Dr. Linda Nielsen Celebrates Dads and Destroys Myths about Father Involvement

July 12, 2019

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Dr. Linda Nielsen is a professor of adolescent and educational psychology at Wake Forest University. She’s also one of the world’s leading authorities on parenting time and child well-being. Her
recent article on fathers and their work/family balance is a must-read (IF Studies, 6/10/19). As always, the realities of how mothers and fathers treat the work/family balance militate in favor of equal parenting for fathers and mothers post-divorce.

One myth is that there is a large and unfair imbalance in how much childcare fathers and mothers provide. Another myth is that this supposedly huge childcare imbalance is mainly due to men’s selfish, sexist attitudes. The third myth is that fathers do not find enjoy spending time with their children as much as mothers do. In short, most dads, the story goes, are shiftless, selfish, sexist slackers.

How do those myths hold up to empirical scrutiny? Not at all. The science on fathers and children is replete with information showing fathers’ powerful connection to their children, children’s powerful connection to their dads and the need of both for Dad to have real, everyday parenting. Here’s one divorced mom who gets it (Thrive Global, 7/5/19).

In a series of studies from the Pew Research Center, when the total number of hours of paid and unpaid work are added up, moms and dads workloads are not significantly different. And the more equal their incomes and total hours at work, the more equal the time in direct childcare. In families with two full-time working parents, moms do 80 minutes a day of childcare and dads do 60. The moms with full-time jobs spent 7 hours less time at work each week than the dads, yet the moms only spent 20 minutes more on childcare than the dads. In short, in most families, both parents contribute equally, but differently, to their children’s care.

Couples decide their own work/family balance. They do so as best they can under their unique circumstances and in accordance with their own desires to the extent possible. When Mom brings home a larger paycheck, Dad tends to do more childcare. It’s a simple concept and entirely non-threatening. Nielsen points out that,

Moreover, each family’s childcare arrangement is primarily determined by each parent’s income, total hours at work, flexibility of work schedules, nature of jobs, costs of day care, and age of the children—not by the father’s sexist beliefs about parenting.

Dads don’t “selfishly” gad off to work, glad to be rid of the kids and to strap Mom with the drudgery of childcare. On the contrary, as many studies and surveys demonstrate, fathers tend strongly to see fatherhood as their main role and mission in life.

Furthermore, one of the most frequent complaints of working-class and white-collar fathers is that their jobs prevent them from spending more time with their kids. Most dads long for more fathering time and experience as much or more work-family stress as employed mothers. Most fathers do not consider childcare a “burden.” In fact, in the 2010 American Time Use Surveys, fathers reported being happier and less stressed than mothers were when they were engaged in child caregiving.

Indeed, Kim Parker and Wendy Wang reported for Pew Research that 49% of fathers who work full-time and who have kids under 18 expressed the preference to spend full time with their children, instead of at work.

More cutting-edge research on how fathers and mothers view their roles regarding their kids disagrees with the old stereotypes about how unfairly child rearing is split on gender lines. Thanks to Dr. Nielsen for shedding some empirical knowledge at this issue. With any luck and with the ever-increasing knowledge about fathers’ many contributions to the lives of their wives, partners and children, we should start to see not only an increasing awareness of same, but substantial changes to law and public policy that are the sine qua non of family court reform.

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