Valuing home duties and child care helps men cope with job loss
Job loss is traumatic. So is financial anxiety. But hands-on fathers who can juggle bath-time, playground jaunts and laundry duty are better equipped to deal with those than earlier generations of men, says the author of a new book on fatherhood.
In Daddy Shift, to be released next month, Jeremy Adam Smith explores how fathers' growing participation in childrearing and domestic duties is transforming modern families.
He says when dads are willing to embrace that, it helps parents and kids cope with the stress of a layoff or reduced work hours – especially at a time when men are harder hit by job losses than women.
"Something good has happened the last few decades and men now have the capacity to take care of their kids when women are in a position to be the breadwinners," Smith, 39, said in a phone interview from his San Francisco home. "If they can focus on that, it will help them to survive unemployment and it will help their families."
Smith's book, which reviews the history, economics and science of male caregiving, comes amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Statistics Canada reported earlier this year that two-thirds of those laid off in Canada were men. At the same time, more men have been taking parental leave following the birth of children and opting for fewer hours at work and more time with the kids.
Smith notes that in previous generations a male breadwinner who lost his job would likely withdraw from the family, his identity and self-worth shaken. "It would destroy him, he would actually spend less time around the house, less time with the children," says Smith.
While work is still at the core of most fathers' identity, more men are recognizing the importance and rewards of caring for kids.
"Today if the mother has the capacity (to earn) and the father is thrown into the role of being home, they are more likely to take that responsibility. They won't do it the way mothers do, but they'll do it."
Smith, a magazine editor and writer, became a stay-at-home dad for a year when his son Liko was age 1. He knows what it's like to do dishes with a fussy toddler in the backpack, crave adult company and never have a minute to himself.
He became a dad without a clue how to bathe or change a diaper. He became a primary caregiver while his wife was working full-time just because it was the best arrangement for the family at the time.
"At first I saw only the negative aspects: no regular work, no free time, no adult companionship, no respect ... this was not a role I embraced self-consciously," he writes in Daddy Shift.
But he soon marvelled at the bond he developed with his son and the sense of confidence and competence he gained as a parent. It changed him profoundly. And he thinks more men need to hear from fathers like him.
"My experience as a stay-at-home dad was a growing sense of power as a parent and as a man," he says. Guilt and blame are often used to motivate men to step up with childcare and chores, but Smith says the power angle is a better pitch.
"I think that's how you have to sell it to guys," he laughs. His book signals a shift in the discourse about fatherhood: one that encourages father involvement for the sake of men and their children – not just to help out mothers.
Liko, now 4, is in preschool and Smith and his wife, like a small but growing number of families, have alternated roles over the years. Daddy Shift is not about pitting one family's choices against another. It is more of a call-to-arms for this generation of fathers to be flexible and open-minded about their evolving roles.
Smith stresses that fathers aren't the only ones changing. Mothers have to be willing to let go of the reins and respect that fact that men look after kids differently, he says. In other words, don't judge fathers through the maternal lens.
Studies show men tend to be more comfortable with risk-taking by their offspring and less inclined to introduce toys or mediate a child's independent play.
Daddy Shift was written as a result of Smith's experiences and the dialogue with other parents on his blog Daddy Dialectic. Smith also cites leading Canadian research on fatherhood, including work by Ottawa professor Andrea Doucet and Kerry Daly of Guelph University, who runs the Fatherhood Involvement Research Alliance.
Smith says while there's no ideal formula for dividing and sharing parental roles, the key for the 21st century family is having the flexibility to cope with an unstable economy and an information age that has changed the rules of the working world.
"We haven't achieved economic equality between men and women but the equation has changed and men are changing in response. The question is are we going to embrace that?"