We acknowledged our fathers individually last weekend with picnics and crayoned cards of love and mugs that say “World’s Best Dad.” We celebrated the first men in our lives for their role in framing our sense of place in the cosmos and our outlook on life – for instilling courage and confidence, encouraging inquisitiveness and ambitions.
But society has a bigger role to play in supporting fatherhood than anything doting family members alone can achieve. Frameworks of fatherhood have changed dramatically between the last generation and this one. The father’s role is fulfilled in diverse ways in diverse family types, and newer kinds of families need different kinds of backing from government, nonprofits and businesses.
There’s the stay-at-home father of triplets whose wife is chief breadwinner, navigating the daily details of bathing and feeding and nurturing that were considered the exclusive province of women. There’s the gay male couple raising twins born through a surrogate; the widower raising alone the children adopted with his wife; the grandfather stepping anew into the father’s role for grandkids who lost their own dad to death or prison – or never knew him.
At one end of the spectrum are fathers who by choice or for practical reasons assume the bulk of child-rearing responsibilities. At the other are fathers who were never in the picture except during conception. Forty-one percent of U.S. births are to unmarried mothers. Aging, uncoupled women opt to pursue motherhood alone. Girls too young for committed relationships get pregnant by chance.
Though the core qualities of good parenting remain unchanged, we need new attitudes and institutions to support good father-child relationships. Here are just a few:
• Paternity leaves: Fathers need to be both allowed and encouraged to take time off when their children are born or adopted so the bonding process can begin early. Though some states offer limited paid paternity leaves, federal law requires no provision beyond a 12-week unpaid family leave, and those have conditions. Norway, by contrast, requires employers to offer 46 weeks of paid paternity and maternity leave.
After taking four months’ paternity leave in 2010, Norway’s minister of childhood, equality and social cohesion – yes, they have such a job – told The Guardian, “I wanted to spend time with my baby and show that important though work is, it does not justify shying away from family responsibilities. Being at home means taking care of little things and big ones, knowing when the baby has eaten, knowing her habits, putting away her clothes, being there when she smiles for the first time.” Amen.
Iceland offers nine months of paid leave: three for mothers, three for fathers and another three to be split between the two. Finland offers “daddy’s month,” a month of leave for new fathers at a reduced salary. Europe also beats us on flexible working hours. If they can afford it, both parents in Spain can work part-time until their children are 8.
• Equal pay would help us too. U.S. women make on average 78 cents to every dollar a man makes. If they earned equally, it wouldn’t lower the family income for men to choose to stay home with the kids. And to accommodate single-parent families of either sex, we need more affordable child-care options, including employer-subsidized daycare and free universal preschool.
• Criminal justice reforms would reduce the number of otherwise good fathers serving time for nonviolent crimes, whose children have to grow up without them around.
• Parenting classes should be available in every institution a young man interacts regularly with: schools, churches, nonprofits, after-school programs. Some men who want to be good fathers might not know what that looks like.
• And speaking of what fatherhood looks like, we need new images of it besides the bumbling know-nothing dad on TV or the well-heeled male head of household – more images of fatherhood as tender, and of tenderness as manly.
• hat may seem like a small accommodation can contribute to father’s comfort levels in the role. Baby-changing rooms should be gender neutral.
• And finally, for children who don’t have fathers or other strong male role models, we need greater involvement in programs that pair adults and children for regular outings and mentoring.
So as we continue to honor and seek more of our fathers, let’s think of more ways to nurture those foundational bonds on which healthy societies are built.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.