Where are all the good fathers?

by Robert Lutz

Image source: iStock

Image source: iStock

I am a man. I am not the father of a child, but I may be someday. Would I make a good father? Biologically speaking, men are of course just as capable of parenting as women. However there are ingrained societal beliefs about the differing roles men and women are supposed to play in the lives of their children that scare me. These roles conflict with the kind of father I would want to be.

One thing I am sure of is that I’m not interested in a long-distance relationship with my child, spending all day in an office late into the evening, only sharing meals with my family on the weekends. In fact, the question of fatherhood for me hinges on whether I can be there for my child. If I were going to be absent most of the time while my child grows and eventually becomes an adult, I see no reason to father a child at all.

RESPONSIBILITIES

We used to live in a world where the pursuit of gainful employment was completely at odds with the role of caring for a family – the general consensus being that the man earned the money while women were expected to work full-time at home, raising the family. The gender equality movement has made progress in helping women obtain gainful employment, while very little progress has been made to help men participate in care work at home. We often blame absent fathers for neglecting their children but in doing so, we are blaming them for the very behavior that we incentivize, collectively as a society.

‘Despite decades of gender equality measures, men and women both continue to be oppressed by social roles. Men are prevented from sharing the labor and rewards of intimacy and caregiving and women lack social and financial autonomy.’

Research shows that fathers around the world want to spend time with their children. According to the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES)conducted by Instituto Promundo and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), the majority of men in most countries say they would spend fewer hours at work if it meant they could spend more time with their children.

… But quite often they can’t. Let us look at three important factors causing this:

PATERNITY LEAVE

The report State of the World’s Fathers reveals that only 78 out of 167 countries offer paternity leave, for one to 10 days, and mostly with statutory levels of financial compensation. As a comparison: the US (yes, really) and Papa New Guinea are the only two countries in the world that do not offer paid maternity leave, according to the United Nations. A great chart illustrating the distribution of maternity and paternity leave policies worldwide was also published by Time Magazine last year.

Aside from paternity and maternity leave, some countries offer parental leave intended to be available to people regardless of their gender. However, the State of the World’s Fathers report states that “it is nearly always mothers who take [parental leave] rather than fathers, maintaining gender inequality in caregiving”. Why is that?

Absent-father

Image source: readsuzette.com

PRESSURE TO BE THE BREADWINNER 

It certainly is not a matter of men being lazy or inherently caring more about their jobs than their children. As the IMAGES survey reminds us:

“Globally, an unequal work-life endures where men are generally expected to be providers and breadwinners while women and girls are generally expected to provide care for children and other dependents…”

You may be familiar with this fact, but chances are you are accustomed to looking at it from the perspective popularized by the women’s movement – that women suffer from a lack of equal opportunities as their primary role is pre-determined as that of a caregiver, nothing else. But, from a man’s perspective, the survey suggests despite decades of gender equality measures, men and women both continue to be oppressed by social roles. Men are prevented from sharing the labor and rewards of intimacy and caregiving and women lack social and financial autonomy.

In the current social arrangement, everyone regardless of gender is losing big time.

PART-TIME WORK 

A big factor restricting bonding time between fathers and their children is the distribution of part-time and full-time work. Data from across the EU shows that men tend to work full-time throughout their lives, whereas women frequently work part-time to care for their families or handle household work.

More often than not, women are now expected to take care of the householdand contribute to the household income through part-time work. The concern of the women’s movement here is that women end up working more than men and this claim is certainly substantiated by the European Commission. They reported in 2014 that a majority of women in the EU are now breadwinners or “co-breadwinners”. Instead of gender equality freeing women from the shackles of the household—as the women’s movement had intended—many women continue to inhabit the traditional woman’s role but now they additionally face the pressure to earn income for the household.

This development is surely accidental but nevertheless extremely unfair and burdensome.

WHY DON’T MEN JUST CUT THEIR HOURS?

At the same time as women are being burdened with extra work, men continue to serve in the traditional role of full-time breadwinner and on average do not have the opportunity to spend much time with their families. But why do men not simply reduce their work hours to part-time upon starting a family, as women tend to do? The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC have all written about fathers who (try to) opt for part-time and the coinciding stigma and discrimination they face from employers and coworkers alike.

While societies around the world have opened up more and more to the idea that women are capable breadwinners, men continue to be seen as incompetent caregivers.

‘When men ask to spend more time with their families, they are made to understand that they are violating the social norm of manhood and deserve to be “punished” through firings, pay discrimination, or workplace stigmatization.’

Sure, there are bad fathers out there who fail to attend to the needs of their children. Just as there are bad mothers who are guilty of the same. But most men are simply trying to take care of their families and fulfill the duties society has assigned to them. These duties are outdated—they stand in the way of gender justice and good parenting. We need comprehensive, paid paternity and maternity policies. We also need to encourage men to opt for part-time work in the interest of their families, and we must change the way employers respond to this request.

It is up to us to make these important social and legal changes happen.

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