Will the Fathering Boom End When COVID-19 Goes Away?

More help for dads is critical for the father-child bond.

Posted Aug 11, 2020

Are men becoming more involved fathers as the COVID-19 pandemic upends our economy and greatly increases the number of parents working at home? The answer is a qualified "yes." Men are spending more time with their children than before, doing more of the parenting, and sharing housework.

With so many people staying home, there is a much greater overall demand for domestic labor. In households with different-sex parents, men are doing more of it than they did pre-pandemic, but women are still doing more of it than men are, according to a study published in March from researchers in the U.S. and Germany. “Compared to ‘regular’ recessions, which affect men’s employment more severely than women’s employment,” the researchers say, the virus has had a large impact on sectors with high rates of female employment. “In addition, closures of schools and day care centers have massively increased child care needs, which has a particularly large impact on working mothers.” Grandparents have been less available for child care, so “mothers will pick up a large share of the additional child care (and home schooling) during the crisis.” 

A later study from the Council on Contemporary Families, released in May, reports that housework and child care have become more equal. “Prior to the start of the pandemic, 26 percent of parents reported sharing routine housework relatively equally with their partner, 41 percent reported sharing care for young children relatively equally … and 45 percent reported sharing care of older children,” according to the report. “A little more than a month after the start of the pandemic, 41 percent of parents reported sharing housework with their partners — a significant 58 percent increase — while the percentage of partnered parents reporting equal sharing care of young and older children also increased significantly, to 52 percent and 56 percent respectively.”

Women were in charge of most home responsibilities between 2015 and 2019, notes the polling-analysis site FiveThirtyEight. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, which tracks the average amount of time people spend per day on different categories of activity, married mothers with full-time jobs spent 56 percent more time doing childcare and housework than corresponding fathers.”

Even though women still do more of the work at home, the U.S.-German study found that “beyond the immediate crisis, there are opposing forces which may ultimately promote gender equality.” It notes that many fathers now have primary responsibility for child care, which “may erode social norms that currently lead to a lopsided distribution of the division of labor in housework and child care.”

And never before has the male parent been so visible, because fathering behavior appears on social media, is visible on Zoom calls, and is even featured in television news shows. This visibility could contribute to an overall evolution in people’s perceptions and expectations of working fathers during this time. 

But will this last?

“The fact that men are now plopping their babies in their laps while taking conference calls, showing that men, too, do this work, is really important,” Caitlyn Collins, a Washington University in St. Louis sociologist focused on gender and families, told The Washington Post. “Do these vignettes signal a real change in the division of child care, or are we witnessing a temporary blip that will fade when the economy reverts back to normal?”

This is a crucial question, because positive shifts that occur during a crisis can vanish when “normalcy” returns. World War II led to the mass movement of women into well-paid factory jobs to make the weapons of war. More than 310,000 women were employed in the American aircraft industry in 1943, becoming 65% of the industry’s workforce. In pre-war days that figure was 1%. But when the guns fell silent, “Rosie the Riveter” was expendable, and she was sent home, despite her high productivity.

If the old normal were to come rushing back after the pandemic subsides, dads and children (as well as their mothers) could in many ways be the losers.

In a major study of fathers, Scott Coltrane, a sociologist at the University of California, Riverside, found that men who take care of their kids on more than a casual basis undergo a transformation. They develop “maternal thinking,” and they become “sensitive and nurturing caregivers.” He wrote: “What does it mean to be a ‘mother,’ or to be a ‘real man?’ It is not set in stone, but slowly shifts as new patterns of household labor are negotiated in countless families.”

In recent years, numerous studies have documented the favorable impact highly involved dads have on kids in terms of relationships, learning, health, and other outcomes. Our own research found that fathers who have close relationships with their children often experience fewer physical issues and less stress at work.

“Maybe this pandemic can help normalize the fact that, yes indeed, men are caregivers,” Caitlyn Collins said. “There’s nothing extraordinary about it.”

Prithvi Raj, the Chief Operating Officer at the commercial real estate company SquareFoot, in Manhattan, lets his daughters come into his video conference meetings when they need him. Raj told The Washington Post that he hopes that moments like those that he and other dads experience will “set an example for other fathers and mothers.” 

But when the upside-down world rights itself, can we simply assume all this father-child bonding will continue? For the increase in paternal involvement to continue, we will have to see broad cultural changes — including a stated and confirmed valuing of fathers being equal parents. One major step toward making such a statement as a society would be enacting national, paid, equal parental leave. 

The U.S. was dead last on a list of 41 of the world’s richest companies in the area of paternity leave, according to 2019 report by UNICEF.

American fathers (and mothers) have no national paid-leave benefits. All they do have is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is unpaid. Workers are allowed to take 12 weeks of leave for the birth or adoption of a child or 26 weeks of leave to care for a sick family member. (Eight states — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Oregon, along with the District of Columbia — have paid parental leave.) 

Compared to fathers in Sweden and other European countries, U.S. men are bereft. But even Scandinavian dads needed some encouragement to take leave. In Sweden, not so long ago, men were derided for taking parental time off. Fathers really changed in Sweden after the government passed “use-it-or-lose-it” paid paternity-leave policies in 1995. Now, it’s expected that dads will take two or more months off to spend with their babies, and it’s the men who don’t take the time who need to explain themselves. And the early bonding grows as the child gets older. For instance, fathers who take leave are far more likely to read to their children. Indeed, paternity leave appears to encourage good parenting behaviors for men across the board.

The U.S. public is ahead of lawmakers on this issue. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 82 percent of Americans support paid maternity leave and 69 percent supported paid paternity leave. Feminist groups have been key to advancing this issue, including the National Women's Law Center, 9to5, the National Organization for Women, the National Partnership for Women and Families, and many others. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says the government should mandate 12 weeks of paid family leave.

Anther policy that would give fathers more time with children is a national minimum wage. Low-wage jobs are a major barrier to parents who want to spend more time with their kids; many require “work hours that start early in the morning or end late at night, or both, and bleed over into the weekends,” notes Set Up to Fail: When Low-Wage Work Jeopardizes Parents’ and Children’s Success, a report by the National Women’s Law Center. “Employers may give [workers] only a few days’ notice of their work schedules, which can have too few hours one week and too many the next.” They might have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. The report recommends not only a higher minimum wage but fair scheduling laws that make stable parenting possible. 

Fathers and kids would also benefit from expanding the federal Head Start program, which offers child care and education for children from birth to age five. The nonprofit Zero to Three reports that Head Start significantly improved how fathers interacted with and related to their children. “[Head Start] children were more able to engage with their fathers and be more attentive, showing their fathers’ efforts to engage with them.”

A worldwide pandemic may change fathering behavior for a time. But we know that good laws empower dads and help children over the long haul. And mothers’ health improves when they don’t have to do it all. It’s a classic win-win.

What are we waiting for?