fatherhood

How fathers' and mothers' work and family lives are changing

June 13, 2014 at 12:02 PM ET

'Do Father's Matter?'
Scientific American

In "Do Fathers Matter?", author Paul Raeburn sheds new light on the science behind the vital contributions of the often overlooked male parent. Here's an excerpt.

Changes in work and family life in the United States have accelerated during the past fifty years, in what is now a familiar trend. In 1965, 42 percent of women sixteen to sixty-four were employed. The same was true for 85 percent of men, more than twice the percentage of women. Women’s employment rose through the rest of the twentieth century, peaking at 68 percent in 2000 before dropping back to 62 percent in 2011, mostly because of the recession.

While women’s employment was rising, men’s was falling through 2011, when it stood at 71 percent.

In addition, fathers and mothers have both increased the time they spend with children. For fathers, the figure has nearly tripled, from 2.5 hours per week in 1965 to 7.3 hours. Mothers’ time with children has increased slightly and is now 13.5 hours per week— nearly twice that of fathers.

Some other inequities remain. Mothers spend more time at house work and child care than fathers do, a gap that we’re familiar with. But when all the hours that men and women work inside and outside the home are put together, there is a surprising convergence: Fathers spend 54.2 hours per week working, counting paid and unpaid work. Mothers spend 52.7 hours per week in paid and unpaid work.

So while discrepancies and differences remain, mothers and fathers are working roughly the same amount. Both mothers and fathers were working about three hours per week more in 2011 than they were in 1965.

Ellen Galinsky and her colleagues at the Families and Work Institute have found that men experience more conflict between work and family than women, a surprising finding considering that most of the discussion about work and family has centered around women.

This is a big change. According to surveys of a national sample of men and women in 2009, 49 percent of men reported work-family conflicts, up from 34 percent in 1977. Men surpassed women, among whom 43 percent reported such conflicts in 2009. This doesn’t mean that men have a monopoly on work-family conflicts. But it does mean that women no longer do.

A comparison with other countries makes that point. Americans work longer hours than many other people in developed countries, including Japan, where there is a word for “death by overwork”—karoshi.

The United States is the only country out of thirty leading democracies that does not have laws protecting workers’ paid maternity leave. Even unpaid leave is available to only about half of U.S. workers. Many Americans do not get paid sick days and can be forced to work overtime without any limits.

Why have work-family conflicts increased for fathers while remaining relatively steady for mothers? Many men say they feel they’re being pushed harder at work, while their wages stagnate and the boundaries between work and family life are blurring.

The situation is particularly difficult for fathers. Interestingly, they work significantly more hours per week than men without children. You might expect the reverse, but fathers say they work longer because the extra money is important for their families.

The problem of work-family conflict is worst for men who believe flexibility will hurt their chances of advancement, and whose superiors make it difficult for them to respond to family emergencies and change their schedules on short notice. Men face an impossible ideal, a “male mystique” that puts demands on fathers that they can’t possibly meet, Galinsky says.

Men, in other words, like women, are now experiencing the pressure to have it all.

Galinsky thinks this situation can be changed, but only if change occurs “at all levels— from individuals’ attitudes about work and family to effective workplace design and cultural change that dispel the mystiques for both men and women.” The new male mystique, she says, “is harming men much in the ways that the feminine mystique harmed women.”

The difficulty that fathers face trying to fulfill what they see as their responsibilities at work and at home generally turns out to be greater than they expect. During the third trimester of pregnancy, men and women both say that they expect women to be responsible for more of the baby care than fathers.

But when their babies are six months old and they are asked again about the division of labor, most say mothers are doing even more than they had anticipated—and fathers are doing even less.

The need for men’s earnings to support the family often pushes couples in this direction, and fathers are often uncomfortable with it.

A father in one study expressed frustration that his factory wages didn’t seem to “count” as a contribution to the family as much as he thought they should. His wife’s friends, he said, sometimes ask her why he doesn’t spend more time with the baby. He has his answer: “Man, I’m looking after [my daughter] six days a week, ten hours a day at the plant.” His work, in his estimation, clearly should count.

Excerpted from Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, by Paul Raeburn (Scientific American/FSG, 2014).

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