Monday, August 28, 2006

What Dads Want to Do vs. What Dads Need to Do

From a press release:

Being a father has little effect on men's working patterns, in spite of the fact that they cut back their working hours for a short time after a new child is born, according to Economic and Social Research Council funded research at the University of Bristol. "There is no evidence that 'new,' involved fathers are adopting a 'female model' of parenthood, with part-time work and high levels of child care," says sociologist Dr Esther Dermott, who conducted the research...

"It seems that fathers don't want to work fewer hours," says Esther Dermott. "What professional men value most about their jobs is their ability to control their working hours so that they can leave early to go to school functions or parents' meetings - and this flexibility was also what other men most wanted..."

Data analysis showed that around a quarter of men wanted to work fewer hours: less than one per cent wanted to increase their hours and the remainder wished to maintain the status quo. These preferences did not change when the men became fathers. They did not want to work shorter - or longer - hours.

"These conclusions are significant and interesting," writes author Dave Hill in the U.K. Guardian. "But do they mean that New Dad is, and always will be, a myth and a fantasy? Predictably, those obsessed with reinforcing and policing what they regard as 'natural' and 'traditional' boundaries between the sexes have been excitedly spinning that this is so, and using them as a stick with which to beat 'family-friendly' measures such as state-funded paternity leave."

It doesn't surprise me at all, that the U.K.'s homegrown convervatives would use the results to attack paternity leave; the Bristol study, which relies on data from the British Household Panel Survey and interviews with 25 "professional and managerial" fathers, appears to be filled with wrong-headed assumptions and conclusions.

For example: "There is no evidence that 'new,' involved fathers are adopting a 'female model' of parenthood." But do most new fathers have any choice? If new dads will be penalized at work (and in society) for adopting female models of parenthood, then obviously they will avoid the penalties. In fact, I'm sure many dads are terrified by the prospect of a reduction of hours that might push their families even closer to the financial edge. I asked Dermott (in an email) if her study addressed the question of what dads might want to do vs. what dads need to do - she didn't respond, but I have a feeling that the answer is no.

Another major flaw: the study looks at one narrow area (and only 25 professional dads, at that!), draws a sweeping conclusion, but does not take account of other factors and studies that might complicate the conclusion. "The time British dads spend with their kids has risen eightfold over the last 30 years," reports Newsweek International. "Today, 79 percent say they'd be happy to stay at home" with their kids. This isn't just talk: there are at least 155,000 stay-at-home dads in the U.K., a number that increases every year (while in the U.S., the number of SAHDs has doubled over the past decade). How might those numbers change Dermott's conclusions?

It seems to me that in fact more and more men are adopting what Dermott calls the "female model" of parenting - actually, it might be more accurate to speak of a "third way" that assumes men and women have an equal capacity to contribute to the financial and domestic integrity of the family.

But perhaps my biggest criticism of the study (as described in the press release) is that it acts like business is going on as usual, when in fact it announces something quite revolutionary. More and more men are joining women in challenging the "ideal worker" model, which Elizabeth at Halfchanged World describes as "the idea that employers are entitled to employees who are largely unencumbered by family responsibilities, who don't have to run out the door in the middle of the day when the daycare calls because a child is sick, who can stay late without hesitation." While men in the U.K. might not be adopting the "female model" of parenting, they are certainly rejecting the "ideal worker" model that says they must live for work. Flextime and paternity leave are only the minimum; families need much more.

On that note: I recently received a white paper from the Center for Law and Social Policy on flexible work. The author Jodi Levin-Epstein notes that "workers’ access to paid leave and flexible scheduling has declined in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, even as these issues have gained attention. The United States lags behind many other nations that have enacted paid leave laws and promoted flexible scheduling." She ends with a Christmas list of policy recommendations that would give a majority of workers, male and female, flexibility at work - all of which I'd like to see made law tomorrow. Of course, with the current "family-friendly" Bush administration, I doubt any of these proposals will get a serious hearing.


NYMary said...

Hey have you fellows been watching Lucky Louie, the new HBO series about a (mostly) stay-at-home dad? It's pretty interesting.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I've seen Lucky Louie twice. Parenting wasn't the focus of either episode (one of them, uh, revolved around a doll that Louie buys online with their rent money), and I didn't pick up on him being the mainly at-home parent. The show actually fascinates me for different reasons - though I know a lot of people hate its stage-play quality and weird working-class tone, it lends the whole thing a tough, surreal, fifties TV air (except they say "fuck" a lot, which I don't remember Lucille Ball doing).

Hmmm. I'll have to try to see it again with that in mind.

NYMary said...

See if you can find the one where he takes over disciplining the kid, pushing his wife out the door to work so he can handle the problem. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy wrote a little something about my paper "Getting Punched: The Job and Family Clock" back in August. He characterized my 10 recommendations for government action around work flexibility for workers of all wages as a 'Christmas list'. Jeremy, you are right to be skeptical about our current federal leadership taking on these issues but you should be more hopeful about state and local opportunities. For example, it's not yet Christmas and there's a good likelihood that by Thanksgiving, workers in San Francisco will have access to paid sick days -- 10 days for full time workers and fewer for part time workers. Even the Bay Area restaurant association representative noted it was too hard to fight the measure because “to be honest, if we fight it , we look like complete jerks.” San Francisco is not the nation but progress is progress. Here's hoping we have a little something to be thankful for on turkey day. And thanks Jeremy for encouraging this dialogue.