It has been a quarter century since Michael Keaton starred in Mr. Mom, a film that considered the stay-at-home father a suitably ridiculous starting point for a comedy. Even a decade ago, newspapers and magazines (even this one) were running articles about fathers that seem downright patronizing today. Whenever experts were asked about the role of dads, the most common observation was something along the lines of “men play, women nurture.” Yup, that’s us fathers. Lovable goofs who can horse around with the best of them — just don’t ask us to do anything responsible.
Well, dads have grown up, and they’re taking their role more seriously than ever. Studies reveal that men are now wrestling with work-family issues that once plagued only mothers: namely, the feeling that work is interfering with their desire to spend time with their kids. The number of men taking paternity leave exploded from three percent in 2000 to more than 20 percent six years later. And while the at-home dad is hardly commonplace, he isn’t the comic fodder he used to be.
Fathers have taken on more nurturing and caring roles, and have exhibited tremendous competency,” says Kerry Daly, a sociologist and professor at the University of Guelph and co-chair of the Father Involvement Research Alliance. At the same time, some gender stereotypes have not budged much, he says. Daly’s research has looked at the ways dads and moms negotiate tasks in the home, and he’s found that while men are doing more housework and child care, they’re often directed by their partners. “Who is doing the thinking, planning, orchestrating and scheduling in the family? It’s pretty clear that women continue to do the majority of that.”
However, it’s worth noting how few studies of fatherhood evaluate fathers on their own terms. “A lot of research seems to compare fathers to mothers in terms of time spent on activities — that could be laundry, baby feeding and other domestic responsibilities,” says Judy Beglaubter, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Toronto. Beglaubter feels this may not be the best way of measuring a man’s involvement in his children’s lives, so she decided to take a different approach. She interviewed men who considered themselves “involved fathers” and then asked them why they gave themselves that label. “None of them said it was because they did the feeding or the diapering or the laundry. It was just this idea of presence, of being around, of being animated and excited about their children. A lot of them would say, ‘The way I father has a lot to do with the way I grew up. My dad was not involved, he was very authoritarian, and I didn’t want my kid to grow up that way.’ For others, it wasn’t even a conscious thing — it was more of a drive to participate, to be involved, to interact with their children.”
While it’s becoming increasingly natural for men to want to be deeply involved in their children’s lives, the demands of the workplace remain the biggest obstacle. Fathers feel increasingly squeezed by employers who expect job to come before family; yet speaking out is a career-limiting move. “Work-life initiatives are still often perceived as a women’s concern,” Daly says. “It’s difficult for men to express their interest in work-family issues because it’s often greeted with very traditional and stereotypical attitudes about men’s roles.”
There have been some gains for working fathers. For instance, fewer men are working long hours: 16.7 percent worked 49 hours or more each week in 1997, and that dropped to 13.8 percent in 2006. Overall, men are working about a half-hour less each week than they were a decade ago, while the figure for women has increased by that same amount.
The real news is the jump in the number of men taking parental leave. In 2000 — the last year before Canada changed its parental benefits program to allow fathers to share up to 35 weeks of leave with their partners — only about one in 33 men took paid leave. By 2006, that number had risen to one in five, or about 271,000 dads. If you include vacation time and unpaid leave as well, more than half of all Canadian fathers took time off work following the birth of a child. These guys aren’t just taking a week or two: The average length of a paid paternity leave in English Canada is a surprising 17 weeks.
Len Sweetland has done it twice: He took a three-month leave when his daughter Tessa was born in 2005, and another in 2008, after Emme arrived in 2007. Sweetland says his relationship with his girls has been strengthened by being at home with them. “It’s definitely a bonding time. I probably wouldn’t have had that advantage with Emme especially — with the first child, you both have your hands empty and you want to hold the child equally. With two kids, you’re playing man-to-man defence.”
Sweetland also likes the feeling of competence that he’s developed by being so hands-on. “It makes you less shy about stepping up and doing things for the kids. Not that I’ve ever shied away from changing a dirty diaper, but it’s not a big deal for me to deal with both kids now. I know some men who call their wives over for everything.”
