Fathering has a lot to offer a man. Fathers are happier and derive more meaning from everyday activities than men without children. But fatherhood can also be a struggle. A man can be a biological father without doing much actual parenting—or a breadwinner who doesn’t do much childcare and housework—but many men today strive to be all things at once: father and son, man and husband, breadwinner and caregiver.
This can be stressful—and unfortunately, fathers who want to be more involved can face many obstacles in their journey, as my own research has revealed. Some of these barriers are legal and economic; some are psychological and interpersonal. Here are six obstacles to being more involved in family life—and how fathers and mothers can work together to overcome them.
Problem #1: Lack of realistic role models and expectations
When we asked 392 fathers of adolescents to tell us about the ideal father, the most common response was Bill Cosby’s famous character, Cliff Huxtable. Across the eight seasons of The Cosby Show, Cliff was inexhaustibly available, involved, and interested in the lives of his children and wife. His medical practice was in his basement, and he always seemed to be in the next room with sandwich in hand and sound advice on the tip of his tongue.
Many men told us they wanted to be that kind of dad and that their own fathers were quite unlike Cliff: emotionally distant, stressed by work, and unsure how to have meaningful relationships with their children. While it is a lofty goal to emulate a character scripted for prime-time television, too few fathers today had a dad like Cliff to model how to handle the daily hassles of family life. After all, Cliff’s family problems were typically resolved within 23 minutes.
The solution: Because today’s fathers grew up without role models for involved, engaged fathers in their lives, they are forging new ground in their careers and their parenting. Fathers today need to be aware that involved fathering has evolved over generations, and it is unlikely that this generation’s fathers will be able to rely exclusively on models from their own fathers. Instead, fathers can draw from things they liked about their own fathers, strive to correct the habits that didn’t work, and pull other examples from other parents.
Problem #2: Lack of paid leave and flextime
Since 1993 the Family Medical Leave Act has offered a federal mandate of up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave. But for fathers this leave is typically unpaid, and when men ask to take the unpaid time they face resistance from the corporations where they work. As a result, breadwinners tend to use a bit of vacation time but are quickly back in the office after the birth of a child. Also, the wage gap between men and women tends to drive men back to work more quickly than women.
While the Family Medical Leave Act has created opportunities for father involvement, it excludes half of the workforce because the law only applies to companies with more than 50 employees. As a result, advocacy for paid paternity and maternity time continues to be an important issue in the United States. However, even when paternity leave is available, like all vacations it comes to an end. After leave, families are left to juggle home and work.
The solution: Here’s where families have an opportunity to make a difference—because although parents may be working, family life can be adjusted around times and ways that father can be available. If he works late, he can try to have breakfast with his children. If his job is physically exhausting, he may appreciate time spent talking with his child. If father works in a cubicle, he may benefit from the exercise of helping a child learn to ride a bike. Working together, fathers, mothers, and children can create the space for father to be involved.
Problem #3: Economics change how fathers see themselves
How men view their fathering depends, in part, on their economic circumstances.
In a paper forthcoming from the Parents and Youth Study and my Family Interaction Research Laboratory at San Francisco State University, we asked fathers of seventh graders to “tell us three things you do well as a father” and recorded their answers. We then met up with the families three years later when the adolescents were in the tenth grade.
Two types of fathers emerged. Both mentioned trying to be emotionally close with their children—but there was an important difference. The first group said they were good dads because they spent time with their children. The second group mentioned the value of being a good role model. While our two types of fathers were created based on patterns of what dads said they did well, they masked an important difference—the emotionally involved dads tended to be wealthier than the fathers who said they were role models.
It appears that the emotionally involved dads can afford to spend time with their children and value the time together. Other fathers may be working longer hours and explain their physical absence as modeling the importance of providing for a family. This is one of the reasons why “involvement” can mean different things to different families.
The solution: Men need to appreciate and value what they are doing—not beating themselves up over what they can’t do! Couples need to define what “involved” means to them given their circumstances, so that fathers can try to live up the right ideals. Partners and those who work with fathers, such as marriage and family therapists, can support men by reminding them of their many contributions. We all need to hear encouragement, as well as a simple “thank you.”
