andrew yarrow, a former New York Times reporter and affiliate faculty member at George Mason University, is the author of Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.
Published August 11, 2020
It’s hard to discern a silver lining in the Covid-19 crisis, but let me give it a shot. The social distancing demanded by the virus has fundamentally changed the dynamic of families with children living at home — and has created a grand experiment in father-child relationships. Will increased paternal caregiving and involvement have a lasting effect on behavior and attitudes, or will it melt away with the pandemic?
In the olden days — that is, before mid-March — a small, but growing number of fathers in America were stay-at-home dads, whether because they wished to be or lacked other employment opportunities. Moreover, there’s some evidence that the ranks of fathers who take a truly equal role in child-rearing has been increasing, albeit slowly. Now millions more are, thanks to the pandemic. They are distracting their toddlers at bath time with rubber duckies, introducing Dr. Seuss to their kindergartners and trying to remember what a logarithm is so they can help their 10th graders with homework.
According to a new survey by Promundo, a non-profit dedicated to advancing gender equality, the numbers suggest the shift is pretty impressive. Nearly two-thirds of men who were forced to stay home by the pandemic — whether because they are teleworking or have been laid off or furloughed — say that they are spending at least two hours more time caring for their children and homes. Yes, women still spend more time than men, and mothers’ proportion of time devoted to childcare hasn’t changed, but the fact that men are spending more time in absolute terms does show that fathers can take greater responsibility for their children.
Not everyone is popping the champagne corks. Naomi Cahn of George Washington University is cautious: “Although I hope the pandemic results in fathers increasing the time they spend on childcare once we are on the other side of this, it’s worth noting that research shows men often overestimate how much time they are engaged with their children.” More important, forced proximity is almost certain to mean more instances of family violence — in particular, men harming spouses and children.
But that is hardly the norm. And one need not be a Pollyanna to believe that a positive outcome, albeit with bumps on the road, is far more common. With schools closed, limits on socializing being enforced in many states and summer jobs for teenagers as scarce as kind words for Anthony Fauci from the White House, parents are on the front lines 24/7. “I’m doing things I never had to do before like putting him to sleep for his morning nap,” said Zach Walker, a 36-year-old Air Force major living in Austin, Texas, with his wife and 14-month-old son. “I realize this is a very special time to work from home. But in any new job, I want to put in full-time effort, so there’s zero chance I’d be doing what I do now.”
What one hopes is that the family crunch created by the pandemic leads to a convergence in which men acknowledge greater family responsibility and the law supports them.
But many fathers talk about the joy of this new intimacy as well as the trials. And, as study after study has found, children tend to benefit from having both parents involved in their lives.
This Covid-induced change should not only provide fodder for gender-equity advocates but also speak to those who recognize that our culture places less value on paternal care in the home. A Pew survey found that 39 percent of Americans think that mothers should be the preferred stay-at-home parent, whereas just 5 percent think that fathers would be better. (To be sure, the majority said it didn’t matter whether one parent was a full-time caregiver.)
Moreover, many divorced fathers believe, often with good reason, that the courts are biased against them and that they have fewer parental rights than mothers. In court, “you’re up against the stereotype that women are the primary caregivers and men are the primary breadwinners,” confirms Joseph Cordell, a founding partner of Cordell & Cordell, a law firm that specializes in advocacy for men in family disputes.
What one hopes, of course, is that the family crunch created by the pandemic leads to a convergence in which men acknowledge greater family responsibility and the law supports them. Working from home obviously helps here. But more controversial — and far more expensive policy changes — could play a decisive role in sustaining the gains after social distancing is eased. Sweden’s paid parental leave policy offers a use it-or-lose it minimum of 90 days for each parent.
By the same token (and equally hard to institute, I suspect), employers need to expand their thinking on gender, supporting men who want to take family leave rather than subtly (or not so subtly) treating such fathers as un-masculine and less devoted to their work. In these very abnormal times, let’s make this the new normal.