In countries around the world, we’re witnessing one of the greatest and swiftest changes in human history: in the course of a couple of generations we are redefining what it means to be a father. In a growing number of countries, young fathers not only expect to, but want to, play a central role in caring for their children.
We’re talking here not only about the occasional bit of quality time. We’re talking quantity time: doing our half of the work of changing diapers, making meals, cleaning, planning, and caring for our kids when they’re sick. In fact, when it comes to children, there are only two jobs that men don’t do well: we’re terrible at getting pregnant and total failures at breastfeeding. Besides those two things, name a nurturing job and men can do it equally well as women.
Let’s be clear: no father should “help” with childcare or domestic tasks, any more than any mother should “help.” The job of a father is to do this work.
This transformation of fatherhood is yet another positive impact of feminism. Not only do women in most countries have jobs outside the home, but more and more women expect male partners to do their share of the domestic work and childcare. Yeah, it’s more work for men, but we reap the fruits in much closer relationships to our children. And if that isn’t enough, one US study (affirmed in a recent 6-country study including India, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Croatia and Rwanda) shows that men who share childcare and domestic work are happier, healthier, in better shape, and, yes, have sex more often. Oh yeah, and it’s the right thing to do.
It’s also important for children. Kids need more attention than they’re getting. And there’s good evidence that men who are present early in a child’s life have closer relationship to children throughout their lives. Involved fathers contribute to empowered daughters and sons who are more likely to live gender equality.
Unfortunately, Father’s Day is a bit of a dinosaur. It’s little more than a chance for stores to flog electronics and card makers to sell corny images. So, here are nine things we can and should do to put real teeth in Father’s Day, to celebrate men’s capacity as nurturers, and to push forward the transformation of fatherhood:
1. Father’s leave. Dads need support to be good dads and it has to start from birth. But in the US, for example, the number of statutory days of parental leave for fathers is zero. (Even Rwanda and Saudi Arabia grant a day or two.) Scandinavian countries have taken the lead: in Norway, parents share 45 weeks at 80% pay or 35 weeks at 100% pay and there is a “use it or lose it” month aimed specifically at men. This, plus changes in attitudes, has led to an upsurge of Norwegian men taking parental leave, from 4% in 1993 to 45% in 1994 to 85% by 1998.
2. Parent-friendly company policies. Let’s push for changes so work life is organized to support parents. This includes flex-hours (where possible), adjusting hours to allow parents to take or pick up kids from school, and sick leave so parents can look after children.
3. Parenting education: We need programs starting in kindergarten and going right through high school to teach nurturing skills and promote healthy relationship and parenting skills. We need more resources to help expectant fathers improve their capacity to be caring dads.
4. Improved childcare and lunch programs: High quality, not-for-profit childcare and healthy school lunch programs are essential not only for the well-being of children, but critical for parents.
5. Birth and beyond: It wasn’t long ago that few men in the world were present at the birth of their children. That’s still the case in much of the world. Let’s push governments, NGOs, doctors and nurses to take the lead in facilitating and encouraging fathers to be part of the arrival of our children into the world.
6. No automatic rights for fathers: Most countries have, appropriately, moved toward presumed joint custody, believing and promoting the idea that both fathers and mothers have equal responsibility for raising children and should have equal access. But this should not be automatic for either parent. Violence against children causes immense trauma and effects brain development, especially if the violence is ongoing. Witnessing violence against ones mother causes similar, brain-changing, trauma. So, although we want to encourage men’s involvement as fathers, we have to be clear: no parent has an automatic right to access his or her children. Abusive men should not have custody, shared or otherwise, and should not even have access to their children except under well-supervised situations so neither the children nor ex-partners are put in physical or emotional danger.
7. Public campaigns: Yes, attitudes are shifting, but let’s support campaigns that raise awareness about what it means to be a caring dad or nurturing adult male figure. One exciting new example is the White Ribbon Campaign’s www.ItStartsWithYou.ca.
8. Make a personal commitment: As fathers, we can commit ourselves to prioritize our role as dads. This means a commitment to continue to improve on our healthy and nurturing parenting skills.
9. Keep violence out of childrearing: Physical punishment teaches fear and teaches that it’s okay to hurt someone you love. It doesn’t teach self-discipline nor responsible decision-making. In most of countries, we need legal change to outlaw spanking and public campaigns on positive parenting models.
Bonus: A quick thing you can do right this second: UNICEF is a fantastic organization and one I’ve been proud to work with, doing occasional training or policy-development. It’s a tireless supporter of women’s equality. Its famous logo is of a mother and child. But how about updating that logo to include a father and thus recognize and advocate men’s full and equal participation as parents? Show your support to urge UNICEF to make this change: “Like” the Facebook page calling for a new logo. And click here to sign the on-line petition.
(Thanks to Gary Barker for comments on the first draft of this blog.)