Today's dads help out more than previous generations. Is it actually enough?

Modern fatherhood is more involved than previous generations but research might not show the full picture

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published July 7, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Father packing daughters backpacks for school (Getty Images/MoMo Productions)
Father packing daughters backpacks for school (Getty Images/MoMo Productions)

An absent mother is often depicted as an unfathomable tragedy. An absent father though, is easily, and frequently, normalized. 

The difference in how the public views parental involvement based on gender contributes to headlines celebrating how today’s generation of dads are supposedly more involved than ever before. Over the last decade, multiple studies have stated that Millennial and Gen Z dads spend more time with their kids than previous generations. This is research worth highlighting, as studies continue to report that children benefit from more involved dads.

At the same time, studies continue to show that family responsibilities still fall more on mothers and that mothers are stressed. What’s going on?

According to a 2023 study by the Institute for Family Studies, fathers in the U.S. spend an average of 7.8 hours per week taking care of their children at home, an increase of one hour per week in just about two decades. Taking a deeper look, the researchers found that college-educated fathers with children under age 18 spent an average of 10 hours and 12 minutes a week on childcare, which was more than 2 hours a week since 2003. 

“That’s a big jump and it's encouraging news,” Dr. Wendy Wang, the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, told Salon. “But on the other hand, you break it down by father's education and other characteristics, and you find out it's not all fathers are experiencing this increase in their time as their children.” 

"Even though fathers have become more involved with spending more time, mothers do a lot more."

Indeed, for dads without a college degree, time spent on childcare declined from 6.2 hours a week in 2003 to 5.9 hours a week. Marital status affects time spent with children as well. The study found that only half of the never-married fathers see their children at least once a day. But Wang added that more time college-educated, married fathers spend with their children doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s less responsibility placed on mothers. 

“If you compare mother’s childcare time and father's childcare time, even though fathers have become more involved with spending more time, mothers do a lot more,” Wang said. “But I think with more fathers, they're being involved, hopefully, that will lighten up some of the burdens from mothers.”

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Eve Rodsky, author of the book "Fair Play," told Salon that studies examining the time fathers spend with their children today usually fail to capture the reality of the situation for a multitude of reasons. One being that the time parents spend with children has gone up for both women and men. Indeed, one study found that today’s generation of moms spend nearly twice as much time with their kids compared to moms 50 years ago.

“Everybody's percentage of having to intensively parent has gone up,” Rodsky told Salon. “There’s no inherent difference in this generation of men.”

Rodsky added it’s also an issue of relative statistics and absolute statistics. Frequently, she added, studies claiming that fathers are spending more time with their children children are based on data that’s self-reported. The way questions are asked matter too, she further elaborated. It’s not so much who is in charge of childcare, or the time spent with a child, but the questions to ask should be centered around the cognitive labor of a task. In other words, the mental load. 

Rodsky said these studies stating that fathers today are spending more time with their kids can sometimes be helpful, but most times they are harmful. 

“Men will say, 'What do you have to complain about? I'm so much better than my dad,'” she said. “We're not looking at that type of comparison. We're looking at, well, I have to do much more than my mom, right? We want equal partnerships.”

Rodsky said women want their male spouses to handle the “conception and planning” of cognitive labor. To take ownership of a task from start to finish. “We need people who are willing to handle the conception and planning, to take over the cognitive labor, the ownership of a task from start to finish,” she said. “Until then, women will not have any relief from the mental load or from this unpaid labor challenge that we're in right now.”

Rodsky said early in her research for "Fair Play," she did a word cloud study for women on words they associated with childcare and housework when married. The two most used words were “overwhelmed” and “boredom.” 

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“Nobody wants to be overwhelmed and bored, so I think that was the biggest concern for me, because this is a higher educated population of women, and so there is that boredom in the remoteness of the unpaid labor tasks,” she said. “But on top of it, it's still extremely overwhelming because of these cognitive labor demands.” 

For future research on parenting and gender roles, and to get a better grasp on what’s happening in America, Rodsky said there needs to be a deeper understanding of cognitive labor.

“I think it's important to understand the difference between cognitive labor and execution,” she said.  “The more that we get people to understand, and for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to understand, and for Department of Labor to understand, and for anybody who does time use to understand: that there's a difference between execution and cognitive labor, then I believe we're going to be in a much better place for how people report how men are doing more.”

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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