Daddy on board

Today's fathers spend more time with their children than ever. One of them talks about why that's a good thing

Published June 20, 2009 1:20PM (EDT)

As a father, Jeremy Adam Smith has played many roles. The 39-year-old editor and writer from San Francisco has been a working dad with a stay-at-home wife, a stay-at-home dad with a working wife, and half of a two-income couple. The kicker: His son, Liko, is just 4 years old.

In his new book, "The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family," Smith argues that fatherhood in America is changing as it comes to encompass taking care of kids, as well as providing for them. And as the recession throws so many men out of work, he contends that fluid family arrangements like his own are becoming more common.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are just 159,000 stay-at-home dads in the country, but Smith suggests that those numbers undercount many fathers, including him, who have served as their children's primary caregivers by day and continued working part-time at night or in the early morning.

In his book, Smith profiles a number of "reverse-traditional families," in which mom's at the office while dad's on diaper and playground duty. Yet, Smith argues that stay-at-home dads are just the most extreme form of a broader trend in which fathers, even those with full-time, BlackBerry-tethered jobs, are getting much more involved in their kids' lives.

Recently, Smith was laid off from his job as an editor at Greater Good magazine and will now be spending more time with Liko while continuing to freelance for the magazine and look for work. I spoke with him in Salon's San Francisco office about how fatherhood isn't what it used to be, and why that's a good thing.

What surprised you the most about staying home with your then-1-year-old son?

Something that millions of mothers already know, which is that taking care of a child every day is overwhelming. The classic question that the stay-at-home parent gets is: "What do you do all day?" And the answer to that is you're paying attention, you're improvising and keeping your child occupied. That can be really tiring. It surprised me how physically and emotionally exhausting it could be.

I think the first year of my son's life, like a lot of fathers -- like most fathers -- I was really a bystander. It was my wife who gave birth, who dealt with breast-feeding, who was really his primary caregiver. And it was a shock to realize, when I became his primary caregiver, how much responsibility that was.

Did you get flak from friends or relatives about staying home?

From our friends, not at all. Nobody thought it was odd that I had become his primary caregiver. Nobody pinned a medal on my chest either.

Among our relatives, people of the older generation were very ambivalent. A female relative sent an e-mail to me and to my parents and to my wife's parents telling me how irresponsible it was that I wasn't working every day to support my wife so that she could stay at home with our son.

How have you seen the definition of what it means to be a good father change through the generations in your family?

My grandfather's attitude was very much that a good father is a breadwinner. I asked him: "What challenges did you face as a father?" And he told me, "None. Your grandmother handled that. I used to go to work every day and make money so that she would have enough. And I always used to tell her: 'You work for me.'" By the standards of his time and his social class -- he was very working-class, worked in a quarry for 40 years -- he was an excellent father and none of his children thought otherwise.

My father had a very different attitude. He didn't want to be as remote and absent as his father had been. If he wasn't at work, he was around the house and he made all my soccer practices and all my flute recitals and all of that stuff. He wanted to be an involved parent. But my parents never questioned for a moment that he would be the breadwinner and my mother would be the primary caregiver. That was always assumed.

When my wife and I became parents, we saw our roles as something to be negotiated. We never assumed that I was the natural breadwinner, and she was the natural caregiver. It was always assumed that we would both have roles in making money and in taking care of our son.

But it's not as if the older archetypes of what it means to be a good mother or a good father have just disappeared. 

The ghost of the traditional family persists even in the most non-traditional family structures. I even see it in gay and lesbian families.

It's still the case that while motherhood has changed to include careers, it's still heavily weighted toward caregiving. And while fatherhood has changed to included caregiving, it's still the case that it's weighted toward breadwinning. And how heavy that weight is depends a lot on where you are in the country, what your economic circumstances are, what's your cultural background. There's no consensus about what a good father does.

If you ask men to be judged by their caregiving as well as their breadwinning behavior, that's going to create stress for those men as they try to balance those two, just as it's always created for mothers. What we're doing is spreading the stress around a little more equitably.

What are some of the factors that have caused more fathers to take on more childcare?

The biggest one is that women went to work. In the families that I interviewed, the mom made more money than the husband, as do one-third of wives in America today.

It's that combined with rising instability in the job market. There's no such thing as lifetime male employment. That's gone. In that kind of situation, it becomes very difficult for couples to specialize.

You can't really afford a domestic specialist and a specialist who does paid work. Both partners have to be capable of doing one or the other at a moment's notice. Reverse-traditional families are an evolutionary adaptation. They're a way of surviving in a very unstable 21st century.

