Can Dads Have It All?

June 2019

By Ross Douthat

In the discourse of the upper-upper, don’t-call-us-rich middle class, an old stereotype of fatherhood — the dim, affable, useless-for-housework Pop — has lately been supplemented by a new one: The credit-hogging, pleased-with-himself Good Dad, who does just enough housework to pretend that he’s an equal partner, and swans about in a BabyBjorn reaping applause from people who wouldn’t give an overburdened mom a second look.

This stereotype is rooted in observable social reality; it really is true that when I wheel my brood around the mall or supermarket I get a friendly affirmation that my wife in similar circumstances is less likely to enjoy. (Though the grim set of my jaw may also inspire a certain, “Quick, smile at him or he’ll run us down” reaction.)

But on Father’s Day the honor of the Good Dad must be defended. Yes, fathers still do much less work around the house than moms, even when both spouses hold down paying jobs. But as Robert VerBruggen points out in an essay for the Institute of Family Studies, “The Myth of the ‘Lazy’ Father,” when you add up housework, paid work and child care, married fathers today are doing slightly more work than married mothers.

And this holds true across different types of households, from dual-earner, full-time working parents to couples where the husband is the only breadwinner. (Only when the wife works full time and the husband stays at home is there a clear advantage for dad in hanging out and chilling.) Moreover, in one data set the male-female work gap has actually expanded slightly since the 1960s, from 1.5 to four hours.

Like any interesting datum, this slight paternal edge in work-hours could be spun into various ideological narratives. The militant anti-feminist might seize on it as proof of the perfidy of women’s liberation: Far from creating an unfair “second shift” for women who feel like they’re supposed to have it all, the feminist revolution has actually created one for men, depriving them of paternal honor while asking them to spend more hours in harness than before.

The feminist might counter that you can’t lump all varieties of work-hours together; in terms of pay, prestige and independence, professional hours are clearly worth more in our culture than home-hours. So an equal balance of professional work and at-home-work is the only equality that matters, and the male advantage outside the home still puts men ahead.

If both these narratives see one sex or the other getting exploited, a more optimistic reading might be that the current division is actually a reasonable balance. Maybe it’s fair for men to work slightly longer hours overall because work outside the home really is less grueling (and certainly less so than pregnancy and childbirth). At the same time, maybe women’s longer home-hours reflect genuine female preferences, a widespread maternal desire for part-time work, and not just the dead hand of patriarchy.

The optimists, though, have to reckon with the fact that everyone is working longer hours, notwithstanding increased wealth and technological convenience, and the presumably related fact that parents everywhere seem harassed and exhausted, while marriage and childbearing both are falling out of fashion.

Perhaps rather than beings victims of each other, of feminism or patriarchy, the sexes have fallen into two traps together. One is what I’ve called “the one-income trap” — the way that dual-earner couples establish a norm that forces everybody to work harder to keep up, leaving couples that might prefer a single breadwinner stressed or far behind.

The other trap is one of rising child-watching expectations, reflected in the fact that the overall parental time spent on child care has nearly doubled since the 1960s. Some of this doubling reflects a laudable desire to be more involved than the distant paters of the past. But it also reflects anxieties specific to our era — the fear of letting kids play together out of sight, the fear of giving them unsupervised hours, the fear that some well-meaning busybody will report you to child services, all of which pile burdens on parents that would have been foreign in the past.

This anxiety is one spoke in the cycle driving American fertility downward: Watching your kids all day makes parenting harder, which makes people have fewer kids, which means fewer siblings and neighbors to play with, which makes kids more dependent on parents for amusement, which makes parenting harder, and so on …

But it’s a hard fear to escape. We live in a neighborhood with parks and sidewalks, and I think frequently about how the limits we set on our daughters compare to the normal limits of 1955 (ours are far more strict), whether parents in the past would have let their son toddle after his older sisters into a neighbor’s yard unsupervised (probably; we don’t), and how often the stress of watchfulness sends us pinballing to the opposite extreme of, Don’t play outside kids, just watch a movie (never, of course; we would never say that).

So Happy Father’s Day. Now tell your kids to go play in the creek.