What a joy it is to see my son as a father.  He’s been at it a little over a year, but from the start, it was clear he was born to the role. Among his peer group are many new fathers who’ve thrown themselves headlong into what has been referred to as hands-on parenting.  At my grandbaby’s first birthday party were several dads holding, feeding and playing with their infants and toddlers. One dad adroitly juggled the needs of his 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, explaining Mom had just come off night shift at the hospital and was home sleeping. So he fearlessly took the one-hour drive with the children, diaper bag and expressed milk in tow.

One of the earliest studies on the importance of fathers was conducted on Norwegian fishermen families between the years 1850 to 1920. At that time, and in that culture, the female role was  daily nurturing and the father’s role was to provide material resources, even if that meant scant direct interaction with the children. The study concluded that long absences indeed affected the well-being of children, mainly because of the mother’s isolation for long stretches of time. 

Changing Roles

With myriad social and technological changes defining men and women’s roles, present day researchers, including Dr. Natasha Cabrera at the University of Maryland Department of Human Development, cannot accept such a limited view for the importance of fatherhood.

Today’s new dads have moved well beyond providing emotional and material support for the mother.  A heartening sight is a man out in public snuggling an infant strapped to his chest or pushing a toddler in a stroller.  Sometimes both. Sometimes momless. Cabrera and others concur that children whose fathers take an active role in caregiving in the early years leave lasting positive effects “well beyond economic support.”   Compared to tots with less involved dads, young children are more patient, have higher IQs, better linguistic and cognitive capacities—in essence, more readiness for starting school and being successful with it. 

Studies see a connection between the amount of involvement the father provides and the level of sociability and popularity the child has with peers throughout early childhood.

Self-Confidence and Exploration

Differences show up even earlier, with more emotional security and confidence to explore their surroundings.  “Attachment theory” explains that a father’s (as well as a mother’s) quick and accurate response to an infant’s cries help her learn that her needs will be met.  Eventually, a child gains abilities in meeting her own needs, but at first, she depends on her caregivers to figure out what she may need and to take care of it.  Dad’s ready attention and affection, including time for peek-a-boo and other baby games, has been shown to build the self-confidence needed to explore toys, cabinets, etc. and return to Dad for emotional recharging as needed.  A dad who is content to roll a ball back and forth—one of my grandson’s favorite activities—helps the baby gain understandings in the physics of the three-dimensional world.  Add some repetitive language, “Here comes the ball!” and an appropriate facial expression, and baby gains communication and relationship skills, too.  Add another parent and child to the landscape—for example at a baby gym class, and now she can observe how relationships work, as well.  Even if the baby doesn’t meet another child until she can walk and talk, studies see a connection between the amount of involvement the father provides and the level of sociability and popularity the child has with peers throughout early childhood.

Fathers’ increased involvement in the raising of their children has paralleled many societal changes, foremost being the rise of mothers in the workplace.  As many as 32 percent of preschoolers in the country are cared for by their fathers while the mothers are at work. Some families work out dayshift/evening shift splits (many employers besides hospitals are now 24-hour operations) or find weekend hours to complement the other spouse’s weekday job.  Flexibility in employment is also more possible with work-from-home options, allowing a parent to sandwich work duties between preparing meals and playing with the children. This arrangement also trades commuting time for more family time.

Dads on Duty 

When you see dads on duty at the park, in the grocery store, or attending parent-child gym and swim classes, some of them represent the growing ranks of stay-at-home fathers. In less than a generation, this figure has tripled.  The U.S. Census calculates as many as 20 percent of children under the age of 5 are primarily cared for by their fathers. 

And in homes where there is only one parent, 15 percent of these are men. As a group, they are gaining in numbers as well as rights in custody battles.  With evident proof that a father’s care can equal a mother’s, attorneys and judges are helping more single dads have that opportunity.

The rate at which men are applying themselves to the tasks required for parenting must be partially due to the rising numbers themselves. It is true that we parent by example—mostly the one our own parents set—so the more that boys and men have been able to witness hands-on parenting by their fathers, the more it feels normal for them to be doing so, too.  Simple changes in language have also accompanied behavioral changes, for example, “I’ve got the kids” has nearly replaced “I have to babysit.” 

Ironically, our governmental eye on the changes in our family patterns, the Census Bureau, uses language that is quickly becoming outdated.  The Census checklist labels a mother as the  “designated parent” when she supports her husband’s ability to earn a living by taking care of the children, while a father, no matter how many hours he puts in at home is the “child care arrangement” so mom can work.  Maybe by 2020 we can even out the unnecessary gender differences and call both of them parents.

When you see dads at the park, in the grocery store or attending parent-child gym and swim classes, some of them represent the growing ranks of stay-at-home fathers.  In less than a generation, this figure has tripled.

Providing the Best Parenting Possible

In talking with several dads about their roles in their children’s lives, a common thread has been neutrality as far as gender distinctions. Each parent brings what he or she can, especially in consideration of whether the parenting partner has career demands.  Add to the contemporary mix the 50 percent divorce rate, parents who live with their own parents, the acceptance of gay couples as parents and single parenting by design.  Dads, at least the ones I spoke with, expressed concern that their children get the best parenting possible while the supporting adults maximize their career pursuits. They work with collective resources to meet their children’s needs.  One aptly put it as a “balancing act.” What struck me was how much these dads thought of each parent’s contributions on a case-by-case basis, rather than the traditional model of fathers’ versus mothers’ roles. If dad is more comfortable in the water, he should be the one in the pool for baby swim classes. If mom has a great career going, she should be the primary breadwinner. 

Supporting Both Mothers and Fathers

If the goal is to “bring up healthy well-adjusted children,” asks Cabrera, “how do we support both mothers and fathers?”  Policies and practices often limit dads’ function to the archaic vision of solely the breadwinner, especially for low-income families. “We need to move to a place where both parents are working and taking care of their children, and making joint decisions that might have short- and long-term effects on their children.  In reality, mothers and fathers must co-parent to make the family unit function.”

My grandson goes on family play dates that his mom and dad arrange to spend time with their friends who also have little ones, socializing among parents and children. Fathers see other fathers diapering as they discuss the relative merits of one pediatrician’s advice or another’s.  Privy to my son’s Facebook page, I can see these men sharing photos and messages expressing their pride, pleasure and investment in fatherhood.  Dare I say, they are demonstrating the skill of social networking that mothers have been doing for generations, to find models and support in one another.  Today’s dads are seeking success and equal opportunities in parenting as much as women expect a fair shake in pursuit of education and career.  We’re not completely there, but when I see a 3-year-old hand Daddy her juice box so she can use both hands to stack blocks and he maneuvers his own cup so he can hold both drinks in one hand so the other is free to add blocks to the tower, I believe equal opportunity has become a standard expectation.

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.