The new face of fatherhood

What's it like to be a dad? Read the results of our first-ever survey of Canadian fathers.

Household tasks

What would you say if I told you that almost half of Canadian fathers say they are just as involved with their children as their partner is? Or that diaper-changing duties are shared equally in their home? That most believe their partners are happy with their level of involvement in child-rearing? And that most dads feel they are just as competent at parenting as their partners are?

Would you buy it?

Well that’s what nearly 1,000 dads in Canada told us in the Today’s Parent State of Fatherhood Survey.

Here are a few findings that show just how far today’s dads have moved in the direction of more equal parenting.

When we asked fathers how specific parenting tasks were divided in their households, many reported dad-mom balance. About half said they and their partners were equally responsible for feeding, diapering, preparing meals, bathing and chauffeuring kids around. Even more said playing (83%), reading to kids (67%) and supervising kids outside the home (72%) are shared in their households.

Mind you, not all reported equal shared parenting — 45% said their partner was the more involved parent. And when respondents did report that a certain task fell more to one parent, it was usually mom, especially when it came to some of the less fun aspects of raising a family, such as chores and meals. The two jobs where men had a bit of an edge were coaching, which applied to only one-third of respondents, and playing.

Statistics back this up showing that, even though more moms work outside the home and more dads are logging child care duties, compared to a generation ago, fathers still spend more time at work and mothers spend more time on “home work.”

Work

That’s true even when both parents work full-time, as data from Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Time Use shows.

Given the extra time most fathers spend in the work world (with exceptions: 2% of our sample were stay-at-home dads and another 6% were unemployed, retired or working part-time), it seems hard to expect them to put in as much time as mothers on the home front. In fact, three in 10 respondents said the common roadblocks to being with their kids were time-related: long work hours (cited by 57%), other outside commitments (39%) and frequent work-related travel (25%).

So, perhaps, when these dads say they are just as involved as their partners, they mean they’re just as involved when they’re actually home. As David Tam, a 47-year-old Edmonton securities lawyer whose wife stays home with their three kids, puts it, “When I get home, I’m on duty. That’s my two or three hours a day with my kids, and I’ve got to make the most of it.”

Then there are guys like Vancouver father of one Matt Larouche. At certain times, he is the in-charge parent of two-year-old Rowen, for the simple reason that he’s available and his partner is not. Larouche has a flexible schedule while his wife, Nat Pollock, works long hours. “So I do most of the drop-offs and pickups, and I feel that I’m contributing equally to raising Rowen,” he says. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m putting in more time than Nat, but the few times I’ve brought it up, she says, ‘Um, excuse me?’”

Involvement with kids

That’s probably what a lot of mothers would say. And, in fact, some research has found that fathers tend to rate their involvement a little more highly than their partners do.

One thing that complicates the involvement issue is that we still tend to think of parenting in terms of the sorts of things mothers do, says Kerry Daly, a sociologist at the University of Guelph who has studied both father involvement and family-time issues. “Even though we know that a lot of fathers are very involved and that some couples try to work things so that they are interchangeable, our standard of good parenting is still mother-centric,” says Daly. “When mothers and fathers tally up parenting work, they may have differing perceptions about what counts.”

Parent educator Brian Russell, who runs programs for fathers at Toronto’s LAMP Early Years Services, agrees: “I think fathers see it in terms of time spent together, including things like playing or just talking with their child. Mothers may focus a little more on things like feeding, diapering and other practical aspects of caring for children.”

It’s not that mothers never play with their kids — nor that fathers never think about whether it’s time for Ava’s nap. But for mothers, Daly says, measuring involvement is not just about being with their children or time spent on various tasks, but also the time and mental energy they put into keeping track. “Mothers still do most of the orchestrating of family activities,” he says. “That’s the invisible part of parent involvement that you can’t measure in time-use studies.”

Nat Pollock fulfills the planner role in her family — even though less than a year after her one-year maternity leave, she is working long and varying hours as a surgical resident. “Matt spends a lot of time with Rowen now, but I’m still the one who says, ‘She needs a bath tonight’ or ‘It’s time for her 18-month shots,’” she says.

The fathers in our survey understand this imbalance. Two-thirds said their partner was the one who “kept track” of schedules and appointments. In families with babies and toddlers, the proportion was even higher — about three-quarters.

Interviews with both fathers and mothers offered some glimpses as to how this “keeping track” function may be related to other differences in the ways moms and dads think about parenting. Darryl Damude, a father of one from Ottawa, noted, “Today’s fathers are more involved. They make it a choice.”

