Here’s an interesting new study. It’s by three researchers at the Boston College Center for Work and Family and is entitled “The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted.”
It’s interesting partly for what it says and partly for what it doesn’t.
The researchers, Professor Brad Harrington, Fred Van Deusen and Beth Humberd, gave a questionnaire to 963 male employees of four Fortune 500 companies. All the men were fathers. The study sought to learn what the men thought of their jobs and their roles as fathers. It provides information about their practices and attitudes. It also tells us a little bit about the companies they work for and the women to whom they’re married.
Much of that is interesting if not particularly new. Indeed, anyone with some basic ideas about men, fathering and work will not be much surprised by the findings.
What is surprising is the package in which the authors deliver their work. The introduction contains statements suggesting the dawn of a Brave New World. Quoting themselves from a previous article, they say,
In homes across America, fathers are launching a quiet revolution…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.
Reading that I couldn’t help thinking of Dr. Strangelove, but aside from that, I wondered if the claim were true. After all, what much social science tells us is that dads in the U.S. continue to see themselves as breadwinners first and childrearers second. They have the notion that putting a roof over the heads of their families and food on the table constitutes caring for their families. And who could argue, aside from divorce courts that routinely denigrate those efforts?
For example, the U.S. Census Bureau finds that there are about 150,000 stay-at-home dads in the country versus about 5.6 million stay-at-home mothers.
But Harrington, et al continue:
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.
All that would be great if it were true, but, at least according to their own data, it isn’t.
Of course the people they studied aren’t representative of the country as a whole. They’re far more affluent and better educated than the population generally. For example, 77% of the respondents had four years of college or more and 76% earned more than $75,000 per year. So to begin with, these people don’t represent dads generally.
But they do represent one segment of society. And that segment bears little relationship to the picture Harrington paints in his introduction. The simple fact is that, with the possible exception of their aspirations, these men and their families look about as traditional as Ward, June, Wally and the Beaver.
We know that because the study tells us something about the men’s wives/partners (88% were married when the study was conducted). One unsurprising thing is that the men’s wives and partners are about as well educated as they are. Birds of a feather and all that. So about 70% of the men’s wives had a four-year college education or better.
But when it comes to working outside the home and earning, the similarities between father and mother break down completely.
Among the men, 100% work full-time and 66% work more than 46 hours per week at paid employment. By contrast, 31% of their wives/partners do not work at all outside the home and 26% work only part-time.
That’s reflected in earnings of course.
In general the spouses/partners earned significantly less than the fathers in our study. The median annual income for the fathers (who were nearly all managers or skilled professionals) was in the range of $75,000-100,000. By contrast, the spouse/partners who worked full-time had a median income in the range of $50,000-$75,000, and those working part-time had a median income of less than $25,000…
There are a number of other noteworthy statistics that can be drawn from this data. First, more than one-third of the spouses who worked did so on a part-time basis. Second, of those spouses/partners that worked part-time, more than half earned less than $25,000 per year. When these are combined with the percent of spouses/partners that do not work at all (31%), more than 40% of the spouses in our study are contributing less than $25,000 per year in annual income to the family. Even in cases where both spouses worked full time, men were more than twice as likely (44% vs. 20%) to earn over $100,000 a year than their spouses.
And for the most part, these are not families with newborns or infants to care for. The median age of the men is 43; the median age of their children is 10. Those are kids who are in school most of the day.
From that the authors hesitantly draw the conclusion that “ [t]his difference in contribution to annual income may partially explain why the spouses in our study seem to take on the lion’s share of caregiving while leaving the primary breadwinner role to the
fathers.” I’d say so.
All in all, these are highly-educated people who use their skills in very different ways. The men do the lion’s share of the earning while the women do the lion’s share of the childcare. Ward and June would be right at home with these folks.
About the only thing the authors can identify that might set these dads apart from those of bygone generations is their desire to parent more than they actually do. First, these dads see providing love and emotional support and being involved and present in their child’s life as the two most important things they can do for their children. Providing financial support placed fourth in their hierarchy of important family roles.
And the great majority (about 65%) of the dads said that childcare should be divided equally between the spouses. But of course it isn’t. As we’ve seen so often before, dads spend far more time at gainful employment than moms, and moms do much more of the childcare.
But what are we to make of the fact that the fathers want to do more but don’t? That seems to suggest that they’re not the ones making the decisions about who does what and how much. I would hazard that the answer lies in maternal gatekeeping, a concept that’s shared by women and men alike. That concept holds that when it comes to children, women have most of the power in the household and tend to dictate father’s involvement. If she green-lights a lot of childcare on his part then he has a lot of contact with the child. If she wants most of it for herself, he complies, and that compliance is a picture of dad, briefcase in hand, heading out to the office.
Periodically we read that there’s a sea change in sex roles within the family, and that may indeed come to pass. But it hasn’t yet, dramatic pronouncements of quiet revolutions notwithstanding.