Why the Lowered Expectations for Fathers?

Both a recent U.S. Census Bureau report and an ongoing media campaign around fatherhood have raised some interesting questions about the way that society views a father’s responsibilities. In its “Who’s Minding the Kids?” report, the bureau assumes that when both parents are present at home, the mother is the “designated parent.” If the mother is away from the home, say at work or school, and the father is watching his offspring, the bureau classifies that as “care” – but the reverse is not considered true when the father’s the one who’s away. In other words, if the mother is home watching her children, she’s just considered a parent. When the father does it, that’s looked at as something more akin to child care, not parenting.

In explaining its rationale behind collecting and presenting data this way, a bureau employee explained that despite the changes in family structure and dynamics over the past half-century, “women are still primarily responsible for work in the home,” and a mother is “not only caring for the child only while Dad works. She’s probably caring for the child 24 hours and so Dad is able to go to work regardless.”

This is likely the case for many families, regardless if the mother is employed outside the home as well. So why does it bug me so much that the Census Bureau classifies a mother’s role differently from a father’s? Because there shouldn’t be any difference. The fact that women have traditionally shouldered a larger share of child-rearing responsibilities isn’t enough reason for women to continue doing so, especially given the more-relevant fact that two working parents is the norm for most households. Using different terms to describe the exact same work just serves to reinforce the outdated idea that fathers aren’t expected to be their children’s primary caregiver.

The various fatherhood campaigns put forth by the Ad Council and Fatherhood.gov are equally problematic. While I like the idea of promoting healthy families and involved parents, regardless of if both parents are living with their children, the very fact that a campaign even has to be launched around the idea of responsible fatherhood is really galling. Look, it’s hardly news that a lot of parents, both mothers and fathers, are unprepared for the challenges of parenthood and would benefit from some outside guidance, and I support government programs that help parents ensure that they have all the available resources and assistance to provide a stable and healthy environment for their children. So again, what galls me here is the gender focus. If the Department of Health and Humans Services was promoting a website called Parenthood.gov, full of information about programs and ways to connect with and learn from other parents, that would be great. But singling out fathers for this kind of assistance and attention smacks of starting from a place of reduced expectations. Fathers’ shouldn’t have to be reminded to “take time to be a dad today,” as the copy of one PSA plastered on Washington, D.C. bus stations reads. They should just be fathers every day, because when you have a child, you are, by definition, a parent every day. Mothers aren’t given the same options, so why the implicit condoning of fatherhood as a choice once the kids are born?

Even though they’re both run through government agencies, I kind of doubt that the powers that be at either the Census Bureau or HHS coordinated their language or efforts around studying fatherhood and parenthood. But the very fact that they’re using the same gendered language just perpetuates the idea that fathers are starting from a place of less responsibility and accountability than mothers, and that’s not fair – to their children, their partners, or the fathers themselves. I admire the spirit behind Fatherhood.gov and the PSA campaigns, but I wish that instead of trying to bring men up to speed after their children are already here, the focus was on ensuring that men – and women – are better-prepared for parenthood before the child is even born.

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.


  1. You sure hit the nail on the head Sarah! There’s recently been a great book published on the topic: Shattered. The subtitle claims it’s about motherhood, but really it’s all about how society (and politicians!) assume women should be the primary caregivers for children and consequently fathers are practically ignored all the way from birthing classes to PTA meetings and graduation.

  2. My wife and I are both progressive, I’m a part-time stay-at-home dad while my wife fulfills some post-graduate school career oppertunities. I don’t completely disagree with your post, although since having our first child 2 years ago, I have to admit that our perspective on this issue has changed quite a bit. After a 9-month head start on building an emotional connection with our child, hundreds of hours intimately spent nursing day-and-night, and thus having a much stronger physical bond, the role I have as a father, even as the primary caregiver for 8 hours a day, was ‘second tier’ from the moment he was born. When my wife is around, because she has chosen to take a longer, but more historically normal view of nursing, she’s still the one who makes him the most happy and can most effectively ask for a rebellious toddler’s respect. This dynamic is changing, and I imagine that in another year (at 3 years old) our roles might be more equal. Believe me, this gender-role issue is not something we believed before having a child, discuss philosophically quite often, and frankly it isn’t very convenient for either of us… but it’s the way that nature has distributed responsibility.

  3. Just lost a long rant, but wow, is my blood boiling. Ugh. Not doubting there aren’t real biological and emotional and cultural truths, but if you start from the premise that fathers are “extra” that’s how it’s going to be.

  4. Thanks for this very interesting post, Sarah. That makes me think I lately read this:”As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts”― Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

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