Give fathers freedom to be good dads

By Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober
San Francisco Chronicle
June 18, 2006

What Father's Day gift does dad really need? Barbeque tongs, a new fishing rod, the Elmo tie? Let's skip the mall and get fathers something valuable, something we moms alone can give: freedom to be good dads.

According to the Families and Work Institute, 64 percent of working dads feel they don't spend enough hours with their kids – a far higher rate than working moms. Surveys also show men worry about family as much as women, though dads aren't as vocal about it But, when dads do get the chance to parent, the payoff is huge – for both our kids and for our husbands.

In 2006 the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development completes a 15-year longitudinal study tracking more than 1,000 kids from birth to adolescence – the most comprehensive work yet on what really affects how kids turn out. One eye-opener: Dads who parent well produce the most competent children regardless of what we moms do. Another study found that when dads do 40 percent of parenting, their children show better cognitive skills, self-control and empathy. And research has long shown engaged dads enjoy better mental and physical health.

In our own lives, we've found that we moms can do three things that free up fathers most. When we succeed in doing them, men have an easier time being the fathers they want to be.

• Be a breadwinner. We've all seen the fear in a father's face when pay cuts and layoffs loom. On the hook alone, sole-breadwinner dads have little career independence, spend more hours at the office and fewer hours with kids. But when mom makes enough to support the family, a lot can change: Dad can make room for his kids and leave work when needed. And if his boss objects, dad can change jobs or start his own business knowing his family will be fine. That's been our experience and the research reflects this pattern – dads are more involved with children when moms work more. The study also concludes that kids with 100 percent maternal care fare no better on average than those with working mothers.

Does more time for fatherhood hurt dad's career? Not necessarily. A doctor friend returned to full-time practice so her husband could work a 4-day week. He wanted to see more of his kids and write a book – while leading a practice at a major hospital. This kind of story isn't rare. A 40-year study on fatherhood found that dads who invest more in their children get farther in their careers than dads who don't.

• Butt out. "So here I was, breaking up a fight between my kids," a man told us, "and my lovely wife swoops down and tells me I'm doing it all wrong."

Letting dads parent their own way takes a lot of self-control from we moms. Pointers on diaper rash are hard to hold back and we know first-hand how dads' motivation declines with each piece of maternal "advice." When Joanna took a job with more travel, her husband had one condition: no more micromanagement from the road. Left alone with kids, dads provide great parenting and find it just as satisfying as we do. Research says fathers do more care-giving (and kids embrace it) when we moms step back.

• Triage to-dos. When we're willing to negotiate the task list at home, we create time, lower conflict and help dads too. We are the best-educated, best-trained generation of women in human history. But even with full-time jobs, moms still do more at home and often say they've given up trying to change things. But when we get resentful, it's harder for men to perform well as dads. What's to be done?

Marriage expert Joshua Coleman says "When moms have rigid standards, dads walk away from the bargaining table." On the other hand, it's a lot easier to split the load if dad thinks the list makes sense. Sharon spent days designing a treasure hunt for her 3 year-old's birthday party. Her husband's view: A 3-year-old feels special with hats, horns and cake – the rest is for parents, not for the kids. It's hard to face, but sometimes dads see things clearly that we moms just miss.

So, this Father's Day, let's clear some space for dad's most important role. Bread win and free him to find the right job, let him parent the way only dads can and cut the chore list so it's more easily shared. We moms get something too: studies say dads who do more with their kids have the happiest wives.

Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober both work in finance and live with their families in the Bay Area. They are writing a book called "Opting in" about women and work.



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