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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

What Does a 2011 Father Do?

What does a father do?

I wonder how much a 10-year-old’s response to that question would differ in 2011 from what it might have been in, say, 1965. If nothing else, the sheer amount of time spent during the week with their fathers is much greater for vast numbers of 2011 children in the U.S. than usually was the case in 1965.

Surely, that alone contributes to a child’s view of what a father is and does.

More and more fathers with wives in the work force now bear responsibility for part, and even most, of their children’s ongoing daytime care during the week. In fact, the number of these fathers grew significantly this decade.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported Dec. 5 that, in 2010, some 32 percent of fathers whose wives worked “were a regular source of care for their children under age 15, up from 26 percent in 2002.”

It is noteworthy that when such couples had preschool-age children, one in five fathers actually served as the children’s “primary caregiver,” the Census Bureau said. That meant these preschool children “spent more time” in their fathers’ care than in “any other type of arrangement.”

I have to assume that today’s children are not alone in viewing a man’s role around the house differently than might have been the case several decades ago. Surely wives also would respond differently in our third millennium if asked not only what a father does, but what a husband’s role is.

If only we could go “back to the past”! I can only imagine the fascinating conversation a 33-year-old wife of 1965 and a similarly aged wife of 2011 could have about husbands and fathers, and their responsibilities around the house.

But it is not just that many men now fulfill certain roles at home during the day that only wives tended to fulfill in 1965. It is more complicated than that. After all, many dads today not only provide regular child care, but also maintain a continued presence in the work force to a greater or lesser degree, often enough by working from inside the house.

Thus, for example, no one should be surprised if a 2011 child’s description of what a father does includes a reference to his computer expertise and his range of cyberspace connections to the outside world. Many children now pay a visit to their fathers’ offices without leaving home.

Thirty and 40 years ago, the changing roles of women and men at home and in the workplace were a hot topic. It was difficult then to anticipate precisely where things were headed. Certainly, few predicted that family life in 2011 would include enough stay-at-home dads that the phenomenon no longer would be considered unusual.

Today, family-life and marriage analysts continue to accent the changing, confusing and sometimes worrisome features of married life and parenthood. Even now, no one fully understands where things are headed.

For couples and those who counsel them, however, certain realities surrounding the question I began with have come into sharper view: What does a father do?

The Census Bureau pointed out several reasons fathers seem to be more available in our times to provide child care while their wives are in the workplace. One factor might be the recent recession, which meant lost jobs and reduced work hours for many.

Lynda Laughlin, a Census Bureau family demographer, said that “a recession may force families to adjust their child-care arrangements.” She explained how a recession “can trigger unemployment or changes in work hours, thus increasing the availability of fathers to provide child care.”

In addition, however, a recession can influence household patterns by reducing what a couple is able to pay others for child care, Laughlin said. In other words, finding ways for a family member to provide child care can become an essential cost control measure during a recession.

The Census Bureau clarified the high cost of child care. It said that “of the 21 million mothers who were employed in the spring of 2010, one-third reported they paid for child care for at least one of their children.”

The bureau noted that families across America “with an employed mother and children younger than 15 paid an average of $138 per week for child care in 2010, up from $81 in 1985 (in constant 2010 dollars).”

The bottom line is that in 2011, more and more fathers are at home during part or all of their wives’ hours in the work force. The good news, reported last June by the Center for Work and Family at Jesuit-run Boston College, may be that many fathers today really “want to share equally in the duties of raising their children.”

This desire may yield a sense of conflict for a father in the work force because his employer does not understand it or has not implemented measures to accommodate more work done from home. Whatever the case, the Boston College center underlined its basic finding that the “new dad” is committed when it comes to sharing in the care of children at home.

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.