Sisterhood Blog

The New Fatherhood: Good for Everyone

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Father’s Day has just passed, but it’s always interesting to look at the ways in which parenting roles are changing.

True, I live in Greater Park Slope — a progressive neighborhood that may be unlike most other parts of the country. But it’s now common in my neighborhood to see hipsterish young dads carrying their babies in Snuglies in the middle of the day.

Things for sure have changed since I was a kid. My husband is a much more involved parent than our fathers were. In fact, coming from a Hasidic family, he had more experience with babies than I did when our first was born, and he showed me how to bathe and dress Boychik when I was still trying to figure out how to get a onesie over his head with one hand while holding him with the other.

Switching back and forth between many of the gender roles regarded as conventional has been the norm of our marriage and shared parenting. Hubs is a good cook so he does most of it. I’m better at staying on top of bills, so take care of the bookkeeping. As for many couples I know, who does what gets negotiated early on and renegotiated throughout the course of a long marriage.

Even in the world of our animal cousins, apparently, there’s more paternal interest in hanging out with baby primates than was earlier realized, according to this article about male Barbary macaques.

All of this change has, according to this recent New York Times report, left fathers feeling just as stressed by the work-family juggle as mothers do.

Perhaps answers lie in legislating change, the way our Scandinavian neighbors have, according to this article.

In Sweden:

… laws reserving at least two months of the generously paid, 13-month parental leave exclusively for fathers — a quota that could well double after the September election — have set off profound social change.

The change isn’t just benefiting individual families, but rather, society as a whole, the article explains:

Companies have come to expect employees to take leave irrespective of gender, and not to penalize fathers at promotion time. Women’s paychecks are benefiting and the shift in fathers’ roles is perceived as playing a part in lower divorce rates and increasing joint custody of children.

It’s hard for me to understand why American political and social conservatives, who claim to put “family first,” oppose the idea of legally mandated family leave. True, as the article about Sweden states:

Taxes account for 47 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 27 percent in the United States and 40 percent in the European Union overall. The public sector, famous for family-friendly perks, employs one in three workers, including half of all working women. Family benefits cost 3.3 percent of G.D.P., the highest in the world along with Denmark and France, said Willem Adema, senior economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Yet Sweden looks well balanced: at 2.1 percent and 40 percent of G.D.P., respectively, public deficit and debt levels are a fraction of those in most developed economies these days…

But isn’t the role of taxes to improve our society — by paying police, firefighters, for libraries etc. — and doesn’t the Sweden example prove that society as a whole benefits from mandated paternity leave?

A more modern, more fluid, more fair model of shared parenting is more common in this country today than ever before, but still far from the norm.

And all too often a retrograde nostalgia seems to poke up its oddly archaic head.

When leafing through this issue of the current issue of Vogue magazine, I saw this pictorial feature of actor Ewan McGregor and model Natalia Vodionova dressed and posed to look as if they were living the ideal life of rich white Americans in 1957. The story begins, “The American dream, c. 1957: two cherubic children; Dad’s a gray-suited young executive on the rise; Mom runs their fashionable new house in a bedroom community not far from Manhattan.” And all I could think was “ew, who would want to live like that today?” They look embalmed.

So, with all of the stress that the constant defining and redefining of gender roles in a modern marriage and parenthood can bring, I wouldn’t trade a moment of it to return to those airless days when there were clearer divisions as to who did what, but also far less room for women to move and to realize their own abilities.

I know my husband, who cherishes his relationships with our children, wouldn’t either. And, I suspect, if given the opportunity to experience deeply engaged parenting even as their jobs were protected, most American fathers wouldn’t either.


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