The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time

All Joy and No Fun?

Jennifer Senior’s book sizes up the effects of kids on American dads.

Children are blessings, gifts, miracles. That’s what we’re told. So why does so much research suggest that parents of those same children are no happier or even less happy than their childless counterparts? How can research show that parents take their hits, but keep coming back for more? In a new book, Jennifer Senior considers the effects of children on parents, and focuses on the paradox of the mixed sentiments elicited by caring for children. Her book considers kids of different ages, and is largely focused on American middle-class parents, with any comparisons restricted to past American parents or some European parents. In this stew, what is happening to dads?

Kids have a multitude of impacts on dads. One is a change in a marital relationship. As a couple’s time together decreases, and amidst juggling a dependent newborn, marital quality commonly decreases. Fathers’ sex lives are diminished in the wake of having a baby. Fathers undergo a slew of new feelings and experiences, some positive and some not. One dad recalls the boredom of doing the same thing again and again, and a group of stay-at-home dads describes their sense of social isolation. A few dads record the fun they have playing, letting down their inhibitions, and fielding the profound questions raised by their children. Work hours may be little changed, even as struggles to balance work and family increase. Fathers become more engaged in community activities such as attending religious services, even as their participation in some other activities like team sports decreases. As their kids grow older, a classic U.S. study found that about 1/3 of fathers of children developing into teenagers had decreased mental health.

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To capture such patterns, Senior’s book presents some of the largest and most recent U.S. studies, combined with the occasional male anecdote from an observation or discussion. In a few cases, she helps show how the parental ship is sailing today, and maybe in some surprising ways. For example, U.S. time allocation data show that “men and women today work roughly the same number of hours per week, though men work more paid hours and women more unpaid hours” (p. 53). Dads work more hours than their childless male counterparts, even as dads have been increasing the amount of direct care provided to children in recent decades. Additionally, a 2011 U.S. report on work-family conflict shows that: “today, men are more apt to experience it than women, especially if they’re in dual-earner couples.” That is partly because fathers are afraid of losing their jobs.

Yet Senior’s book also leaves gaping holes in the scholarship reviewed. There is no work on the effects of children on men’s hormones or brain activity; almost nothing on men’s health; and a quite shallow coverage of the outcomes considered in the first place. As an example, she notes, “Almost everyone seems to agree that a couple’s sex life also changes after children come along, though it’s surprisingly difficult to find strong data supporting this hypothesis” (p. 73). There are many studies, in the U.S. and internationally, that capture impacts of parenting on both mothers’ and fathers’ sexuality, though fewer on those of fathers. So Senior’s book is no final word (though the words are well written), but the tip of a scholarly iceberg.

What are some of the factors driving changes the past few decades in how kids are impacting fathers (and mothers)? Senior suggests three broad domains: in parental choice, in work, and in kids themselves. As adults delay childrearing, they are more attuned to the loss of autonomy with children than they might have been if having children earlier in adulthood. The juggles of dual-income work/family create many challenges. Kids are increasingly protected and cultivated, placing more on parents’ shoulders. With fewer kids, moms working more away from home, the availability of enticing video games played indoors and so forth, the days of neighborhoods rife with children playing outside have passed. That can also fuel a perceived need to shuttle the kids to organized activities to ensure they have outlets with other children. In a deeper historic sense, the fact kids are in school and engaging in few productive activities (oh, those good old days of a semi-literate family farm economy) makes their cost more evident. Indeed, that cost is now an estimated $212K/$300K/490KK for a child born in 2010 to a low/middle/high income American family. Parents respond, in part, by having fewer kids. In a rare nod to an evolutionary imperative, Senior recognizes, “In the crudest evolutionary sense, that’s why we have [children]: to see ourselves—to see our species—continue” (p. 247). And yet dads and moms may still may fret.

The last chapter of the book is the most uplifting and compelling. It also helps resolve that paradox of the mixed baggage children bring to their dads (and moms)—the fact that moment-to-moment parents often express little happiness caring for their children, but will also report that their kids (more than their spouses, other family, friends, or work) make them happy. As one dad apparently acknowledges with other fathers, “More than almost anything else, the experience of parenthood exposes the gulf between our experiencing and remembering selves…It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life tales” (pp. 256-257).

Kids can change a man’s (and woman’s) life in profound ways, even if in the day-to-day grind that glory is hard to see.

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the coauthor of Fatherhood.

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