What effect do you think the current recession -- which by all accounts is disproportionately pushing men out of work -- is going to have on this trend?

Yes, 80 percent of the layoffs have been male, and traditionally male industries are getting hit hard. That means that a lot of fathers are getting thrown into roles at home.

This happened during the Great Depression. Female employment rose during the Great Depression, a lot of mothers went to work. Then World War II happened and then men went off to war and Rosie the Riveter went to work. Then the men came home and many of those women were asked to leave their jobs, which lit a fuse of resentment, which burned right through the Eisenhower years and exploded with the second-wave feminist movement.

We've seen these trends building for decades: rising rates of female employment, rising female incomes, rising rates of male caregiving, rising rates of men doing housework, slowly but steadily rising. We're going into this recession with a very different set of gender relationships than existed in, say, the 1930s when my grandfather was a teenager.

I interviewed several families for my book where the father had been laid off and the mother had become the primary breadwinner, and there had been a lot of conflict in the family about that. But as time went on, he was happy being a stay-at-home dad, and she was happy with what she'd accomplished on her job.

But initially, it's hard on families when they're thrown into different roles?

Even when couples voluntarily take this on, the wives often experience more ambivalence than they expected. And the fathers experience a lot more stress than they expected. So if it's involuntary, you can just turn that up to 11.

Why do you think the number of families with fathers as primary caregivers are actually undercounted?

In my neighborhood in San Francisco, at first I saw only moms on the playground. But over time I realized there were lots of dads, everywhere in my neighborhood, and we all worked.

The Census Bureau would not have classified any of us as stay-at-home dads. We all did a little bit -- I freelanced as a writer, one guy was a contract archaeologist, one guy was a private chef who worked a couple of nights a week, cooking for K.D. Lang's entourage when she came into town.

There was some degree of paid work, but we were the primary caregivers of our children. We were the ones who were in the neighborhood every single day, taking our kids to classes, going to the playground and just taking care of them.

And our wives had regular 9-to-5 jobs. So for that reason, the Census pretty dramatically undercounts the number of stay-at-home dads. Also, a third of working-class couples actually split shifts. They can't afford childcare, so they'll just work complementary shifts.

Do you think that the traditional breadwinning image of a dad makes caregiving fathers invisible? Is it hard for us to recognize what they're doing as caregiving?

Exactly. I talked to an African-American pediatrician in Bayview, which, for those who don't live in San Francisco, is a predominantly African-American neighborhood, because I was looking for stay-at-home dads to interview.

And she said, "You know, I don't have any stay-at-home dads in my office. All I see are good old-fashioned unemployed dads." After we had talked about it for a while, she realized what a jerk she had been when she said that, because she couldn't see these fathers taking their children to the doctor as evidence of caring fatherhood. She could only see that as evidence of their failure as providers.

When you hear about groups that are pushing for social policies related to families, they're things like Moms Rising, which is mother-focused.

That's exactly true, and that creates a feedback loop. A lot of dads look at that, and they feel like they can't relate. They're not going to join.

I would like to say that there's this revolutionary movement of fathers who are going to take back fatherhood and change the face of public policy. But social change happens in stages, and I think where we're at is in the consciousness-raising stage.

To the extent there is a movement, it's more like a literary movement than it is a social movement. You see fathers starting their own blogs, you see fathers writing books, you see fathers talking about the first times that they held their children, or fed their children, or about their struggles as caregivers.

The logical way to close off this stage is to begin asking ourselves: How can we get public policies that will support our role as caregivers? How can we get paternity leave, which only one in 10 men have access to? How can we get flextime?

But today becoming a parent is seen as a choice. Do you think that fact will work against policies that specifically support parents? Every time we write about maternity or paternity leave at Salon, we hear from people who say: "I'm childless by choice. Why should parents get any special treatment? They've chosen to do this." How do you respond to that?

And that's on a liberal Web site.

I think the root of the problem here is not parenthood. The root of the problem here is that we as a society do not recognize caregiving as a legitimate stage in every human life, not just for children, but also for elders, or sick or disabled spouses.

I believe that we as a society, in our workplaces, government and public policies, need to acknowledge that people are not robots, and that taking care of each other is critical for the sake of our humanity. But it's also critical economically. The "invisible heart," as the economist Nancy Folbre calls the caregiving sector, has a huge economic impact. And we need to recognize its importance.

You touched on the phenomenon of daddy bloggers, of which you are one, and I noticed that on Slate's women's site, Double X, Hannah Rosin complained that when dads find their voices online they "sound just like moms." What was your reaction to that?

