A friend of mine and his wife just had twins. He's in the publishing industry which means sporadic work and not much pay. His wife works in government as a senior policy analyst, which means her work provides most of the household income and medical benefits. It made sense for Nicholas to stay at home and be the primary caregiver. Though I can name at least three other men in similar circumstances, they are mostly educated and urban. I was surprised to read in a recently released UN Report on Fatherhood and Families (http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/family/docs/men-in-families.pdf) that when it comes to traditional forms of caregiving like changing diapers and making dinners, the last 20 years has seen very small increases in men's actual behaviour.
Women still spend twice as much time as men doing housework, even if they work full-time outside the home.
What has changed dramatically, though, in the last 20 years are two things. First, men's perception of the amount of caregiving and housework they do is completely at odds with women's reports of what men do. In one five country study, only 10 to 31% of women internationally said they felt their male partners played an equal role in the daily care of their child. Men, on the other hand, overwhelming ranked themselves as far more involved, with 36 to 62% of the men from the same families saying that they contributed equally. In some countries like Brazil, men were four times more likely to say they provided the same amount of childcare as their wives, even though objective measures of caregiving activities tend to support the perceptions of the mothers.
There is another angle on this too. More recently, work with some ethnoracial minorities, international studies of families from countries like Jamaica, and an openness to asking men in the United States detailed questions about how they contribute to their families, shows that men make a contribution to the care of their children in ways that are different, but just as time consuming, as that provided by women. Men, more than women (because of the likelihood they will earn more and be employed outside the home) are more likely to provide their children with financial support, make substantial contributions towards school fees, take their children to activities, work extra hours to secure better housing for their family, and teach children life skills that prepare them for paid employment.
What the research shows is that even in cases where the father is not residing with his children, children are only disadvantaged if they are without the social position (a father's work can determine if the family is perceived as lower, middle, or upper class), labour (think yard work!), and financial support (the income that, for most families around the world, is still their primary source of financial support) that men bring. There is a myth of the absentee dad. In many cases, dads are still the ones dropping by with money or groceries or fixing the car. Their attachment to their families, even when it doesn't look like a typical nuclear family, is still important and more common than we suspect.
Now admittedly, there are still a lot of deadbeat dads who don't pay child support. And many others who have fathered children and disappeared. However, recent research is showing that fathers want to stay involved with their kids, but in ways that are different from the way women provide caregiving. Is this fair? Is it fair that dad does activities outside the home while mom does laundry? Absolutely not. But changing this pattern, and creating environments that make it more likely children are well cared for starts with engaging fathers with their families. Maybe if we recognize a little more often the contributions fathers are making we'll eventually get them to not just say they're doing more, they'll actually be enticed to be there when the diapers need changing and the dishes washed.