The word choice is interesting there. How many mothers would say they made a choice to play an active role in their kids’ lives? In contrast, Damude’s wife, Janice, says, “To me, it wasn’t a choice. It was just something I did. Men have to think more about becoming involved with children.”

“Mothers get a nine-month head start,” says Pollock. “I remember Matt saying he didn’t truly feel like a father until Rowen was born.” But pregnancy gives moms lots of little tummy kicks and other physical reminders that make impending motherhood feel very real. “Mothers are hard at it from day one, but there’s more of an adjustment period for fathers,” says Pollock. “The fact that I took a one-year maternity leave made a difference too.”

But in the end, Pollock is not so interested in bean counting the exact level of equality in her and Matt’s contributions. “It’s simplistic to try to put a number on it,” she says. “The important thing is that we’re both contributing and making Rowen our focus in the time we have with her.”

Regardless of the exact state of balance on the dad-mom parenting scale, perhaps the most interesting finding from our survey is that greater parenting equality, which has often been billed as good (that is, fairer) for mothers, seems to be good for fathers too.

Men who rated themselves as equally involved were less likely (15% vs. 25%) to say their relationship with their partner had worsened since having kids, a dynamic that has been documented in numerous studies. Fathers who report balanced parenting also feel more competent, more satisfied with their level of involvement, and less likely to say their partner wants them to do more. They are even less likely to say parenthood resulted in sacrifices in personal time or time with their spouse.

So what can we conclude about the current and future state of fatherhood? Clearly, the “hands-on” dad mentality is well entrenched in Canadian dads. “I think fathers are saying that they see their role as being active and engaged parents,” says Russell, “and they want strong relationships with their kids.”

And those father-child relationships are probably the biggest benefit of all for fathers. When asked what was the best part of being a father, most men’s statements started with action words: “watching my children grow into individuals,” “seeing her smile when I pick her up from daycare,” “sharing time together.” In other words, these men find huge personal value in simply being part of their child’s life.

“I think fathers of past generations really missed out if they weren’t part of their children’s day-to-day lives,” says Larouche. “I got to see Rowen’s first step, hear her first words. I don’t know if she’s going to turn out any different because of my involvement, but it just makes me happy to be part of those milestones.”

Single and divorced fathers

Not all fathers who responded to our survey were parenting with a female partner. Seven percent were divorced or separated, three percent listed themselves as single fathers, and a few were gay. These men were, obviously, not dealing with the parenting division of labour we looked at in depth. But we do have some interesting findings about single and divorced/separated fathers.

For example, despite all we hear about parental alienation and other problems of warring ex-spouses, three-quarters of our divorced respondents said their ex was very (46%) or somewhat (29%) supportive of their relationships with their children. That’s good news. Intriguingly, divorced fathers were about half as likely as single or couple dads to say their own father was their main role model, and more than twice as likely to say they learned parenting on their own. And — no surprise — they were much more likely to express dissatisfaction with their level of involvement in parenting.

For their part, single dads were much more likely than both divorced and couple fathers to give themselves five out of five on competence, and much more likely to say that the parenting skills of dealing with crying and getting kids to sleep came relatively easily to them.

About our survey

We had 983 fathers respond to our online survey. More than three-quarters were age 35 or over, and 30% of them had teenagers (less than one in five had kids under one), making the average age in our sample a little older than the average Today’s Parent reader. Most of the respondents (59%) were from Ontario, followed by BC (13%), Alberta (12%), Atlantic Canada (5%) and the Prairies (4%).

Thoughts on fatherhood

Are you as involved with your kids as you’d like to be?
yes 71%; no 29%

How would you compare your skill/competence to your partner’s?
equal 70%; less 21%

Who is more involved with the children, you or your partner?
equal 46%; partner 45%

Are you more involved than your own father was?
more 75%; same 17%; less 5%; no dad 4%

How does your partner feel about your involvement with the children?
satisfied 72%; not 26%

Dad on duty

Laundry
Dad 10%; partner 57 %; shared 31 %

Meals
Dad 8%; partner 45%; shared 45%

Buying toys and clothes
Dad 2%; partner 49%; shared 48%

Getting kids ready in the morning
Dad 11%; partner 42%; shared 40%

Mom’s day, Dad’s day

Hours a day spent on tasks for moms and dads aged 25–44 in families with both parents employed full-time:

Moms

Direct child care 1.5
Unpaid work 3.3
Paid work 5.6
Total 10.5

Dads

Direct child care 1.0
Unpaid work 2.1
Paid work 7.4
Total 10.6

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