With Father’s Day almost upon us, expect a host of media stories on men and family life. Some will do a good job of capturing the changes and continuities associated with fatherhood in contemporary America. But other reporters and writers will generalize from their own unrepresentative networks of friends and family members, try to baptize the latest family trend, or assume that our society is heading ceaselessly in a progressive direction. So be on the lookout this week for stories, op-eds, and essays that include these five myths on contemporary fatherhood and family life.
1. THE ‘MR. MOM’ SURGE
Open a newspaper or turn on a TV in the week heading up to Father’s Day and you are bound to confront a story on stay-at-home dads. I have nothing against stay-at-home dads, but they make up a minuscule share of American fathers.
For instance, less than 1 percent (140,000) of America’s 22.5 million married families with children under 15 had a stay-at-home dad in 2008, according to the U.S. Census. By contrast, about 24 percent (5,327,000) of those families had a stay-at-home mom. This means that the vast majority — more than 97 percent — of all stay-at-home parents are moms, not dads.
The focus on Mr. Mom obscures another important reality. In most American families today, fathers still take the lead when it comes to breadwinning: In 2008, the Census estimated that fathers were the main provider in almost three-quarters of American married families with children under 18. Providership is important to protect children from poverty, raise their odds of educational success, and increase the likelihood that they will succeed later in life. Thus, the very real material contribution that the average American dad makes to his family is obscured by stories that focus on that exotic breed, the stay-at-home dad.
2. WOMEN WANT EVERYTHING 50-50
Another prevailing media myth is that contemporary women are looking for fathers who will split their time evenly between work and family life. It may be true for the average journalist or academic, but it is not true for the average American married mom.
Most married mothers nowadays do want their husbands to do their fair share of housework and childcare. But they do not define fairness in terms of a 50-50 balancing act where fathers and mothers do the same thing at home and work. Instead, contemporary mothers take into account their husbands’ work outside the home when they assess the fairness of the division of labor inside the home.
Moreover, most women who are married with children are happy to have their husbands take the lead when it comes to providing and do not wish to work full-time. For instance, a 2007 Pew Research Center study found that only 20 percent of mothers with children under 18 wanted to work full-time, compared with 72 percent of fathers with children under 18. My own research has shown that married mothers are happiest in their marriages when their husbands take the lead when it comes to breadwinning – largely because his success as a provider gives her more opportunities to focus on the children, or balance childcare with part-time work (the most popular work arrangement for married mothers). So, on this Father’s Day, dads who are fortunate enough to hold down a good job and make a major contribution to their families’ financial welfare should take some comfort from the fact that they are likely to be boosting not only their families’ bottom line but also their wives’ happiness.
3. MARRIAGE IS JUST A PIECE OF PAPER
With the rise of cohabitation over the last 40 years, a large minority of American children will spend some time in a household headed by a cohabiting couple. Experts now estimate that about 40 percent of American children will spend some time in a cohabiting household, either because they are born into such a household or because one of their parents cohabits after a breakup. Faced with this reality, many journalists, scholars, and advocates are tempted to minimize the differences between married and cohabiting fathers and families.
But the reality is that, on average, cohabiting fathers do not compare with married fathers. As Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland and Kermyt Anderson of the University of Oklahoma found in a recent study, married fathers are significantly more involved and affectionate with their children than are cohabiting fathers. In fact, from their research, they conclude “that marriage per se confers advantage in terms of father involvement above and beyond the characteristics of the fathers themselves.”
Married fathers are also much more likely than their cohabiting peers to stick around. One recent study by Wendy Manning at Bowling Green State and Pamela Smock at the University of Michigan found that 50 percent of children born to cohabiting parents saw their parents break up by age five; by comparison, only 15 percent of children born to married parents saw their parents divorce by age five. Dad is much more likely to stick around if he has a wedding ring on his finger.