The Fathering Gap: Pitfalls of Modern Fatherhood

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Father’s Day, which was invented by a woman, used to be a day when the member of the family who was least often home was celebrated with a gift or card he didn’t really want, which was bought with money he probably earned. Yay. These days, with a large percentage of families having two working parents, things are a little different.

This year Father’s Day is being celebrated with the release of studies about what modern fatherhood is like. The upshot is not good news: there’s a growing “fathering gap” in America.

The “marriage gap” is already a well-documented social phenomenon: couples who are wealthier and better educated tend to marry later, and stay married longer. Couples who have less education and less professional success tend to not marry and to divorce more often. Because a fragmented family is more expensive to maintain than an intact one, they tend to then get poorer still. The married thus end up much wealthier than the unmarried and the gap between them is getting wider.

The fathering gap — a term made up for the purposes of this story — is similar. Fathers from intact families are spending more time with their kids than their own fathers did, but more and more fathers are not living with their families. So those who have dads in the home are getting more time with those dads. Thus the gap in actual fathering time between those whose fathers live with them and those whose fathers don’t is getting wider.

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And just as with the marriage gap, privilege plays a big role. Fathers who are more engaged with their children tend to be wealthier and better educated. Fewer fathers from poor families live with their kids, although they may live with some of them. So kids from better-off families tend to have more time with their dads, with all the social and developmental benefits that can often entail.

A new analysis by the Pew Research Center of data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) has found that more than a quarter (27%) of all fathers with children under the age of 19 now live apart from at least some of their children. Black fathers (44%) are more than twice as likely to live apart from their kids as white fathers (21%), while just over a third of Hispanic fathers maintain a separate abode. Similarly, 40% of fathers who didn’t finish high school are not residing with their children, a living situation shared by only 7% of fathers who graduated college.

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Like the marriage gap, the fathering gap is partly an unintended consequence of the growing education and economic clout of women. As women have had more successful careers and brought home more pay (wives now bring home an average of 44% of the household income), husbands have had to step up and share more in the joys (and chores) of parenting. “From 1985 to 2000,” says the Pew report, “the amount of time married fathers spent with their children more than doubled.” According to the most recent figures available, fathers log about 6.5 hours a week of child care. Mothers still do the lioness’s share, logging about almost 13 hours.

That daddy time has to come from somewhere, and one of the features of the fathering gap is that men now express more concern about work-life balance than women do. In 2008, 60% of men reported experiencing work-life conflict, compared with fewer than 50% of women, according to The New Dad, a study from Boston College’s Center for Work and Family. In 1975, more women (42%) than men (35%) were concerned about it.

But while women have found it hard to be taken seriously at work after they have had kids, men have found it more difficult to be taken seriously as parents. Workplaces expect them to be even more career-focused when they become dads. “In essence, contemporary fatherhood ideals are in many respects similar to what maternal ideals and expectations were 30 years ago but with the opposite challenge,” says the Boston College study. “Fathers struggling to balance career aspirations with a focus on parenting…may encounter ‘paternal walls’ not unlike the maternal walls working mothers have faced.”

That study was drawn from a survey of 963 mostly college educated men, most of whom made more than $75,000 a year, with an average of two kids. As such, of course, it presents a highly skewed view of modern fatherhood. College educated fathers are more able to spend time with their kids, not least because knowledge work is not always site-specific (look at all those daddy bloggers) and because they have an income that can pay for other household chores to be done by someone else.

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Fathers with a high school diploma or less have a tougher time getting taken seriously as an involved parent. “Working class Americans typically lack the kind of flexibility those in professional and managerial jobs take for granted,” noted Joan Williams in her 2010 book Reshaping the Work Family Debate. She analyzed 99 arbitrations in which workers had been disciplined because of actions they took — like leaving in the middle of a work day — because of a family need. Often the men didn’t even mention why they had to go for fear of being stigmatized at their workplace.

Those too are the men least likely to be going home to their kids every night. That doesn’t mean they’re never in touch, but it does make it harder. One third of fathers who live apart from their kids say they communicate with their kids less than once a month, according to Pew. A full 27% of them say they haven’t seen their offspring in more than a year.

While the shift toward more hands-on fathering is well underway — Boston College found that 53% of fathers would consider not working outside the home if they could make the numbers work — it has a ways to go yet. In fact, according to 2010 Census estimates, there are only 154,000 stay at home dads in the U.S.

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And while the trend lines point in the direction of more equally shared parenting, it’s not an equally shared equality. The wealthy and well-educated and their children are reaping the benefits of more engaged fatherhood much more than those who struggle, creating a spiral of income inequality that will be harder and harder to reverse.

Oh, and Happy Father’s Day.