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The Changing Face of Fatherhood

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In homes across America, fathers are launching a quiet revolution. Catalyzed by the women's movement, an enormous demographic shift in higher education (women now earn 57% of college degrees), and a brutal recession in which men experienced more than 70% of the 8 million job losses in the US economy, men are often no longer the sole or even primary breadwinners of days past. But while the changing face of fatherhood has its seeds in the shifting and uncertain economic fate of men, it is equally born of a new, growing spirit of determination among young men to fully embrace their roles as fathers.

To better grasp what is transpiring, The Boston College Center for Work & Family recently conducted a study of professional fathers with young children to learn how a new generation of men is coming to grips with their changing roles [The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood Within a Career Context]. We interviewed 33 men to better understand how becoming a father has impacted them both personally and professionally.

Ironically, understanding this change in men's roles begins with grasping the changes impacting women. Women have fought for 40 years to attain legitimacy in the workplace. Now the time has come for men to find their place, not at the office, but in the home. Like women, men will not always find this journey easy. In spite of the professional gains that men's spouses have made, it is still assumed that women will play the primary role in raising children. As we know, this gender inequity has adversely affected women in the workplace in many ways, including lower pay and limited career advancement (especially when children arrive).

Men have not experienced these same consequences when becoming fathers. In fact, according to our study participants, they received almost universally positive feedback from their colleagues and "higher-ups" upon entering the ranks of the "fathers' club". While this seems to be a case of "Here we go again, men win and women lose when it comes to work-family; " on further reflection, we had an important "ah-hah" moment. The reason men experienced exclusively positive organizational reactions from the changes in their parental status is both obvious and problematic. People don't assume fatherhood is a very taxing role. It can be simply summed up in one word, breadwinner. But such a view continues to perpetuate an outdated view of fatherhood and keeps men from being whole persons. It is simply out of sync with the roles that the fathers in our study want - and even need - to play.

Young fathers today know that they will have working wives. Their wives are likely to be at least as well if not better educated, just as ambitious as they are, and make more money than they do. More importantly, these men feel that being a father is not about being a hands-off economic provider. It's about paying attention, nurturing, listening, mentoring, coaching, and most of all, being present. It's also about changing diapers, making dinner, doing drop-offs and pick-ups, and housecleaning. And if that seems as if we are redefining dad, that's correct, with one small exception. We're not doing the redefining, the dads are.

When the women's movement began, many pioneers struggled to deal with the incessant jokes, slights and sexist comments that questioned their ability and even their presence in the workplace. Thankfully, times have changed and we now realize it's about competence not gender. But as we watch how men today are still portrayed as caregivers - inept, incompetent, clueless - it might be time to ask why we continue to accept these sexist slights and put-downs. We see strong evidence of a new generation of dads who want to embrace their roles as competent professionals and caregivers and it's time to ask how we can help them with this important transition. We'll all be better off if we do.

Professor Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and Research Professor in the Carroll School of Management. The study report "The New Dad" can be accessed at www.bc.edu/cwf.

This post originally appeared on the Sloan Work and Family Network website.