Read this before your first Father’s Day
The Daddy Shift: Part I
When I was ten months old, my father took two months off his job in the Foreign Service to stay home with me and my older sister, Agnes. He had already taken three months leave when Agnes, his first child, was born. He was taking advantage of the paid paternity leave that was offered to him as a Swedish citizen. It was the 1980’s, and paternity leave was a relative novelty. So novel that my career diplomat dad’s experience garnered enough interest for a book, “A Dad’s Diary,” which chronicles his time at home with Agnes.
In “The Daddy Shift, How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family,” which came out on Father’s Day from Beacon Press, Jeremy Adam Smith writes about his own experience staying home with his son Liko, but he goes beyond the awed, often naïve, wonder that characterizes my dad’s book, and instead offers genuine, practical insights into the current parenting landscape in America. Smith has identified a change in how contemporary families are structured. He defines the “Daddy Shift” of his title as follows: “the gradual movement away from a definition of fatherhood as pure breadwinning to one that encompasses capacities for both breadwinning and caregiving.” If you believe Smith, and he makes a very believable case, the next generation of American dads have significantly different values, and different practices, from their own Baby Boom fathers.
Based on my own research into the desires and expectations of Generation Y when it comes to work and family, I would venture to say that Smith is right. Most of the Gen Y men I have spoken to expressed an earnest desire to be there for the children in a hands-on way, a way that often differed from the way their own fathers were there for them. Most said they would like to take paternity leave to stay home with their young children for a period of time. The problem that these Gen Y parents-to-be will face, which Smith ruefully points out, is that the government and the business world have not caught up to the changing views of the people that fuel them. “Men are evolving, but society, business, and government still drag their collective feet.”
For starters, new American fathers don’t even have the option that my Swedish father had already back in the 1980’s. The United States is the only industrial nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave of any sort— we’re in the company of Papa New Guinea, Liberia and Swaziland. Smith writes,
“One 2000 survey of mothers and fathers found that 78 percent of new parents did not take leave because they didn’t feel able to afford the pay cut that usually comes with it. Forty-three percent said leave would hurt their prospects for promotion; 32 percent claimed they’d lose their job if they took leave; 21 percent said their employer denied their request.”
Which leads me to the most salient point Smith makes (among a sea of salient points): young men lack role models for ways of fathering that better match the care giving desires that they increasingly possess. Smith wants to remedy this. In his charming, highly readable, broadly accessible voice, Smith not only offers up his own experiences as an example, but also chronicles the choices of several other so-called “reverse-traditional” families (where the father stays home while the mother works). His goal is an admirable one: “I have tried to write the book that I wish someone had given me before I became a father. I have tried to write a book that can help thoughtful new parents see the social context in which they make their decision, in hopes that they can make each one more confidently.”
My colleague Liz Kofman and I had the opportunity to pick Smith’s brain about fatherhood in our new brave century. Here is what he said:
What are the benefits of shared parenting?
Smith: The benefits are different for women and men and children. Women get a chance to do things besides change diapers. Men learn how to be whole human beings. Children, the young ones, learn that they can survive without mommy; they gain independence, and they discover how much dad loves them.
What are the drawbacks of shared parenting?
S: That varies from couple to couple, I’d say. But mainly, for most, the drawbacks are inner conflict and confusion. Men and women are living their lives according to scripts that are hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old, scripts that are not terribly relevant to our twenty-first-century reality. Women worry that they are being bad mothers when they go off to work; dads worry that they are bad fathers when they don’t. Some moms feel responsible–sometimes in overcompensating, overbearing ways–for kids and housework, and blame caregiving dads when something seems to go wrong at home.
But I discovered, in examining my own experience and in interviewing parents around the country, that these drawbacks can be overcome. The happiest couples I interviewed were the ones who prize time with kids and are able to articulate what they are gaining through a reverse-traditional arrangement. They value work and care equally, and are grateful to each other for the contributions each makes to the household, and so they value each other.
What needs to change in our society for shared parenting to really take hold?
Smith: So much. We have very far to go. For dads, the most important thing we can do right now is tell stories; it’s very powerful for men to tell and hear stories about the first time they held or fed their children. That helps create a culture of care and a new image of the good father. For decades, fathers have been told they’re worthless, or violent, or absent. It’s time to provide the positive examples, to reflect what’s best in fatherhood back to men and boys.
What’s interesting about the United States is that the culture is changing in advance of public and workplace policies. Sweden, by contrast, has tried to legislate shared parenting into existence, with some success. But in America, employers and government have fought shared parenting tooth and nail. For example, only a tenth of fathers have access to paternity leave. Only California guarantees paid leave to parents, and it’s pretty paltry. Caregiving activities, such as the ability to take a sick child to the doctor, are not protected as well as they should be.
And yet American parents have been very resilient and creative, and have forged new roles for themselves. Fatherhood has evolved beyond breadwinning, to encompass a capacity for caregiving. That revolution has just started, but the evidence suggests that it will continue. Now public policy needs to catch up. We need to recognize that moms and dads alike have responsibilities at home as well as at work. That recognition will make America a better, more humane place.
We would really like to know what advice you have for people in their 20s, just starting out in the working world, many of us without families yet.
Smith: When I was in my 20s, I assumed, like almost everyone I knew, that I would never become a parent. But then in my 30s, I became a parent–which was statistically very likely. Most people ultimately become parents. I would advise twentysomethings, girls and guys alike, to start thinking now about what role you most want to play if you start a family–and articulate that, when the time comes. Because if what you say to your spouse or partner is just some line of bullshit, then it will later bite you in the ass. You can’t fake parenthood. If you want to focus on your career, say that. If you want to take time with the kids, say that. If you don’t want to support your spouse– if a dual-income family is what you envision—say that. Don’t tell your loved one what you think he or she wants to hear. Tell the truth.
Jeremy Adam Smith, I salute thee! After interviewing over one hundred Gen Y:ers, I’ve witnessed enough confusion, contradiction and frustration to know that a book like this, and a role model like Smith, is just what men of my generation are clamoring for. The question is: will they read it? I’m afraid the answer is no. Young people shy away from anything that seems suspiciously policy-preachy, especially if it has to do with gender roles. Though “The Daddy Shift” is emphatically not that, I fear the title may be a deterrent to the average reader who is, incidentally, the very person who needs the book the most.
(Come back Wednesday for more from our conversation with Jeremy Adam Smith.)