Problem #4: Lack of community and support
If you had asked someone in 1985 to name all of their close friends, most would have provided three names. Today, almost half of people report only one good friend, 18 percent report two, 29 percent offer three or more, and 4 percent can’t mention a single person.
As a result, many fathers today are making sense of their complicated twenty-first century involved fathering without communicating with other men. Just as they didn’t have role models for how to be involved, they may also be less likely to have access to other knowledgeable men who can help to affirm, refute, and model good fathering.
Fathers benefit from time together with other men to talk about what works and what fails as dads, partners, and economic providers. However, many men struggle to accept they must take time away from the family to become a better family man. Social networks are good for everyone—even dads—even if they don’t know it.
The solution: Fathers need to take more responsibility for building community—and the people around them should support those efforts. If a father wants to take a hike, he should take the initiative to call a friend and find a time to take that hike. Many men have found success in formal men’s groups and father-organized playgroups. While it may seem awkward at first, it becomes familiar over time.
Problem #5: Lack of custody after divorce
When couples divorce, fathers are less likely to get equal time with children as mothers, possibly as a result of lawyers themselves believing that fathers are less likely to be granted primary custody. Further, the father-child relationship is the most negatively impacted quality of a child’s life following divorce.
But not always. Most men remain involved in the lives of their children following divorce, but staying involved requires a lot of work for both fathers and their former partners.
First, many men are disappointed after divorce at their compromised role in daily decision-making for their child. For example, it may seem trivial which day of week soccer practice occurs, and a custodial parent—more likely to be a mother—may make a decision without considering whether father is available to participate.
Like it or not, having a child with someone ties the parents together for life, and that means decisions must be as cooperative as possible, especially when they affect the father’s time with the child. But sometimes, polite negotiation is beyond the ability of exes.
The solution: I recommend thoughtful email or text messaging as a way to make post-divorce life a little easier. After divorce couples sometimes fall into old patterns of blame and withdrawal. Using writing as a go-between can help a lot, giving us the ability react first, compose ourselves and remember to put the children’s interests first, and then reply. In our research we’ve found that teaching fathers about the negative impact on children of seeing parents fight and teaching skills for conflict resolution actually reduces conflict within families and helps mothers feel more support in their parenting. Again, community and social support can make a critical difference: When fathers participate with other men in an 11-week program following divorce, there is less conflict within families. Men, it seems, hold the keys to managing conflict in families, possibly because they are often the ones to spark the ignition.
Problem #6: The armor and habits of manhood
As heterosexual men and women fall in love, marry, and become parents, they tend to adopt more traditional gender roles with each transition, even among the most egalitarian couples. Additionally, there is powerful stigma against changing in midlife that perpetuates the myth of the midlife crisis. As children get older and roles more clearly defined, many men accept the cultural script that their children will be closer to their mothers and they will become more distant.
The result is that dads stay the course, confining themselves to a box with sturdy walls and no exit. But when men are willing to change, positive results occur. For example, when low-income fathers are provided an opportunity to participate in parenting groups with others, they acquire the skills to be involved fathers and better partners, and their children benefit.
The solution: Men and women need to engage in thoughtful conversation about how their gender expectations shape their reactions to situations. Men and women hold assumptions about masculine and feminine ideals, and those assumptions translate into the ways they respond to one another. As men grow older, their families would likely benefit from them feeling (and maybe acting) younger.
Making smart, small choices
The father of modern psychology, William James, put it best: “If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”
Likewise, fathers can get involved by getting their hands dirty. Even if the commute is long or they’re facing financial stress, small choices every day can result in long-term gains. At the end of the day a father can throw the ball with the kids. Take a walk. Put down the smartphone and really listen when a child talks. Just 5 minutes a day equals hours over the course of a year.
Here’s a simple solution to most of these obstacles: Remember that almost everything about family life can be improved. If fathers deeply desire more time with their children, they’ll make the time. Fathers and mothers have the chance to be different in their parenting each time they interact with a child. In the end, fathering is what a man is doing right now. Not last week. Not next year. Right now. Go father.