Fatherhood and equality: reconfiguring masculinities.

Author:Dowd, Nancy E.

    Work-family policy debate in the United States has focused on work and the workplace, and has presumed its primary beneficiaries are women. (1) Women's increased participation in the workplace brought the conflict between work and family sharply into view, and generated solutions geared toward assisting women. (2) An underlying assumption has been that men would change at home by taking on a fair share of family work and care, consistent with norms of equality and gender neutrality. (3) Consistent with these norms, if equality were defined as co-equal shared parenting to balance dual wage-earning, equality would generate a revolutionary shift in fatherhood.

    Recalibration toward equality, however, has not taken place. Women continue to not only do wage work but also do a "second shift" of household and family work. (4) Most men are not coequal caregivers; at best, they are secondary caregivers, at worst, uninvolved with their children. (5) "New census data on family living arrangements suggest that fewer fathers may be participating in their children's lives than in any period since the United States began keeping reliable statistics." (6) The persistence of inequality is linked to the minimal scope of the United States' work-family policy as well as ongoing employment discrimination against women despite their increased presence in the workplace. (7) Beyond the lack of supportive policy and persistent discrimination, however, is the slow pace of change at home. The dramatic change in the position of women with respect to wage work--albeit still unequal to men--has not been matched by a similar change in men's role and work at home. While the ideal of care has changed, the reality has shifted only slightly. (8) What is the reason for this asymmetric pattern? The answer, I suggest, lies in the construction of masculinities. (9) If we want to achieve a different reality of men's care, then we must reconstruct masculinities. In order to have a better father, you must have a better man.

    I argue that the primary barriers to increased child care by men--what I call "father care"--that are grounded in masculinities are: (1) the male breadwinner norm, which constructs wage work as excluding care; (2) the requirement that men avoid all things deemed feminine or associated with women, which includes care-giving; and (3) the pervasiveness of hierarchy, which translates into the lack of a norm of collaborative relationships, both between men and women, and among men. (10) In this essay, I explore each of these barriers.

    Masculinities analysis suggests that to address these barriers, the need is not only for structural support, but also for cultural change. Both of these components must be inclusive of all fathers. Cultural change that shifts the balance of child care between mothers and fathers is challenging because cultural change requires consensus about men's role in care that may or may not exist. (11) This by no means is an issue unique to the United States. Cross-cultural evidence suggests that fathers' use of available benefits, entitlements, and policies to engage in care is low. (12) To significantly change fathers' engagement in care, we must recast masculinity norms. I suggest that we must explore more precisely what affirmative elements must be present to encourage care-giving. On the basis of that analysis, I argue we should embark on a public-health approach to fostering father care. This would mean supporting a change in norms grounded in knowledge of conditions that will facilitate and encourage more care by men, as well as using what we know about risk and protective factors to support such care, and engaging in primary, secondary, and tertiary interventions. (13)

    I use vulnerability analysis to explore how this might be accomplished, by changing men's relationship to their own vulnerability as foundational to their caring for others. (14) Vulnerability analysis is grounded in the recognition that all of us are vulnerable; vulnerability is an attribute of the human condition. (15) The resources that we bring to confront our vulnerability include physical, human, and social assets; the strength of those assets is powerfully affected by state policies, laws, and institutions that affect asset building, and therefore individual resilience in the face of vulnerability. (16) The patterns of state action are therefore critical to social justice and equality. The state may foster or inhibit, or distribute equally or unequally, asset-building resources. Vulnerability analysis uncovers the patterns of state support, or lack of support, and questions whether state support, and the support of some but not others, can be justified. (17)

    Children are vulnerable because they need care. Those who provide care are vulnerable because their care may diminish their economic self-sufficiency and the ability to support their children. Dependency thus creates vulnerability both directly and derivatively. (18) The existing asymmetric pattern of care between women and men makes the vulnerability of caregivers highly gendered. (19) I suggest in this essay an additional aspect of vulnerability that is implicated in the asymmetry of care. Vulnerability is a positive characteristic of human development that is essential to care-giving. (20) I argue that it is particularly important to foster this vulnerability in men in order to surmount the cultural barriers to father care rooted in masculinities. This requires building human and social assets for men. My focus in this article is on that process, as a critical component of work-family policy in addition to efforts to challenge and reshape state responses to provide better balance between work and family for all those who provide care.

    The article unfolds as follows. First, I explore the patterns and trends of fatherhood, men, and care. Second, I use masculinities scholarship to discuss three barriers to father care: the breadwinner norm, the avoidance of doing things associated with girls and women, and the centrality of hierarchy (men over women, and men in relation to other men). Third, I evaluate the United States' current policy in light of masculinities analysis. Finally, I suggest a direction for future policy, focusing on the need for policies that promote cultural change. In particular, I suggest the need to develop foundational capability for care by supporting boys and men in developing their own healthy vulnerability. This reconfigured masculinity is essential to expanding the number of men who are significantly engaged in the care of children.


    Fatherhood trends expose the connection between fathers, work, and care. The overall pattern is modification, but persistence, of the traditional configuration of breadwinner fathers who engage in significantly less care of children than do mothers. (21) Modification is linked to an emerging ideal of a "new father" who is significantly more engaged in care, ideally coequal with the mother. (22) Men have increased their time doing unpaid family work, as well as the amount of time that they take from work for personal or family reasons. (23) In addition, there are higher numbers of stay-at-home fathers and fathers who are primary parents. (24) These increases, while important, nevertheless remain a minority trend. (25) For example, fathers constitute slightly less than twenty percent of the caregivers for preschool children, a smaller percentage than grandparents. (26) What continues as the dominant caretaking pattern is mothers performing a significant disproportion of care work. (27) So while some fathers reflect the coequal caregiver ideal of the "new father," or are moving in that direction, most do not. Most commonly, they are secondary caregivers, although their degree of engagement can vary considerably. (28)

    The gendered nature of care and household work is apparent from virtually all data. (29) It begins with marriage or cohabitation, even without children. "Upon marriage or cohabitation, the average woman increases her household work by 4.2 hours, while the average man decreases his household work by 3.6 hours." (30) Although men do more than their fathers with respect to child care and housework, women still do a disproportionate share. (31) Not only do women do more, but they also take care of a broad range of responsibilities, as well as physical tasks. (32) As Naomi Cahn has pointed out, the gendered division of family work is supported by practices rooted in history, socialization, and individual self image; additionally, it preserves a domain of power for women. (33) The pattern of family work is the opposite of the pattern of wage work. A 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that of a sample of married parents with children under eighteen, almost twice as many fathers as mothers worked full-time, and fathers on average worked an hour longer per day than did mothers. (34) Child care was nearly the reverse: seventy-one percent of mothers provided care on a daily basis as compared to fifty-four percent of fathers, but mothers provided nearly three times the care of fathers, measured by time. (35) Men spend less time in sole charge of children, of the time that they do provide care. (36) Even when both parents are employed full time, mothers do twice the amount of housework. (37)

    The impact of children on the differentiation of family work is significant. Andrea Doucet calls the birth or adoption of children an event of "gender magnification," an event that can set or reinforce gender differentiation and asymmetrical parenting as the norm. (38) Doucet focuses on the importance of the first year of a child's life to parenting patterns. Using the concept of embodiment, Doucet examines the experience of fathers as compared to mothers during the first year of the child's life, using her empirical work with fathers. She notes how differently mothers...

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