A few decades ago, most talk of fatherhood had a straight-up Don Draper-style emphasis on breadwinning. Toronto dad Michael Cusden remembers his dad “just kind of came home from work, had dinner and read the paper and then we went to bed. That’s what dad was to us.” A much more hands-on father, Michael is a digital marketing professional and creator of a blog called Like A Dad. He says the upside with today’s model is, “I know my kids way better. I know what they like. I know their personalities. I know how their day was.” While Michael admits that balancing it all can be stressful, he says, “My dad says he kind of wished he lived in a generation where he got to do it.”
We thought it was time to ask dads what fatherhood is like for them today. What are their new struggles, joys and expectations? Here’s what we learned.
Today, leagues of engaged dads like Michael are slowly refashioning what fatherhood looks like. For example, 2011 Statistics Canada figures found that 30 percent of eligible fathers filed for parental leave benefits in 2010—a nine-fold increase over the previous six years (and a stat that had held steady in the years since). StatsCan also reported in 2011 that the number of stay-at-home dads had tripled over 30 years, and that the number of families headed by single dads is rising.
Dads are reportedly pitching in more with childcare and housework, too. And on the consumer side, a 2013 Nielsen Homescan study found that in 43 percent of Canadian households, men are either primary or co-grocery shoppers, double the number from 2008. Advertisers have taken note, and we’re seeing more commercials today featuring competent dads buying cereal and keeping whites white in the laundry instead of the stereotypical bumbling dad ineptitude.
Yet while we see more dads at playgroups and pushing grocery carts and strollers, our parenting conversations and programs are still overwhelmingly aimed at mothers. In fact, as researchers and dads alike will tell you, when it comes to the modern dad, we’re still getting used to him and learning how to support his decision to be more engaged with his kids. As Michael says, “When I was off on parental leave, definitely, it took me a while to get over the fact that when you go out on a Wednesday morning with a kid in a stroller, people look at you like, ‘What’s up with that? Like, is he unemployed? What’s going on?’”
Today more Canadian fathers are taking advantage of parental leave benefits. Yet invariably, dads told us, people’s first reaction is still surprise. Michael, who took off six months with his second son, and another couple of months after a cross-country move, says people are “more surprised than anything. They say, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know men could do that.’ Especially in Canada they always think the 12 months is just for the mom; they never realize it’s called ‘parental’ leave and it can be split up however you want.”
Like Michael, Jason Best, a dad from Oshawa, Ont., also shared parental leave benefits with his wife. Starting when each of his two sons were three months old, Jason stayed home for two three-month stints. “The time that I spent with them was so great,” he says. “It gave me a chance to get to know them and learn who they are and learn about this whole father thing. It doesn’t come with instructions so it’s a learning process and the more you do it, the better you are, I guess.”
Dads like Michael and Jason talk casually about schedules and routines. But researchers are finding that dads’ early experience with their little ones actually has profound long-term implications. For starters, a man’s leave can support his partner’s career—Jason’s leave, for example, reduced his wife’s time away from her practice.
Francine de Montigny, a researcher, clinician and nurse in Gatineau, Que., says that’s just the start in terms of benefits. “We know that the mothers who have an involved spouse are more satisfied with their marital relationship. Fathers, too, perceive their relationship more positively, she says, and a dad’s early involvement builds his competency and self-esteem, and entrenches childcare routines and overall commitment. “If the couple eventually separates, a father will have bonded with his child and will want to stay involved in the child’s life and that also means financial support for the mother,” she says.
Yet it’s not all smooth sailing for modern fathers wanting a hands-on role. Dads have few role models, says Francine. Brian Russell, a contributor to Dad Central Ontario, says we still need to change our cultural expectations, and look at fathers as “parents, and not look at them suspiciously, not look at them as buffoons who don’t know what they’re doing, not feel sympathy for them in a way that is actually disrespectful to them in their role.” How many dads today still get called “amazing” simply because they’re caring for their own children?
At the same time, dads’ deeper needs can get ignored. With doctors, social workers and extended family, postpartum dads can feel like “a piece of furniture,” Francine says, amidst the rush to support new moms and babies. But she says that Quebec has tried some countermeasures. In 2006, the province instituted funding for five weeks of parental leave just for fathers—paternity leaves skyrocketed from 10 percent of Quebec dads in 2001 to over 80 percent in 2010. Quebec is also encouraging medical professionals to create space for new fathers’ needs, says Francine, even if that’s just asking if they have questions. “It’s simple, but it needs to be done more often,” she says.
Where are employers in all this? When they discussed leaves, Michael and Jason both say their employers and coworkers were supportive—but also surprised. Of course, workplace attitudes differ and other dads must worry about negative job evaluations and advancement. And once back at work, men talk of struggling to balance work and family. As Michael says, “It bums me out when the week goes by and you feel like you didn’t even get to really see your kids.”
While this kind of work-life debate is second nature for moms, Francine says for men it’s “something new, kind of an added pressure.” On the plus side, currently there seems to be a kind of snowball effect with paternity leaves. Last year The New York Times reported that “when a man’s co-workers took paternity leave, it increased the chance that he would take it by 11 percentage points.” As more men take time off, more family-friendly workplace norms may result.
But back to those dads pushing strollers. Away from the workplace, dads caring for their kids report more struggles with isolation and lack of support than female counterparts. In Oshawa, Jason felt lucky to have his sister around, who was also home with her kids while he was off. In Michael’s case, “The hard part was there weren’t a lot of dads. And even if there are dads, we’re more likely to go to the park and play with our kids. We kind of do our own thing. We’re not as social as moms are.”
Kevin Barske, a Winnipeg dad, agrees: “It’s just a little bit awkward. You can’t really, without feeling like you’re hitting on them, say ‘Hey, our kids seem to be getting along, do you want to go for a coffee or have a play date at our house?’ It just seems really odd.”
Brian says dads need other dads. “It’s not even that they have to sit down and have specific dad conversations—but just being amongst other men in the same situation as them can be very comforting.” But we should keep in mind, Brian adds, that dads’ needs actually vary a lot, depending on their socio-economic and individual circumstances. Dads drawn to his discussion groups, he says, tend to have specific needs, whether they’re single fathers, unemployed or have custody issues.
No Turning Back
Undoubtedly, the trend of increased father engagement will continue. And in talking with dads who are highly engaged with their children, you get a sense of one other aspect to all of this—and that’s the incredible passion men bring to this role. “To be honest with you, I love it. My kids are fun and bring me so much joy,” says Jason.
Asked what he think his kids are gaining, Kevin’s voice wavers unexpectedly: “Sorry I’m getting all emotional here. You know, I’ve been able to be at all their stuff, like all their ballet practices and swimming lessons. And that really means a lot to me. And I think that looking back when they’re older, having a parent, in my case their dad, always there for them will be something that they’ll treasure.”
And hopefully, Brian says, soon we’ll come to view this kind of engaged-dad behaviour as nothing unusual at all. “Most guys will say ‘I’m just being a dad. Like, what would you expect me to do?’ ”
Things to Note When Talking to Dads
- Calling it “babysitting” when a dad cares for his own children.
- Being amazed when dads manage simple tasks like diapering or pushing a stroller.
- Jumping in to help a dad, if you wouldn’t help a mom in the same situation.
- Saying “good for you” when a man is out with all of his children at the same time.
- Respecting contributions from both parents equally.
- Making dads feel welcome in parent groups.
- Asking for both parents’ opinions at school, daycare and health-care settings.
- Politely countering all those knee-jerk assumptions.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June 2015.