What Moms Can Learn From Dads

This is a version of a piece I wrote last June for USA Today; I’ve updated to take into account more issues raised in 168 Hours.

What Moms Can Learn From Dads

by Laura Vanderkam

When Andrew McDade’s first daughter, Ana, was born nine years ago, he and his wife, Eliza, made a very modern decision: He would stay home to raise their kids. The reasons were partly financial — Andrew was a teacher and Eliza worked in finance — and “I’m more suited to it,” he adds.

Indeed, McDade, who now lives in Ridgewood, N.J., took to fatherhood with gusto. But he soon realized there was another part of the job description: dealing with unsolicited maternal advice. Moms “would walk up to me and say, ‘The baby’s head is tilted!’ ” when he carted Anna around in the BabyBjorn. On the playground, they’d check whether he was doing OK. “It was funny,” he says, “They thought, ‘I know better.’ ”

Perhaps they were right. Women still do the bulk of child care these days. On average, full-time working fathers provide about 40% less child care on a daily basis than do their female counterparts, according to the Census’ annual American Time Use Survey of married parents with kids younger than 6.

Families such as McDade’s, in which the dad is the primary caretaker, are still rare. When I interviewed McDade, he ignored a call from a mom friend who then left a message saying, “No national publication wants to talk to me about being a primary caregiver! You’re so special!”

Growing trend

But these families are less rare than they once were. “I’m not the big exception anymore,” McDade says. Not only does he see more men on playgrounds during the day — sometimes by choice, and sometimes in this economy, due to circumstance — there are growing online communities of men discussing parenting issues. This morning’s USA Today features an article on “The New Daditude” with a focus on the DadLabs.com blog. A recent Families and Work Institute study found that fathers under age 29 actually spend more time with their kids on a daily basis during the workweek (4.3 hours) than moms in their 30s and 40s (3.7 hours). Part of this is that the kids of a 20-something guy are likely to be younger (and hence need more intensive parenting) than those of a 30-something woman, but in 1977, younger dads spent just 2.4 hours per day with their kids while older moms spent 3.5 hours. Clearly, attitudes are changing.

As men are taking on primary parenting roles, researchers are discovering that these dads do things a little differently — and sometimes a little better — than more traditional families. While moms thought they had a lot to teach McDade, primary parent dads have four main lessons they’re teaching moms, too:

1. It’s OK to keep a hand in the workforce. Though the number has risen about 50% in the past three years, there are still only about 150,000 “pure” stay-at-home dads such as McDade around the USA. But 2002 Census figures show dads are the primary parent in about 20% of families with young kids and working moms.

This means that the more common experience is that of Jeremy Adam Smith, a dad in San Francisco. When he was the primary parent for his son, Liko, he woke up early every morning to write and consult for four hours before going into daddy mode. As a result, Smith, author of the book The Daddy Shift (which I’ll be reviewing for City Journal) was able to transition into full-time work at Greater Good magazine — at least for a while — once Liko was older. With women, the plethora of mommy-war books present motherhood as a stark choice: You work or stay home.

Men like Smith understand there is a middle ground. “We don’t really have a good word for combining primary caregiving and worker roles,” he says. Many men and women do both. But men he interviewed “feel a lot less anxiety” about maintaining a professional identity.

They’re also, anecdotally, less likely to fall prey to that occasional female tendency to use children as an excuse for permanent retirement. Over at my other blog (LauraVanderkam.com), I’ve written a few times about Linda Hirshman’s 2005 American Prospect article, “Homeward Bound,” which reported that a high percentage of moms whose weddings were covered in the New York Times Style section expressed a desire never to work again. When Smith learned recently that his job was going to disappear due to budget cuts, he told me that he didn’t plan to do a second stint caring for his son full time, in part because the child is now 5. The implication was that the boy didn’t need a full-time parent who was out of the labor force, which I emphatically agree with. But we all know moms of teens who are still not back at work. Anecdotally, again, many of the women I’ve interviewed who have had stay-at-home husbands fully expected their partners to re-enter the workforce once their kids were in school.

2. You don’t have to do the laundry. Moms who take on primary parenting duties often assume they must cook, clean and run errands as well. According to the American Time Use Survey, married, non-employed moms of young kids spend 1.61 hours a day on housework, and 1.41 hours on food prep and clean-up. Some dads excel in these areas. But statistically, married non-employed dads of young kids spend just 0.42 hours a day on housework and 0.64 hours on food chores. Clearly, with men, domestic work and child care are being negotiated as separate jobs.

“When you think about it, the task of caring for kids is logically different from doing the housework,” says Joan C. Williams director of the Center for WorkLife Law at Hastings College of the Law in California. There’s no reason that the person who rocks the cradle also needs to pick up the dry cleaning.

Separate duties

This can frustrate breadwinning moms who assume they’re getting a package deal. But “guys have it right here,” says Williams, who has studied the caregiving arrangements of hundreds of families. If all couples negotiated housework and child care separately, “that would ultimately help a lot of women.”

One of the ways a reduced housework burden might help moms? They might actually spend more time with their kids. This part is fascinating to me: In families in which both parents work full time, dads actually spend a little bit more time playing with their kids than moms. It’s only a few minutes per day, and moms do much more of the physical care of children. But on the other hand, in dual income families, moms spend .91 hours per day on housework and .79 hours on food prep and clean up, vs. .28 and .32 hours for dads. Some housework has to happen, but I also suspect that not all of those .91 hours and .79 hours actually needed to get done — which means that dads may be choosing to play with the kids instead of vacuuming. This is really something dads can teach moms: in the 168 hours we all have per week, time with your kids is more important than a pristine floor.

3. Parents are people, too. Aside from playing with their kids, what do dads do with the time they’re not dusting? “They give themselves more permission to have leisure time — to watch ball games or go out,” says Bill Doherty, a professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota.  He counsels families and finds that “men tend to have almost no ambivalence” about this.

Many moms would likewise enjoy life more if they demanded that their husbands take the kids two nights a week and part of the day Saturday so they could run, shop or whatever makes them happiest. There is plenty of time for leisure in our 168 hours, and time to work, and time for kids too. Which leads to the last point:

4. Kids need both parents. In traditional families, dads tend to delegate most child-related decisions to mom. But women, even when they are breadwinners, are “not willing to outsource their children’s childhoods, even to their husbands,” says Williams. While Smith was the primary parent, his wife worked about 35 hours a week (rather than 70), and took care of their son every morning.

McDade’s wife has now transitioned to a shorter work week and volunteers at school on her day off. This leads to a more equitable distribution of parental quality time. That, in turn, might lead to a more equitable view of life.

“My daughters don’t see the world as mommy stays home and daddy goes to work,” McDade says. “They don’t use the conventional logic.” Plus, they have no cavities and “no big facial scars,” he jokes.

He must be doing something right.

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