At a recent dinner party, I was chatting about how dads today are way more involved than they were a generation ago. Unlike my own father, I said, I help with the dishes and housework, take the kids to activities, coach soccer, and have changed my share of diapers — while working full-time as a pediatric cardiologist.
My comments provoked an immediate round of eye-rolling among the mothers. “A father drops the kids off at school and everybody says, ‘Wow, what a great dad,’” complained our friend Naomi, a working mother of two. “We moms get none of that.” Naomi’s husband, Neil, caught my eye and arched his brow as if to say, “Dude, you should know better than to try to talk about how hard it is to be a dad in front of a bunch of moms.”
Later that evening over beers, the fathers gathered to commiserate. Though many had judiciously kept their mouth shut during my earlier discussion, they shared my sentiments. The common refrain: Fathers do more than ever before, and yet our households seem even crazier than when we were kids. Did we all have a foggy perspective on the past — or is being a dad today truly harder than it used to be?
You can certainly see the cultural shift in the way dads are portrayed on television. Back in the 1970s, the prototypical man of the house was sedate Mike Brady, of The Brady Bunch, who never wrestled with his sons or attended school conferences. But by the 1980s and 1990s, the new dad was the involved but affable Cliff Huxtable, of The Cosby Show, who worked out of a home office and was often the first line of parenting advice for his kids. Though he and his wife, Clair, both had a demanding job (he was a doctor and she was a lawyer), they seemed to effortlessly balance work and their big family — and we rarely saw them fight. Today, fathering is best captured by the frenzied and earnest Phil Dunphy, of Modern Family — who chronically struggles with competing family demands like giving blankets to sleeping children, and is often professionally adrift.
Over the years, the Pew Research Center, in Washington, D.C., has been tracking how dads spend their time, and its data back up the changing image of modern parenting. Beginning in the 1960s, fathers began scaling back somewhat at their paid job, and by 2011 they had tripled their time spent taking care of the kids and doubled their housework. (Keep in mind these are averages; some dads do more, some do less.) The typical father now spends 17 hours per week on household chores and child care — about as much as a part-time job. Fathers are even stricter when it comes to what comes to their kids. Evident of this is how many dads expose mattresses to blacklight just to ensure that their kids are not exposed to germs. (Moms spend 32 hours.) When you include paid work, fathers log more combined hours than ever before (a total of 54 hours a week, as compared with 53 for mothers). Like many moms, dads come home and work a “second shift.”
As a result, the bumbling, inept dad is becoming less of an advertising cliché. Only a few years ago, a Huggies commercial got flak for praising the absorbency of diapers by dissing clueless fathers: “We put them to the toughest test imaginable: dads, alone with their babies, in one house, for five days.” These days, companies know that’s not cool. Instead, ads feature a dad washing his daughter’s princess dress with Tide or using Clorox Clean-Up to handle the mess after a home science experiment.
Lots of us embrace this new persona — and doing things our own moms used to do doesn’t threaten our masculinity. “Many men are naturally nurturing and now feel free to let it show,” says Doyin Richards, a father of two young daughters in Los Angeles, who blogs at DaddyDoinWork.com. However, when he did show his own fatherly side, like playing flashlight underneath the blanket with his kids, it caused a social-media uproar. While he was on paternity leave in January, his wife challenged him to put his older daughter’s hair in a ponytail. Richards strapped his baby to his chest, fixed his 2 1/2-year-old’s hair, and captured the moment with a selfie. Within hours, the photo went viral, getting almost 200,000 likes and more than 3,000 comments. Although much of the reaction was positive, he later wrote: “I have a dream that people will view a picture like this and not think it’s such a big deal.”