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Progress Still Needed on Parental Leave Front

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This Father’s Day, June 19, marks the 12th year that the Boston College Center for Work & Family (BCCWF) has been working to better understand the experiences of today’s working fathers.  

Over this time, we have published numerous reports, book chapters and journal articles aimed at helping the public and employers better understand the experience of today’s dads, especially with regard to their work and family experiences. Our research focused mainly on the experiences of white-collar fathers and studied a broad range of issues including the transition to fatherhood, at-home dads, Millennial fathers, generational differences in fathering and men’s attitudes about and utilization of parental leave.  

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Through the years, we have seen time and again that fathers today aspire (and often need) to be much more hands-on with their children than fathers a generation ago. They no longer see their role solely, or even primarily, as a breadwinner. All of our studies, but especially those conducted throughout the past decade, find more than two-thirds of fathers saying they want to share parenting equally with their spouse/partner.  

However, half of those fathers (more than one-third overall) are not living up to that goal. We’ve identified these men as conflicted fathers — they aspire to share caregiving equally but are unable or unwilling to do so. And as we know, the past two years of COVID have done nothing to reverse this pattern. In fact, the pandemic seems to have exacerbated the problem

The problem with being a conflicted father is that you are not living up to your own standards and likely letting down your partner as well. The roughly one-third of dads who fell into this conflicted group in our studies also had the lowest level of satisfaction and fulfillment at work and at home when compared to traditional fathers and egalitarian fathers. 

The conversations, interviews and studies we have engaged in since 2010 have offered many likely explanations for this imbalance. In spite of the growing number of households where women are the primary breadwinners, fathers’ financial contributions to the family are typically greater than their partner’s. Organizations have been slow to catch up to and accept men’s important and expanded role in the home. Until recently, for example, men were not offered paternity leave in most organizations.  

The resulting lack of time “flying solo” caring for infants leads to lower levels of confidence and competence in caregiving among men, while mothers often spent several months at home becoming the primary caregiver. 

In recent months, BCCWF has analyzed a data set of more than 1,400 men and women working in large corporations in the United States (collected by the BCCWF Center prior to the pandemic). BCCWF was curious about what factors facilitated shared caregiving in dual-career couples, and which ones hindered it. Here’s are the discoveries:  

  • Women whose spouses took parental leave are more likely to achieve equality in caregiving. This once again reinforces that fathers who have extended periods of time at home with their children in their early days will continue to be more engaged caregivers in the long term.  
  • Women who utilize flexplace work arrangements are less likely to achieve equality in caregiving than those who do not. While flexible working was, in many cases, designed to support working mothers, utilization of flexibility programs, especially working from home, can backfire and exacerbate inequality on the home front. 
  • Men who achieve egalitarian caregiving arrangements tend to be those who contribute less than half of the family income and/or have a spouse that works at least 50 hours per week. While there may be some good news here, it isn’t much comfort to mothers who need to work long hours in the workplace in order to get relief at home.  
  • Men and women who perceive themselves in counter-stereotypical ways are more likely to achieve caregiver equality than those who identify with more stereotypically gendered traits. Using an adapted psychological instrument that measures traditionally male and female characteristics, we identified personality traits associated with greater egalitarianism. Fathers who described themselves as especially warm were more likely to be a shared caregiver. Women, who responded that they always defend their own beliefs, were also more likely to develop an egalitarian arrangement. 
  • Men and women who believe their work role is amenable to work-family balance are more likely to achieve egalitarian caregiving arrangements than those who don’t. While workplace culture and supervisory support are important, it is the role itself that makes the biggest difference. One can work in a supportive environment, but if the job doesn’t lend itself to a balanced life, then that impacts the likelihood of truly shared caregiving.  

BCCWF research learned that being a conflicted father serves no one’s interests at the end of the day — not the father’s, not the mother’s and not the organizations for which you work. So, what can men do to achieve their goal of being a partner in caregiving?  

Put simply, take parental leave if it’s available, utilize the flexibility you are offered, advocate for a job role that helps you achieve work-life balance and be intentional about your commitment to caregiving equally with your spouse — no matter who earns more or works longer hours. 

Make this Father’s Day a time to reflect and act on what is most important to you. I’m not in the habit of offering unsolicited advice, but just this once, let me suggest that doing so may yield a more meaningful life … and perhaps even a better shot at wedded bliss. 

About the Author  

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Brad Harrington, Ed.D.,  is the executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and a research professor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. 


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