Is this the Year of the Dad?
The U.S. Census Bureau made an announcement early this week that may be the start of real equality between men and women when it comes to childcare -- and may mark what we will look back on as a milestone in the evolution of fathers as caregivers.
Or not. It depends whether you prefer to see your glass as half empty, or half full.
The role of fathers as caregivers is up again, slightly, the bureau says in a report called Who's Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2010.
Of the 12.2 million American children under the age of five whose mothers are in the paid workforce, nearly a third (32 percent) are "regularly" cared for by their fathers, compared with 26 percent nine years ago.
This reinforces numbers released in an earlier report by the Bureau, which found that the number of stay-at-home fathers nearly doubled to 158,000 between 2003 to 2009, and at least one academic's estimate that the number of single fathers raising children rose to 2.79 million this year, twice what it was in 1990.
Which hardly means that fathers come close to mothers in the numbers that are the primary or regular caregivers for their children. Still, if the goal is eventual parity at home and work, this is a small (but statistically significant) step in the right direction. Right?
On the one hand, the reason for the increase in fathers as caregivers is not that men have "opted out" of the workforce in swarms, motivated by a new yearning to be with their children. Most of them left their jobs because they lost them. The Great Recession was dubbed the "Mancession" by economists, because it fell far harder on men than women. Another of its results -- that women now account for 50 percent of all workers for the first time in history -- is a similarly unclear "victory." Women caught up not because they sped up, but rather because men slowed down. I'm not sure that counts as progress.
And yet, change is born of new norms. If you see something often enough, it becomes what you expect to see. The more we see fathers staying home with children, whatever their reasons, the more accepted it becomes for fathers to be at home with children. Dads who are clearly involved, whether by choice or by circumstance, lead us to eventually assume that's just what Dads do. The more men are "regular" caregivers, the more they will be perceived as such -- even presumed to be such -- and the freer they will be to take on that role.
It's a start.
Indeed, pollsters tell us, the feelings of men toward fatherhood have changed over the same years that their presence as primary care giver has grown. Did one cause the other? There's no way to know; but the confluence is striking. The Boston College Center for Work and Family, for instance, polled 1000 professional fathers from Fortune 500 companies for a report titled: "The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted," which concluded "Today's dads associate being a good father just as much with the role of effective caregiver as the traditional role of 'breadwinner'." More than half of them would consider being stay-at-home-dads if they could afford to, they told researchers, and the majority said that they want to share equally in childcare (but also said they did not quite meet their own goal.)
Will we look back on this, then, as a moment of change? A sharp line between parenting roles Before and After?
Men are certainly stepping up to declare it one. Dads have taken to the internet, for example, in numbers that should not be ignored. This led Babble.com to create its first "Top 50 Dad Blogs" last month, after several years of a Moms version. In its announcement, Babble editors wrote:
...this is not the beginning of Dad blogging -- far from it -- but it is the first year in which Dad blogging is making it to the masses in a big way. Whether it's a single post that gets over 114,000 "likes" on Facebook or a riveting panel discussion at the Mom 2.0 Summit or the hilarious (but effective) #occupyBabble Twitter campaign, Dad bloggers are gaining more recognition with every passing month. In the process, they are also changing the way we think about fatherhood, parenthood, and exactly what is possible for men raising families.
Not so fast. The far bigger question is not how has the recession changed the role of Dads, but rather are these changes likely to last? After all, Rosie the Riveter transformed our view of women in the workplace during World War II -- a change that lasted exactly as long as it took the troops to come back home. It would take another few decades to get women back where they were on V-J Day.
And now comes data showing that the Mancession is over, with men regaining jobs more quickly than women during the recovery thus far. The most recent analysis, from the Institute for Women's Policy Research last month found that of the total jobs lost between December 2007 and the present, men recovered 32 percent of those jobs and women only 20% during the same period.
Or, as a headline in the latest issue of the Atlantic succinctly puts it, "The Recession Was Sexist (So Is the Recovery)".