First of all, I don't think that's actually true. I think that if you look at a blog like Mike Adamick's Cry It Out or Brian Reed's Rebel Dad or Rice Daddies or MetroDad, they do not sound like mothers.

Stay-at-home fathers have many of the same preoccupations as mothers. They're trying to get through their day, and juggle a hundred different things, and still have time for themselves and somehow keep their sanity. But there's a different voice. For one thing, I think dads are a lot more likely to joke about it, sometimes ferociously.

Do you think that underlying the idea that you guys sound just like moms is a sentiment that taking care of kids instead of working outside the home is emasculating?

Hannah Rosin's full blog entry says that taking care of kids makes men more effeminate and less sexy to her. All I can say is: A lot of parents don't feel that way. That, to me, reveals a lot more about her hang-ups than it does about actual reverse-traditional families.

What policies do you think would do the most to support fathers as they assume more childcare responsibilities?

The No. 1 policy for fathers has got to be paid parental leave. Every country in the industrialized world has paid parental leave -- in many cases, for up to a year -- and it's often gender-neutral. It is just absolutely critical that we get something like that here in the United States.

And we need better childcare policies. Right now the cap for a deduction for childcare expenses is miserably low. That's got to be raised.

In countries where men do broadly have access to parental leave, do they take it?

Yeah, they take it, but even Sweden, which has the highest rates of male caregiving in the world, and what I'd consider to be the best family policies, is still not an egalitarian utopia. Women are still more likely to take advantage of leave policies than men. But the important thing is that way more men in Sweden are taking advantage of those policies than did 10 years ago or 20 years ago. When you're talking about gender and families, the changes are not going to happen overnight.

What kind of research is there about children who have fathers who are very involved in bringing them up?

There's not very much because stay-at-home fatherhood is still pretty new. Researchers have not been able to design longitudinal studies to really follow their development over a long term.

But there's been some research. The Yale psychiatrist Kyle Pruett took a look at children who have been raised by stay-at-home dads when they were about 11 or 12 years old. He discovered that developmentally -- big surprise! -- they were the same as everybody else's children.

He noticed one difference. As they were approaching adolescence the girls were not very hung up on acting like girls, and the boys, comparatively speaking, were not very hung up on acting like boys. They were just much more comfortable with more flexible gender roles.

There's also a very interesting study by a psychologist named Robert Frank, where he compared traditional to reverse-traditional families. What he discovered was that in the traditional families, there was a high level of mother involvement and a relatively low level of father involvement. But in the reverse-traditional families there was a high level of father involvement and a high level of mother involvement from the breadwinning moms.

What evidence is there that fathers in general are doing more childcare, even when they are the breadwinner?

Studies pretty consistently show that male caregiving and male housework has been increasing steadily over the years. These are all time-use studies where psychologists or sociologists gave them forms to fill out hour-by-hour about what they're doing right now. The trend overwhelmingly has been for fathers to do more housework and childcare. That's true across a dozen studies that I know of off the top of my head.

What do you think are the biggest myths about stay-at-home fathers?

That reverse-traditional families are all cut from the same cloth, and that in every case, they're white, middle-class. He has a ponytail and wears Birkenstocks and she's this high-powered Hillary Clinton-like wife. Alternatively, that stay-at-home dads are all a bunch of moochers who can't hold down a job. Initially, I thought that stay-at-home dads were a luxury of the affluent, and I was dead wrong, as I explored the research.

You can find reverse-traditional families in every income group. They're actually disproportionately concentrated closer to the bottom. You find them in every racial group, you find them all over the country, and you even find them in every religious community.

A lot of people assume that Latino dads and black dads are too macho to keep the house clean and to take care of the kids. Again, empirically, the research tells us that is dead wrong. In fact, black and Latino husbands tend to do a lot more childcare and housework than their white counterparts, and oftentimes that's in the context of splitting shifts.

Do you think that as fathers do more childcare it will help moms who do the same get more respect?

Yeah. I absolutely believe that. There's a certain kind of feminist out there in the world -- and I'm thinking especially of you, Linda Hirshman -- who really denigrates caregiving. They really denigrate taking care of children, elders or of anybody. Any sort of altruistic caregiving is not worthy of an ambitious, intelligent, educated person. And I just do not believe that.

Taking care of my son broadened my life. It strengthened me, and it's something I'll never forget. For me it wasn't a career, and for most people it's not a career. Eighty percent of mothers work. But it gave me something that I'm going to take with me for the rest of my life.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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