Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.
Another Father's Day has passed, with gifts and tributes and reflections on the role of the modern father. Fatherhood is at a crossroads. Millions of dads are involved in hands-on parenting as never before; millions more are absent or nearly absent from their children's lives. Some argue that fathers should reclaim their traditional roles; others say they should embrace new ones. But there are many ways to be a good dad -- and all kinds of fathers need more social support than they currently get.
New research released late last month shows that in nearly one in four married couples with children, the mother is now the primary breadwinner. While stay-at-home dads remain relatively rare, the past 40 years have seen a growing focus on fathers along with the expansion of women's ambitions outside the family and the feminist challenges to traditional views of gender. In the 1980s, there was much excitement about dads who changed diapers, bottle-fed babies and provided nurture as well as discipline.
While some dismissed the "new dad" as a media fad, it is now clear that the change is real. In 1965, according to time-use studies, fathers spent an average of 21/2 hours a week caring for children; that time nearly tripled by 2011 to more than seven hours. Mothers remain the primary caregivers, spending more than 13 hours a week on child care, but the gap is closing.
Are there innate differences that steer more men toward work outside the home and more women toward parenting? Perhaps. But there are also, to this day, powerful social norms that stigmatize men who are not good financial providers. Both women and men, polls show, believe that the best option for the mother of a young child is to work part time and for the father to work full time. Yet, in a recent Pew Research Center poll, about half of working mothers and fathers alike said that they would stay home if they didn't need the income. Twice as many fathers as mothers -- 46 percent to 23 percent -- said they don't get to spend enough time with their children.
Some conservatives have bemoaned the shift in family roles, claiming that the ideal of nurturing fatherhood turns dads into substitute moms and denies them a specifically masculine function. At the other end of the gender-politics spectrum, you might expect involved fathers to find support from the women's movement -- and, to some extent, they have. In 1971, Gloria Steinem wrote that "most American children suffer from too much mother and too little father." Feminist legal reformers pushed for gender-neutral child custody legislation to replace the maternal custody presumption. More recently, feminists have championed equal paternity leave.
Unfortunately, feminism's natural alliance with the "new dad" was undermined by knee-jerk solidarity with women in divorce cases. Psychologist Phyllis Chesler's 1986 book, "Mothers on Trial," which vilified fathers who would usurp the mother's role, got an admiring blurb from none other than Steinem. A decade later, the National Organization for Women passed a resolution condemning the fathers' rights movement and comparing dads who fight for their parental rights to batterers who seek to control women. Most feminists still insist that men need to be more involved in child care. But fathers cannot be treated as equal only when convenient.
Some men and women will always gravitate toward traditional roles -- and a traditional dad can certainly be a good and caring father. But the new fatherhood, too, is here to stay. Women, men and children alike need a father-friendly feminism, and a conservatism that supports diverse male and female roles as an essential aspect of individual freedom.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.