Fatherhood: A Balancing Act

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Most weekday mornings, Jeff Pearlman rises early to perform a routine he repeats regularly: make breakfast, pack lunches, shuttle the kids to school. As a work-from-home father of two kids, Casey, 10 and Emmett, 7, Pearlman manages not just his children’s school-day shuffle, but also his own thriving writing career.

It’s a dance performed by millions of mothers every day. Now more fathers than ever are stepping into the role.

“I wanted to be the dad who does everything — I can even put on my daughter’s nail polish and comb her hair … although my wife is better at doing hair than I am,” says Pearlman, a New York Times best-selling author of six books. He and his wife, Catherine, a social worker, assistant professor at the College of New Rochelle and parenting coach and blogger, live in New Rochelle.

While Pearlman’s role as a home-based hands-on father makes him a minority among dads, he is not an anomaly. 

Instead, he is among a growing body of fathers who are primarily or equally responsible with their spouses for childcare (and often other household duties). What that looks like varies from family to family. As a working dad, Pearlman walks the line traveled by many working parents. But the number of nonworking at-home dads is also on the rise. According to a 2013 Pew Research study, about 550,000 fathers in the past decade have become full-time stay-at-home dads, representing about 3.5 percent of married couples with children with at least one full-time working spouse — more than double the number it was at least a decade ago. The percentage, while small, indicates a clear upward trend.

Why the change?
Dawn DeLavallade, M.D., author of She Makes More: Inside the Minds of Female Breadwinners, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012) says, “I would attribute the increase to more and more women who are better educated and thus more employable than their mates [in some cases]. The couple weighs the odds and realizes that it is more beneficial financially for him to stay home and her to work and make the bigger bucks.”

The shifting fatherhood landscape results from a convergence of other factors too including new cultural attitudes about gender norms and masculinity, and emerging ideas about men’s contributions to children’s development and well being. In a document published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sociologist David Popenoe states, “Involved fathers bring positive benefits to their children that no other person is as likely to bring.” And as more men evolve into primary or equal caregivers, many are joining women in urging workplaces to create more family-friendly policies.

As reported on his Tumblr blog and numerous media outlets, Josh Levs, a CNN reporter who writes frequently about fatherhood issues, filed an EEOC charge last fall against the network’s parent company, Time Warner, claiming its paternity leave policies discriminate against biological fathers (he says mothers and adoptive parents both are entitled to 10 weeks compared with the two weeks biological fathers receive at the company). Earlier this year Levs told realbusiness.com, “It can’t be a conversation by women about women. In a country that prides itself on family values, we need to do a much better job of valuing families … and that includes fathers.”

According to a 2012 study done by the Boston College Center for Work & Family titled “The New Dad: Right at Home,” which examined the motivations of a sample of fathers who had made the decision to be stay-at-home parents, some of those values include a preference for one parent to be at home to raise children and a significant consideration for childcare solutions that don’t stretch families beyond their financial means.

Additionally, with women’s steadily climbing representation in the workplace, a spouse who is prepared to share or shoulder child-rearing and domestic duties is critical to the success of working mothers, especially those who may be sole earners or who out-earn their husbands, says DeLavallade. “A father who is a willing caregiver is a necessary component of [a woman’s] ability to maintain her breadwinner status. She can try to do it all, but without his help eventually she will implode (or divorce).”

Shared Household Duties
Whatever the motivations behind the trend, savvy advertising executives have caught on. Noticed those ads for laundry detergent, cereal and diapers featuring competent, doting fathers (often at home without Mom)? That’s not simply trendy media messaging — those ads represent a significant diversification of fatherhood norms, and in some cases come as the result of petitions on sites like Change.org against commercial TV’s stereotypically bumbling dad. The greater visibility of gay fathers in media, film and television has also bolstered the image of the tapped-in dad. Another likely factor: the never-ending “mommy wars,” which have inspired some fathers to rethink their own positions on paternity leave, office hours, vacation time, telecommuting and childcare. So it isn’t just women who are pondering how far to lean in at work. Increasingly, couples make family and career choices jointly in a tandem work-family juggle.

That commitment to shared responsibility is vital when it comes to household chores. Says Pearlman, “[My wife and I] both have areas where we are stronger or weaker, but we have a good division of labor. With playdates, Catherine does 90 percent of it. I do 98 percent of laundry, 90 percent of dishes. She does 90 percent of cooking. It’s all sort of organic.”

But it isn’t only men who work from a home office who are prioritizing family life. Michael Armstrong, a Viacom executive and New Rochelle resident, balances his busy international travel schedule and family responsibilities with a high level of commitment. “I work hard to ensure that I’m as present with my family at home as I am with my colleagues and clients at work. That results in sleeping on overnight flights and early morning breakfast, bus and school drop-off duty. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” says the father of two boys, Caleb, 9, and Coleman, 4. His wife, Lori, manages a strategy activation consulting business.

Pearlman says his take on fatherhood is partly a response to his father’s traditional parenting, a desire to experience fatherhood in ways that simply were not expected (or even accepted) in decades past. “My dad was a great dad but the conventional father: leave for work at eight and come home at five … but those were the times,” he says. “My mom did everything. I never wanted that.” Some of the fathers from the Boston College study cited their father’s influence as a good parenting model — a notion that runs counter to the image of the remote dad who never put the kids to bed and was singularly focused on the office. The reality of fatherhood, past and present, is likely more varied and more nuanced.

DeLavallade says couples should consider all angles of any childcare arrangement that involves one parent being a main caregiver and keep each other’s interests, wishes and feelings in mind. “There are no right or wrong answers,” she says. “We must be honest about our feelings and come to the best resolution for the family.”

Terri Prettyman Bowles is a Westchester-based writer, editor and content producer.

Updated 4:26 pm, July 9, 2018
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