When his family first moved to Westchester County from Brooklyn five years ago, Dan Zevin – husband, author and unashamed minivan-driver-slash-primary caregiver to his two kids – got a big dose of culture shock. “When we lived in Brooklyn I would see more guys like me, with flexible working situations, lots of freelancers too, out with their kids.” Yet in the suburbs as a man caring for his young son and daughter by day, while his wife worked full-time, Zevin felt wildly out of step. “I used to feel like some of the moms that I would meet were uncomfortable … I don’t know if they thought I was going to try and pick them up or something?”
For new dads today, that awkwardness may be less intense. In recent years, his kids now 13 and 10, Zevin says he’s seen big changes. “I definitely have noticed more dads out and about, whether it’s at school drop-off or school pickup.” The fact that Zevin found a cohort here in Westchester (at-home dads, PTA dads and/or men with flexible jobs), speaks to a broader shift. Even outside of urban centers, more American men have increased hands-on involvement with their kids.
Arguably there’s still room for improvement, women still report spending more hours than men in childcare activities. And fathers like Zevin, who have a primary caregiver role, are still a minority. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at-home dads comprised 1.6 percent of families in 2001 and 3.9 percent in 2014.
However, the participation of fathers has grown significantly. According to 2013 Pew research: “The way mothers and fathers spend their time has changed dramatically in the past half century. Dads are doing more housework and child care; moms more paid work outside the home.”
What are the benefits here? Dads spending fabulous time with their kids seems reason enough. Yet according to research, dad’s fulfillment is just the beginning. Dad involvement also equals more support to partners, and kids tend to do better on most scales – academically, inter-personally and professionally. John Carr, a psychotherapist who often works with new fathers in Boston and New York, says, “A loving and involved father impacts a child’s life in a variety of ways.”
Not surprisingly, workplaces are still figuring out how to adapt to fathers’ shifting priorities. In a 2011 survey, the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that “fathers ranked flexible work arrangements even higher in importance than career advancement opportunities or high income.” On the paternity leave front, currently, accordingly to a recent study by the Families and Work Institute, only 14 percent of American employers offer paid leave to new dads. Yet with companies like Facebook and Yahoo announcing generous benefits for new dads – and men taking them up on it – this trend is bound to continue.
Bottom line? Essentially, today’s fathers seem to be rewriting a tired script. Carr, who wrote a book called, Great Expectations: Becoming a Dad: The First Three Years (Sterling, 2010), says absolutely, in previous generations men were marginalized as parents, banished, for example, from the birthing room. “That’s just an illustration of dads being kept out of parenting and childrearing and the support that they could potentially provide for their partners.”
Westchester County Executive, Robert Astorino, who’s helped launch several innovative county fatherhood initiatives (see the sidebar below), concurs. “I see a trend where fathers are really trying to be a part of family life more maybe than in the past.” With a busy job and three kids, Astorino admits he has to work at it. “For me, one of the first things that go into my calendar each quarter is my kids’ sports events or PTA night, or teacher meetings and those kinds of things. I work my schedule around my kids’ schedule.”
Is there a flipside? If so, it’s that today’s dads are stressed, much like women in the last decades. Carr says, “They’re stressed out about the actual demands of parenting, and stressed out with work demands.” And such worries are real. In 2015, another Boston College study noted that fathers “who take time off to be active caregivers can often suffer lower long-term earnings.”
Added in, there are dad-specific issues. Even if some advertisers have started casting dads who can manage a diaper change, Astorino says there’s still lots of stereotyping, “Look at how pop culture portrays fathers – as bumbling morons, as incapable of doing anything around the house or with their kids, as workaholics …” Zevin talks about being patronized, and his parenting skills questioned in public. (“Your baby’s going to get pneumonia!”)
On the emotional front, Carr says dads, particularly primary caregivers, can also battle isolation. Yet he seems hopeful too. Years ago, says Carr, fathers would never step foot into a therapist’s office to discuss such issues around fathering. “Today, dads are coming into my office to work on fathering skills but they’re learning about themselves. They’re learning how to regulate and manage their anger. They have a desire to father in a more compassionate and connected way. That speaks to this trend where fathers are being thought of as more than just breadwinners. They’re thought of as caregivers too.”
Connie Jeske Crane is a freelance writer that often writes for Westchester Family.
21st Annual At-Home Dads Convention
Dad 2.0 Summit
New York Fathering Conference
Fathers Forum Westchester
NYC Dads Group
National At-Home Dad Network
National Fatherhood Initiative
Great Expectations: Becoming a Dad: The First Three Years by John Carr, Sterling 2010
Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad by Dan Zevin, Scribner 2012
Dads have different needs and challenges. Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino says the county has several initiatives aimed at tackling barriers that may prevent fathers from engaging with their kids, whether barriers are unemployment, a criminal background, or family breakdown. Initiatives include:
Annual New York Fathering Conference – 400 participants explored the theme of this year’s conference in April 2016, “Taking Care of Business: Equipping Dads for Parenting, Employment and Wellness.” Look for the third Fathering Conference in 2017.
Fatherhood Initiative – Programs include career counseling, job placement assistance and creating more opportunities for families to spend time together. For more details, see www3.westchestergov.com/fatherhood-initiative.
R.E.A.L. Parenting Program for Stronger Families – Launched in April 2016, this first-of-its-kind project in New York is designed to help noncustodial parents, often dads, find employment, pay child support and get back into the lives of their children. socialserv
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