Whether you look at their historic role as breadwinner or their emerging one as hands-on parent, fathers deserve more support. We tend to read more about how the pressures of career and caregiving weigh on women – and that’s a problem that certainly cannot be overstated. But our society isn’t just badly designed for mothering. It is badly designed for parenting. This isn’t good for families, employers or the economy. The best Father’s Day gift we can give Dad is recognition of what he needs to succeed in the most important job he’ll ever do.
Today’s dads are far more likely to change diapers or help a child with homework than their own fathers were. Though mothers still bear a disproportionate amount of caregiving responsibility, the gap is closing. Parents in general face workplace challenges. Last year only 39 percent of American workers had access to unpaid leave to tend to family responsibilities, with fathers slightly less likely than mothers to qualify for leave. Needless to say, unpaid leave is not an option for the many families who struggle to meet basic needs in an economy where wages have been flat for decades.
When we talk about work/life balance, we are really talking about middle- and upper-class families. Nearly one-third of low-income workers are on the job between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. or on weekends – hours when childcare centers are closed and when public transportation is difficult to access. Unpaid leave is, of course, out of the question for them. The Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator is an illuminating tool. You can type in your own community and will almost certainly see that on minimum wage – and in some cases much more than that – it takes two workers to keep a family fed and sheltered.
Paid family leave benefits families of all income levels and can also help employers. California instituted partial salary family leave in 2004. A Harvard Business School study of the program found that it was a “non-event” for employers, who bear no cost, as leave is funded by payroll deduction. Small businesses, which naysayers said would be hurt or even forced to close under paid family leave, were most likely to report positive outcomes, such as improved morale and productivity.
We really can’t talk about family caregiving responsibilities without talking about wages. Higher wages, even if they come with demanding jobs, mean freedom to take unpaid time off, to hire someone reliable to ferry a child to soccer practice and put a load of laundry in the machine, to order takeout on a busy day, and on and on. Being a parent is an unrelenting job, no matter what your bank account looks like. But if you have some disposable income, you can buy time or help or convenience.
Though most mothers work to support their children – alone or with a partner – fathers can still be seen as the “breadwinner.” Sometimes that works to men’s advantage, as numerous studies confirm a “breadwinner bonus” and a “motherhood penalty” in how employers determine pay.
But last year a University of Connecticut study linked a man being the sole economic support of his family with poor mental health. A 2011 study speculated that depression in men could increase as their ability to fill the traditional role of provider diminishes. It noted that industries that traditionally provided good wages for men who do not have advanced education, such as construction and manufacturing, are declining. Most of the jobs lost in the 2007 recession were held by men. An older study (1998) clearly showed that men who perceive themselves as inadequate breadwinners are more prone to depression.
An estimated 8 to 10 million fathers do not live with their children, with men who have lower income and education levels more likely to be non-resident dads. This is happening for many reasons, including the country’s high incarceration rate. Today 2.7 million American children have a parent in prison, which fathers accounting for the lion’s share.
Economic contributions of non-resident dads can play a vital role in family well-being, but it is important to remember the non-economic benefits of involved fathers. Dads with incomes under $20,000 are the most likely to be in arrears on their child support. We need to formulate ways to help fathers be financially responsible without damaging father-child relationships for those dads who cannot make an economic contribution.
What does it all come down to? It’s tough to raise children, no matter what your family looks like or what your role in it is. Parents need more flexibility and more time off as well as higher wages to make things work. In the European Union, employers must offer parents at least four months’ leave during the first eight years of a child’s life. The EU does not stipulate that the leave be paid, though many in member countries at least partial pay is expected. Keep in mind that these are countries that offer a host of family supports that we do not, including universal health care.
Some employers are realizing that family friendly policies will help them attract and retain employees. For example, eBay is now offering 24 weeks of maternity leave at full pay and 12 weeks of paternity leave at full pay. But not all parents work in the tech industry, where employers compete for highly skilled employees.
Most moms, dads and other adults caring for children are dealing with an economy that does not value workers and with employers who don’t see the business upside and social good connected with supporting families.