The Oakville, Ont., father was lucky in that he had a supportive employer. Sweetland is a project manager at Hewlett-Packard, which offered men 12 weeks of parental leave at full salary (the company has recently reduced that benefit to six weeks). He recognizes that some male employees get flak over their decision to take a lengthy parental leave, but he experienced none of that.
First-time dad Bruno Tamburri of Toronto wound up his own two-month leave last fall with his daughter, Mia. His wife, Lisa, was home for the first 10 months, during which Tamburri would see Mia only for a few hours on weekdays. “So when I started spending more time with her, we really connected, and we really got to know each other better.”
Tamburri believes the weeks went smoothly because he had been involved in Mia’s care from the beginning. “When she was five weeks old, I started putting her to bed after the last feeding. I would feed her breakfast, put her down for naps, change her diapers, all of that. On the weekends, I would be the primary caregiver.” Still, both he and Lisa talked about whether he would be able to manage by himself. “But when the time came, it was easy because I had already been so hands-on.”
Tamburri’s employer, Coca-Cola, would have allowed him a full year off if he’d wanted it. That wasn’t really an option, though. “My wife wouldn’t let me,” he jokes. “I was lucky I got two months.” Indeed, moms are usually the ones who make the decision about how to apportion parental benefits. “They will say things like ‘I had to give up 10 weeks of my maternity leave for him,’” says Daly. “There is still that traditional entitlement that women have.” Daly would like to see the federal government consider a policy like the one in Quebec: Since 2006, fathers in that province get up to five weeks of paternity leave that cannot be transferred to their partner. As a result of these “Daddy Days,” more than half of all eligible fathers take advantage of the program, compared with just 11 percent in the rest of Canada.
While many more fathers are taking time off work after baby, the stay-at-home dad is still a rarity. Even where the arrangement exists in two-parent families, it’s often the result of job loss or other economic circumstances, rather than a conscious choice. That makes Robb Corbett something of a trailblazer. Two years ago, he was working in a laboratory in Calgary when his wife, Nicole, was offered a job as a respiratory therapist in Sydney, NS. The couple moved to Cape Breton with their two children, Eli, who was three at the time, and baby Sophie. “We decided that, since it was a good career opportunity for Nicole, I would just stay home with the kids.”
Two years later, Corbett loves his role, though it took time to adjust to a new routine. “I was used to getting up at 7 a.m., commuting, working nine to five, and then coming home. It took a while to get used to the schedule of running the house and taking care of the kids: You have to follow the kids’ schedule.” His other big adjustment was being the only stay-at-home dad in town — at least, that’s what it often feels like. “If I go to the playground or the mall, I’m usually the only guy with kids. It seems everyone else is either a mom or a senior citizen.”
That isolation was one of the reasons that Corbett and a friend launched a website called canadadads.com. “It was just a way of feeling a little bit connected.” So far the site has linked him with several other fathers across the country, though it’s more about community than exchanging nitty-gritty parenting tips. “No one has emailed to ask, ‘How can I get my baby to stop crying?’” Corbett admits. Then he pauses for a moment before adding: “Though I’m sure I could field that question if I had to.”
Disorder in the courts
For all the gains that fathers have made in recent years, there remains one area where the situation is still bleak: the plight of dads involved in custody disputes. “I see divorced and separated fathers who’ve been closely involved with their children as the group that is at most risk of all fathers in Canada today,” says Edward Kruk, associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Social Work and Family Studies in Vancouver.
The problem, as Kruk sees it, is the courts don’t recognize that fathers are more involved in their kids’ lives today. Most Canadians would agree that the best arrangement for children of divorced couples — except in cases of abuse — is shared parental responsibility. When couples agree on parenting arrangements after separation, that’s what they typically choose. If they end up in court, though, says Kruk, the mother usually ends up with sole custody.
Kruk believes the problem is a legal system where lawyers and judges have a financial interest in long court battles. So he and others are advocating for a system that puts children’s best interests first. “I call it shared parental responsibility, where neither the mother nor the father is removed as a custodial parent, and both continue to be involved in their children’s lives.” Saskatchewan MP Maurice Vellacott announced plans last November to introduce a private member’s bill that would amend the Divorce Act and make shared parenting the default position when marriages break down, except in cases of abuse and neglect.