who will stay home based on which partner has greater earning power -- and increasingly it's the woman. A study lead by researchers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis found that more than a quarter of U.S. wives earn more money than their husband. Figures are even higher among young couples in urban areas, which may explain why the ranks of stay-at-home fathers are expanding -- quite noticeably in cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 159,000 men were the primary caretaker of kids under 15 -- still only a tiny fraction of the total number of at-home parents, but up from 98,000 in 2003. And experts predict that, in the not-so-distant future, even more dads will be trading a briefcase for a baby bottle -- or at least juggling the two. In 2000, researchers at the Families and Work Institute, in New York City, asked high school students from around the country to imagine their adulthood. Almost 60 percent of the boys said they planned to reduce their working hours when they became a father. "I don't think we would have seen this 20 or 30 years earlier," says Ellen Galinsky, the institute's president.
Nor would we have seen so many men who view their role as father as the central part of their identity. "When we begin our research, we say to people, "Tell me about yourself," to get a sense of how they identify," explains James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a marketing-research firm that studies emerging lifestyle trends. "We're finding that younger dads start off by saying, 'I'm Caitlin's daddy. I coach soccer. We like to spend as much time outdoors as possible.' These guys fundamentally think of themselves as dads." He says that older fathers also identify as dads but view that role as one component of their busy lives. "With younger men, it's really 'Dad.' Period," Chung says. "Work is no longer their source of identity. It's just one of the things they do."
Naturally, moms are embracing this tidal wave of paternal pride, eager for help on the home front. But they are also keenly aware of the challenges their husbands face as they struggle to balance the competing demands: Is it better to miss a soccer game or to pass up an all-important business trip? Is it worthwhile to sacrifice those family dinners and go for that promotion? "Men are asking themselves the same questions that working mothers ask," says Dr. Pruett. "They've joined their wives in the wrestling match."
The contest is a challenging one: A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of men and 62 percent of women believe current dads have it tougher than fathers a generation ago. Just 12 percent said it was easier being a dad today. But the upside is the wealth of benefits for kids when their father is involved. "Children are the biggest winners in all this," says Kevin Krippner, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Normal, Illinois, who works with families.
In early childhood, the distinct ways that mothers and fathers interact with children encourage the development of different skills, according to Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, PhD, professor of developmental psychology at New York University, in New York City. Though moms and dads share many of the same parenting techniques, dads tend to play more physically with their kids than moms do. In her research, Dr. Tamis-LeMonda has documented a link between the stimulating play style of both parents and improved language and cognitive skills in toddlers. And in the long term, an actively involved dad serves as a strong role model who will encourage his kids to eagerly embrace family life as well. "Kids see that child rearing is a shared responsibility, and they'll come to expect that in their relationships," Dr. Krippner says.
That, no doubt, is a lesson that the babies enrolled in the "Time for Dads" class in Brookline, Massachusetts, will ultimately learn. As the Saturday-morning session draws to a close, class leader Andrew Sokatch, 37, watches as the guys pack up their infants and equipment and head out to watch a ball game, mow the lawn, or run their errands. Sokatch, who has a 5-month-old baby himself, fully understands the pride that these new fathers feel. "I love being a dad, and I'm proud as hell when I take my son shopping in his BabyBjorn," he says. "It's the highlight of my day."
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the June 2008 issue of Parents magazine.