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What Dads Really Want This Father's Day

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Those first years of motherhood were rough.

After years of being a result-oriented MBA professional, I struggled like most new moms with the lack of sleep and seemingly ceaseless crying from my colicky newborn. My husband was getting his evening MBA at the time, attending many evening and weekend study groups, meaning that much of the time, I was parenting on my own.

Except during the final stretches of the night. That's when my husband, home from work, class, and study sessions, would often hold our crying son through the early hours of the morning until he fell asleep.

Perhaps the extreme situation of a colicky baby forced us to share family care. Regardless, this partnership endured when I returned to work five years later. To this day, my husband does 50 percent of the housework, if not more.

Why is our equal parenting structure considered a rarity? Just check out the Father's Day section of any greeting card aisle.

Most likely, you'll find an overwhelming number of cards with ties -- what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls a symbolic noose around the neck. Indeed, the tie is a symbol of the working world, not family life. It does little to celebrate the role of men as fathers other than their ability to put food on the table. In short order are images of dads reading bedtime stories, helping with homework, or even baking cakes.

Although these probably weren't the images Sonora Smart Dodd had in mind when she founded Father's Day in 1910, she did want to celebrate her father, a single parent and widower who raised her five siblings. The day was intended to be a complement to Mother's Day, a day celebrating mothers' parenting. But it took more than fifty years before President Johnson finally recognized it as a national holiday in 1966.

Although many might think we've moved beyond our historical reluctance to value fathers' parenting, the reality isn't so rosy. By narrowly defining their value by how much money dads' make, we not only diminish fathers, but we also short-change society.

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education found that a father's involvement in his child's life was the most influential factor in determining a child's success in school. But unfortunately, 48 percent of dads in dual-parent families, scored low or no involvement in their children's lives.

This low level of involvement comes as no surprise. Taking time off to parent is not easy for dads. The pressure to be the breadwinner -- wear the tie -- creates conflict between desires to be home and expectations to perform on the job. A 2013 Pew study on Modern Parenthood found that nearly half of working fathers, or 48 percent, would prefer to be at home but stay in the workforce because they need the income.

So, if not a tie, what do fathers want for Father's Day?

Stanford professor emerita Myra Strober sees a strong desire in her male students to make room for work and family. When she first added "Women at Work" to the business school curriculum, she struggled to fill the class. By 2009, men filled 40 percent of the seats. Young men "want to be the most amazing dads," she said.

Some companies have taken notice. In order to attract top talent, Facebook and Google offer generous parenting support, including maternity and paternity leave. Even struggling Yahoo! offers paternity leave. Large companies like Bank of America and Ernst & Young also include paternal care in their leave policies. But these offerings are the exception. Most American companies do not provide significant paternity leave for their employees.

They fail to do so at their own risk.

In his recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Stew Friedman of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project reported that dads who commit to finding ways to be a more involved parent become more effective with their time in the office and feel more confident about their total life.

Paternity leave can create a solid foundation for a lifetime of fathers parenting. When optional paternity leave did not encourage fathers to stay home, Canadian and Scandinavian governments implemented "Use it or lose it" paternity leave. A follow-up study of fathers in Quebec showed that those who used this leave continued to spend time doing child and house care several years later.

Imagine a society equally valuing fathers and mothers for parenting and for breadwinning. More companies would grant new fathers paternity leave. Bosses would help fathers carve out time to go to school plays or attend parent-teacher conferences. Managers would see the value of time spent efficiently in the office and eliminating the burden of missed family time.

While we aren't there yet, perhaps this Father's Day we can start by celebrating dad reading us a story instead of giving him a tie.

Lori Nishiura Mackenzie is Executive Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. This column was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.