The role of the father is changing in the 21st century household

American families face new challenges

Merdies Hayes | 6/16/2017, midnight
The American family is ever-changing. The “Modern Family,” if you will, finds fathers taking on a much more active role ...

The American family is ever-changing. The “Modern Family,” if you will, finds fathers taking on a much more active role in caring for children inside and outside of the house.

The changing role of fathers has also introduced new challenges as dads juggle the competing demands of family and work. For example, fewer dads are the family’s sole breadwinner. Years ago it was the natural family dynamic that men would be out working and women would serve as homemakers and caretakers. No so anymore. The Pew Research Center took a look last year at the changing American family and found that, among couples rearing children under age 18, about one fourth comprise families where only the father works and roughly two-thirds are in dual-earner families. If you compare this finding with similar studies conducted 45 years ago, almost half of married couples with children under age 18 were in families where only the father worked.

“Bringing home the bacon” today

The phrase “bringing home the bacon” has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. In 1965, the average father spent about 2.5 hours each day taking care of children, compared to 10 hours for the mom. Today it’s about seven hours a day for fathers who may opt to remain at home while the mother takes on the professional work day. Back then, fathers could be counted on to spend about four hours each day doing housework, but jump ahead to 2017 and that time spent has increased to seven hours on the average. In an unexpected twist, however, the Pew study found a mixed public reaction about the changing role of the father. While only a small share of people (18 percent) believed that women should return to their “traditional” roles in society, “breadwinning” is still more often seen as a father’s role as opposed to the mother’s responsibility. About four-in-10 people surveyed (41 percent) said it was more important for the father to provide family income. Only 25 percent said the same for mothers. And while about three-quarters of respondents said having more women in the workplace has made it harder for parents to rear children, a majority (67 percent) said this scenario has made it much easier for families to live comfortably.

As the share of dual-income households has increased, the roles of mothers and fathers have begun to converge. Again, we go back 50 years to find father’s time being heavily concentrated in paid work, while mothers spent far more time on housework and childcare. Over the years, however, fathers have taken on more housework and childcare duties. In fact, they’ve more than doubled the time spent doing household chores and have nearly tripled the time spent with children since the early days of the Vietnam War.

More men dream of having a family

The old image of the stoic, “strong-as-a-rock” father is also changing. Today, both moms and dads equally believe (58 percent and 57 percent respectively) that parenting is extremely important to their identity as a person. At one time, it was only girls who dreamed of marriage and children. Now more fathers are admitting that they, too, held these childhood dreams. The “rewards” of parenting was also equally split among both spouses (52 percent for moms, 54 percent for dads) in that the positive expectations of rearing children had been largely realized. And when asked if parenting is “enjoyable all of the time,” you find that dads—and not moms—had a slightly more favorable response (46 percent to 41 percent respectively). These findings suggest that today’s dad may see his parenting responsibilities as more central to their identity than did their father or grandfather.