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Why fatherhood is good for men

<i>Cavan Images RF/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Fathers can escape the confines of traditional masculinity and show their sweet
Cavan Images RF/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Fathers can escape the confines of traditional masculinity and show their sweet

By Elissa Strauss, CNN

(CNN) — Many arguments about why dads should do more parenting focus on why that would be good for their wives or partners and kids. How about why and how it would be good for the dads themselves?

It’s also a conversation we should be having.

Fatherhood can be good for men, psychologically speaking. As I discovered while doing interviews for my new book, “When You Care: The Unexpected Magic of Caring for Others,” the experience of being a dad allows men to feel feelings and behave in ways that mainstream masculinity standards often prohibit.

At the office or on the ball court, men are expected to deny or conceal their vulnerability, empathy and sensitivity. Do so and risk being thought of as feminine or weak.

But with their kids, dads have a chance to explore all these sides and more, often away from the scrutiny of the public eye. They get to be sweet, soft and compassionate, unafraid to show tenderness without fear of judgment or rejection. Many are better for it.

“When we put men in caregiving roles, whether they chose to be in it or are forced into it, it gives men a chance to reach inside and embody parts of themselves that are already there, but often not widely shown nor reinforced by greater society,” Matt Englar-Carlson, director of the Center for Boys and Men at California State University, Fullerton, told me in an interview for my book.

Take Eric Gardner, for example. He is a former company commander in the US Army who found that caring for his daughters has allowed him to uncover long-repressed feelings and work through trauma.

Fatherhood pushed Gardner to break away from the stoicism and aggression encouraged during his military career and learn how to be deeply attentive to others and try to understand their weakness and fears. Eventually, he realized he needed to turn these skills on himself to move past the shame of his post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis and figure out what would help him.

“Being with my daughters made me realize that I had to understand myself,” Gardner said.

Dads really are doing more care

It may not always feel like fathers are doing more parenting, but they are.

“If you are a woman who has to constantly fight with her husband to get him to help with the kids or do housework, I am sure it is very frustrating,” Stephanie Coontz, a family studies historian, told me. “But, as a historian, if you step back and look at what men were not doing and refusing to do 20 or 30 years ago and compare that to what they are doing now — from a historical perspective it is quite a turnaround.”

Dads still do less parenting than moms, but we are getting closer than ever. One cross-national study found that dads spent an average of 16 minutes a day caring for their kids in 1965. By 2012 that number rose to 59 minutes a day. By comparison, moms went from 54 minutes a day in 1965 to 104 minutes in 2012.

Sadly, this shift didn’t happen because men suddenly realized parenthood is a meaningful and valuable — something they wanted to experience firsthand. Or, because they wanted to give moms a break. Instead, it is because women went to work outside the home.

“Nothing has had more of an impact on men getting more involved in caregiving than women entering the workforce in greater numbers,” said Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family.

If you find this reason frustrating — well, me, too! But it helps to remember that men didn’t avoid hands-on parenting exclusively because they weren’t interested. There are social costs to men doing more care, which has long been considered antithetical to masculinity.

I grew up watching a movie about a full-time dad and the high jinks that ensued when a man took on women’s work. What was it called? “Mr. Mom.” For years I remember people teasing men who took on a heavy load of parenting with this nickname. The implication was that doing care makes men more feminine, and being feminine is a joke.

Such stigma follows men to the workplace, where they are financially rewarded for being a dad, but only if they don’t make any parenthood-related requests from their employers — such as having to work from home when a kid is sick or leave early for a child’s orthodontist appointment. Should that happen, they tend to be penalized just like moms, Harrington said.

Despite the professional and cultural obstacles, today’s dads continue to do more and more parenting for both practical reasons — Mom has a job, too! — and personal ones. They like it.

In his research, Harrington found that more than two-thirds of dads said they wish they could spend more time with their kids, even when they’re already spending a lot of time with them. Other studies reach similar conclusions. Also, dads find parenting “extremely important to their identity,” and enjoyable and rewarding nearly identically as often moms do.

Breaking free of gender scripts

Some of this joy and satisfaction comes from the way fatherhood allows men to break free of gender scripts, experts say.

One reason is that traditional masculinity isn’t good for anyone, according to a 2018 American Psychological Association report featuring guidelines for treating boys and men.

“The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression — is, on the whole, harmful,” according to the APA.

Indeed, the patriarchy has rewarded men. But the type of masculinity required to make it in a patriarchal world comes with a cost. Traditional masculinity is negatively correlated with poor physical health and mental health, lower life satisfaction and lower self-esteem.

Englar-Carlson said he believes that caring for others gives men a chance to find justification for behaving in ways that have long been associated with the feminine.

“Caregiving gives men an opportunity to combat the shame associated with not being tough enough, which is often a cause of the internal conflict men often experience when they are in nontraditionally male roles. It can also give men an opportunity to feel helpful, worthwhile, and like something matters,” he said.

At online and in-person gatherings for Fathering Together, a dad advocacy organization, fathers often work through their desire to try to be more sensitive, empathetic dads.

Brian Anderson, cofounder of the organization, told me that these dads rely on each other to learn how to express vulnerability and move past the “father knows best” approach to parenthood. Their goal is to be more empathetic and sensitive. For many, these conversations are a rare opportunity to shed their macho skins and discover what is underneath.

Learning the power of vulnerability

David Bullman, a member of the Fathering Together community, was raised in a US Army post in Colorado Springs, where traditional masculinity had a stronghold. Bullman responded to his father’s expectations with rebellion; his self-described tough-guy lifestyle, including drugs and crime, eventually landed him in prison at age 22.

When he got out a decade later, determined to take a different path, he became romantically committed to a woman he knew as a child and reconnected with while in prison. Two years later, they had a child. Caring for his daughter woke up the tender and receptive parts of himself that he had long buried.

“My whole world had changed. I’m not the hard-ass I used to be. I had to learn how to have feelings and have emotions and how to be human and not a robot,” he told me.

“Because with the kids you can’t just turn it all off. I had to learn to ask for help, because for a long time I would try to keep that in, and think I got to learn this on my own and do this on my own,” he said.

To raise his child, “I went from being a stone-cold a**hole  to being the complete opposite. I had to change everything about me.”

Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood. She is the author of the new book “When You Care: The Unexpected Magic of Caring for Others.”

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