Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Times UK: The evolution of fatherhood

From The Times

June 18, 2009

The evolution of fatherhood

The roles of men and women at home and at work are now changing so rapidly that they will share child-rearing duties equally in the near future, a new film argues. We look at the evolution of fatherhood and asks if guys are ready for it

Damian Whitworth

Once upon a time there was an animal notable for the way males and females of the species divided childcare duties. The mother tended to stay close to the nest, nurturing the young and keeping the home clean and tidy. The father provided for the family, heading out to hunt and gather. He kept his mate and their fledgelings fed and watered and saw his role as protector. But while he might occasionally give his offspring a peck to keep them in line, he was very much a secondary figure when it came to grooming the young for the day when they flew the nest.

But, over time, researchers began to notice changes in the family dynamic. Increasingly, the females took on foraging duties while the males spent more time caring for the young. Some experts even began to predict that a time would come when family duties would be shared equally between the males and females of the species.

The species is Homo sapiens and the era of equality could be just a generation away. That, at least, is the belief of the maker of The Evolution of Dad, a feature film project that has interviewed scores of fathers about their experiences and attitudes. Dana Glazer, who is making the film, believes that the roles of men and women at home and at work are changing so fast that soon both sexes will share child-rearing duties equally. "I think 30 years from now they are going to be looking at us as if we were cavemen."

His working thesis, after spending two years interviewing American males, is that men have travelled a long way and still have some way to go. But he is sure that parity will come. The shift from agrarian economies, where families worked together on the land, to industrialisation, where fathers went to work in factories, "shaped the roles of men and women and the family unit" .

"We are pioneers. What we think of as mum's work and dad's work are going to increasingly become blurred."

He says that this is inevitable because more women are graduating from college than men and in the workplace "increasing numbers of women are breaking through the glass ceiling and will continue to do so". As more women earn more than their partners, couples start to look differently at the question of who should spend time at home with young children. Technology also makes it easier for parents to work flexibly to fit around childcare duties, although the familiar scene of fathers in playgrounds with their heads tilted down at their BlackBerrys shows that technology can be a double-edged sword.

Glazer recalls holidays as a child where his father was untroubled by the office because there was no phone. Now, with e-mails cascading in relentlessly, work has taken over our time at home and on holiday, too. "For lots of parents our attention has become increasingly splintered."

He is excited by the way Barack Obama has been visibly making time for his children. "The President of the US doesn't have a lot of free time to spend with his family, but Obama really seems to put in the effort to be as involved as he can. I think what he brings to the table for a lot of people is 'Hey, if the President of the US can make time to be as involved with his family as he is, what's holding me back?"

Dr Michael Kimmel, a leading American writer on men and masculinity and a contributor to the film, says: "Thirty years from now I think our children are going to be the kind of fathers that we are prescribing today. Our sons will grow up assuming that their wives are going to work, that they are going to be as equally committed to their careers as they are, that they are going to have families where they are equal partners."

Twenty years ago when he asked students how they were going to balance work and family, women said "We are going to love each other; it will work out". Men just looked blank because they hadn't thought about it. Today when he asks about acquiring a work-family balance, the women give a detailed plan of when they will take career breaks for children, and men say "We are going to love each other ; it's going to work out".

"Men are where women were 20 years ago," Kimmel says. "They know that they have to think about this." His grandmother's generation had to fight for the vote and his mother's generation had to scrap to become lawyers and doctors. Today's generation of young people takes these opportunities for granted. "This generation is fighting for the right for men to be equal parents and still feel like men. Our children are going to take that for granted."

In Britain, Adrienne Burgess, director of research at the Fatherhood Institute and author of Fatherhood Reclaimed: The Making of the Modern Father, is equally optimistic. She argues that as a society we historically "sacrificed" our men by sending them off to war. She maintains that the imperialist system, which saw men dispatched to govern and fight for the Empire, shaped domestic life in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Between the wars, Burgess says, fathers were "exhorted to rush straight from the commuter train to the "romper room" and "the vision of father as entertainer came unencumbered with irony". An edition of Parents Magazine from the 1930s told readers that after the end of the working day "Dad should reign. During these companionable sessions Mother should be careful that there are no admonitions of 'Hurry up, the dinner will be cold'. This spoils the importance of the occasion." Burgess says that "it's not much of a distance to travel from being 'King of the Kiddies' to being one of the kiddies — with mother the wise and patient adult in the family. Father-as-playmate has contributed substantially to the notion of father-as-idiot, or as just another 'selfish child', as he is often portrayed."

Even after the Second World War, which had seen women doing what had previously been men's work, "there was a push that men should come back and get the jobs". The result was the 1950s stereotype of the man in the office and the wife at home. Now, Burgess says, society is changing rapidly. The idea of men and women leading lives with a similar work-family balance in the near future "seems reasonable because we have gone so far so fast".

There has been a boom in the number of fathers working flexibly. Between 2001 and 2005 the number of new dads on flexible time leapt from 11 per cent to 31 per cent. Fathers have more time with their children than they have in the recent past. The time spent by dads caring for infants and young children has risen eightfold since the mid-1970s; from 15 minutes to two hours in an average day. This refers to time spent interacting with children, whether at the breakfast table, driving, or reading a bedtime story.

