New Dads Reflect Generational Shift in Parenting Role

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A large number of new fathers report having managers who are supportive about work/family issues, possibly reflecting a generational shift in the attitudes of low- to mid-level managers who can empathize with the challenge of balancing work and family. Often, though, any workplace flexibility fathers enjoy is handled informally with their managers.

Those were among the findings of a study on “The New Dad” from the Boston College Center for Work & Family discussed during a Nov. 16, 2010, webcast, “Men: Forging a New Path in Work and Life.”

The study was conducted with 33 married men in the U.S. who were college educated, were a median age of 33, had at least five years professional experience, were in heterosexual relationships and were first-time fathers with a child ranging from 3 months to 18 months old.

The new path men are forging appears to reflect a change in working families, where 75 percent of married couples with children under the age of 15 are dual-career couples, according to 2008 findings from the U.S. Census. Additionally, women dominate 12 of the 15 job areas that are seen as high-growth in the coming decade.

But the study reflects a change in attitude among men for a role that goes beyond the stereotypical one of breadwinner.

“Young fathers we spoke to were embracing new norms of fatherhood,” said professor Brad Harrington, the center’s executive director, during the webcast.

In 2008, fathers with children under age 13 were spending 50 percent more time with them since 1977; the time mothers spent remained the same. Harrington pointed to the example of one man in the study who dresses his daughter in the morning while his wife handles other chores; then he helps feed the child at dinner, plays with her in the evening and puts her to bed.

Conflicts, Contrasts

Parenthood did not come with any real negatives on the work front, new fathers found, and their parental status elevated how people at work perceived them—as more mature, capable and promotable. That might be, Harrington suggested, because the assumption likely remains that a baby will not negatively impact a father’s work or prompt him to make work-related compromises, as is often assumed about a woman when she becomes a mother.

There are other striking workplace-related contrasts between new mothers and fathers, he noted during the webcast.

Mothers, for example, took two to six months leave from work after giving birth, while most men in the study took five to 10 days off after their child was born. And while all new mothers negotiated some form of formal flexible work arrangement, only one of the fathers had made a formal flextime request.

Fathers do feel significantly greater work/life conflict than mothers. Harrington cited findings from the 2009 National Study of the Changing Workforce (NSCW) that found that 35 percent of men with children under the age of 18 reported work/life conflict in 1977; in 2008 it had risen to 59 percent. The level of work/life conflict among employed women had not changed significantly over the past three decades.

This doesn’t suggest men have more conflict than women, Harrington said, but perhaps “that men are far less experienced in dealing with those conflicts than women. I think this might be much newer for men … and they might feel this more keenly.”

Although not mentioned during the webcast, the NSCW study found that factors predicting work/life conflict among fathers included a lack of autonomy at work, being part of a dual-earner couple, high levels of job pressure and lack of support from one’s supervisor.

Most fathers, though, said they were aiming for a 50/50 split with their spouses for their children’s caregiving, but it’s a struggle.

“This [Millennial] generation doesn’t have a preceding generation to look at and say ‘we can model our lives the way our parents did.’ Almost all of the men in the study had mothers who were career professionals, but almost all of them had mothers who had fairly long, interrupted careers during the time their children were young.”