Although fathers have been playing a more and more active role in the lives of their children, most of the talk about “child rearing” still focuses on the mother. Today, we are going to change that. Similarly to a mother’s role, a father’s role is not defined by some established entity, but instead is determined by whatever that couple and that child needs it to be. Nevertheless, societal forces in shaping both how men often see fatherhood and the preparation they often get for this role cannot be overlooked.
According to research, a father’s extent of involvement in childcare is often determined by how much, if at all, the mother works outside the home. As would be expected, the more hours the mother works, the more extensive the father’s involvement is. Nevertheless, this increased involvement does not necessarily mean more hours spent with the children. Research has found that fathers spend about the same amount of time with the children regardless of their wife’s employment. However, when their wives work, fathers are much more likely to be spending that time with the child alone, as their primary caregiver[i]. The difference in the fathers’ care-taking responsibilities between those with wives who do not work compared to those who do is most pronounced when the children are very young and demand the most time and attention.
What is interesting is that the satisfaction with this involvement for fathers also varies with how many hours the mother works. More specifically, the more hours the mother works, the less satisfied the father tends to be with providing childcare. This seems less to do with the number of hours that fathers in such arrangements are taking care of the child, but more with the kind of child caring that the father is doing[ii]. When the mother either does not work outside the home or works a few hours, she often does the “necessary” childcare, and the father is left to engage in the childcare he chooses to engage in. On the other hand, when the mother also works extensively, the father is asked to do everything. This is supported by the finding that when the mother works, the father is more likely to engage in physical caring for the child and managing the child’s schedule than when the mother does not work. This, according to research, sometimes leaves men feeling unprepared for the role of father-as-all-needs-caretaker. This lack of sense of competence decreases the satisfaction they feel from the role. Furthermore, parents who do not perceive themselves as competent, may avoid difficult parenting tasks, such as discipline, in turn confirming for themselves that they are not effective parents and preventing them from developing improved skills[iii]. This was especially true as it related to the father’s belief that he is able to “control” the child’s behavior, as this was a large determinant of the sense of competence. Not surprisingly, high perceived competence has been found to be associated with a range of positive parenting behaviors.
It is important to note, that the above states “sense of competence” not actual ability. This is a appraisal that fathers make of themselves, and because this is an appraisal, it can be changed. Changing this appraisal to a more positive one would lead to a more enjoyable child caring experience. Below are some likely thoughts that may be leading to a decrease sense of competence and ways to dispute them:
Thought: “I am going to break him.”
Dispute: “I am always very careful when handling the baby. Plus, the delivery process is very difficult, if he didn’t break then, he is unlikely to break now.”
Thought: “My wife really knows what she is doing when she cares for the kids. I cannot do it like she does, so I must be doing it wrong.”
Dispute: “There are a million ways to provide great care for my kids. Although I don’t take care of my child as my wife does, that does not make my way wrong, and in the past, she has adopted some of my techniques.”
Thought: “I will wait for my wife to tell me what she needs help with in terms of the kids.”
Dispute: “It is not my wife’s responsibility to tell me what is needed, it is mine. I am not her helper I am just as much a parent to my child as she is.”
Thought: “It is too late for me to learn new skills.”
Dispute: “If I accepted a new work position, I would expect a learning curve as I develop proficiency. This is the same thing, I need to learn how to be a father to this child.”
Thought: “I am not good at childcare, but I am good at my job, so I should concentrate on working and capitalize on my talents.”
Dispute: “As with a new job, I should expect that it takes time to get good at being a father, and I should not avoid childcare tasks because that is how I am going to get proficient.
[i] Wang & Bianchi (2009)
[ii] Mikie et al., (2004)
[iii] Rominov, Giallo and Whelan (2016)