Research has also found that dads now carry out an average of 25 per cent of the family's childcare-related activities during the week and one third at weekends. This is driven by the upward trend in women working. About 50 per cent of mothers of children under the age of 1 ?? are in the labour market. "We need women to work. We can't afford for them not to work. And we can't afford to train them and then not use them," Burgess says.

This all fits nicely with the data indicating that men want to spend more time with their children. According to a study, 82 per cent of full-time working men said they want to, compared with 70 per cent in 1989. However, there are obstacles to fathers taking a more hands-on role. Britain still lags behind much of Europe when it comes to paternity leave. The Equality Commission has said that statutory maternity leave should be cut from nine months to six months and fathers, who are now entitled to two weeks' leave after the birth of a baby, at the statutory rate of £117.18 a week, should be given more leave. The commission has proposed two weeks of paternity leave at 90 per cent of salary and then "parental" leave that could be taken by either parent once the child is six months old. The extra £5 billion annual cost of this means that it is unlikely to be adopted in the near future.

The huge increase in relationship breakdowns is also a big hurdle to overcome. While many non-resident dads continue to be deeply involved in their children's lives, the reality is that many others became detached from their offspring. And then there is the small matter of whether men really want to spend a lot more time looking after children. They tell researchers they want to do more, but do they want to be the main carers instead of their partners?

Nick Duerden, author of The Reluctant Fathers' Club, has his doubts. "I've met plenty of women with young families who happily gave up their jobs. I never could be solely defined by my children. I don't think the mothers necessarily see themselves as that, but I'm as married to my job as I am to my family. I want to be as hands-on with my children as I possibly can. I don't want to disappear to the pub while my wife looks after all the unpleasant gubbins of having two small kids. But I do also want to remain as loyal to my work as I can. I think it defines me, for better or for worse."

His own father was mostly absent. "He just stayed out working and drinking, he didn't help my mother at all." That has made Duerden determined not to repeat those mistakes. But "it's hard to break out of long-held roles. I grew up with a very strong mother but I think if my father influenced me in any way it was to be fairly selfish and self-centred. To break out of that completely and to be as hands-on as my mother was, or my wife is with our children, is difficult because I think I can get away with it because I am a man. I don't know if that will prove an obstacle to this Utopian idea of complete equality.

"I am sure [my wife] would tell you that while I pull my weight at home, I certainly don't do as much as her. If I can get out of things then, shamefully, I sometimes do."

It is easy to see that financial necessity might persuade men whose partners have higher-paying jobs to become the main carer in a family, but are men naturally drawn to the role in the same way? The bond between a mother and children is, in most cases, undeniable. Men don't always find it as easy. Duerden argues that for a woman "it's much more instinctive. I had to learn to love my child because my child was a stranger to me. I didn't feel that instant bond. I looked at the child and felt utter confusion and I was very much following my wife's lead. So I did feel the secondary caregiver while she was the primary one."

Adrienne Burgess says that the phrase "primary carer" is already "a bit old-fashioned" and foresees a time when it will be normal for a father and a mother to juggle work and care of their children with both working 75 per cent of the time around their domestic commitments. She recalls talking to a senior female politician whose husband was responsible for a larger share of the domestic family duties because her job was more demanding. "After she had cooked lunch and everyone was smacking their lips she said that she got a kick out of that. She said that her husband does it but she could see he didn't get a kick out of it. What we want for men is what women now have: a sense of achievement in both spheres."

This all sounds very convincing and I am figuring out how couples with two children could share childcare by each working flexitime for three quarters of a working week, when a female colleague points out a rather large sticking point that all this talk of equality ignores: "Of course, this assumes that all women want to work." And even if they do, in this world of equal childcare "women will have to learn to be tolerant of the way men look after their children".

The existence of Duerden's book can be taken as a sign of how dads have evolved. In recent years the norm has been for men to be — or at least make an effort to be seen to be — hands-on fathers, whistling cheerfully on nappy duty, wearing baby puke on the lapels with pride. Recently a slew of confessional books have appeared in which men have held up their hands and said that they find fatherhood to be a bit rubbish.

This is arguably quite brave, for as Duerden puts it: "It's an admission of weakness at the time that we have to be strong." But the response from some quarters has been: what a bunch of whingers. Duerden was "crucified" on the Mumsnet website. "They accused me of being an overpaid North London media w*****, bleating on about my kid." He counters that he wasn't trying to say that men have it harder than women, just that "we go through a process of emotional upheaval as well. It's there and it may affect how we parent, which is fairly important."

He suffered low-level depression and didn't connect with his daughter until she smiled at him for the first time when she was a few months old. "I think it's the most exhausting project I have ever undertaken, but I love it now. Parenthood can be really quite good fun and I'm terribly glad I did it."

Duerden believes that British fathers are reluctant to ask for help. We are some way behind America when it comes to talking about fatherhood. Duerden came across thriving fathers' discussion groups only in the US.

Call me old-fashioned, but I find the idea of going to a fathers' group a toe-curling prospect. Surely the time would be better spent with your kids. I am surprised to learn that Duerden agrees. "I am quite happy to write about it because it's my job and I found it quite useful, but the idea of sitting with a group of men I have never met before . . . I think I would be mortified and wouldn't be able to articulate myself. I think we will always be lagging behind women in those ways." And American film-makers.

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