My dad was the primary cook for my family growing up. Learning from him, I handle most of the cooking in my family. I generally like cooking, although the meal planning, prep, and grocery shopping can get tedious. When my wife tells others that I do all the cooking, she is often told: “you are so lucky” or “he’s a keeper!” Yet, no one has ever said to me: “You’re lucky that your wife schedules all the play dates for your kids”, or “How did you manage to find a wife that is so good at comforting your kids when they are upset?” There is a clear parenting double standard; everyone just assumes that mothers are good, involved parents whereas fathers are praised when they help out with just a few of these tasks.
The parenting double standard is fueled by gender gaps in domestic labor, with mothers spending significantly more time doing childcare, housework, and cognitive labor than fathers. Although fathers are expected to – and say they want to be – more engaged parents compared to fathers in previous generations, these attitudinal changes have not been enough to reduce persisting patterns of gender inequality in domestic labor.
In my new book, Father Involvement and Gender Equality in the United States: Contemporary Norms and Barriers, I seek to understand why this gap between fathers’ attitudes and behaviors exists, and what we can do to get fathers more involved at home and promote greater gender equality. Using data from national surveys, interviews with fathers, and my own fatherhood experiences, I argue that vague expectations of how involved fathers should be coupled with the persistence of traditional gender norms and workplace barriers enable gender disparities in domestic labor to persist.
In contrast to mothers who are expected to be intensely involved parents, fathers are simply expected to be more involved. The lack of clear expectations for father involvement enables fathers to view themselves as highly engaged when they help out with childcare and housework, yet still defer to mothers as being primarily responsible for these tasks. Additionally, even when fathers want to share domestic tasks, gendered ideal worker norms and limited access to flexible work options makes it difficult for fathers to be as involved at home as they would like to be.
To achieve greater gender equality, I argue that we need to embrace a new concept of fatherhood that I call the fully engaged dad concept of fatherhood. The fully engaged dad concept suggests that fathers should be equal parents and partners to mothers, being fully engaged in all aspects of domestic life including childcare, housework, and cognitive labor. By believing that fathers should be as equally involved in domestic tasks as mothers, holding fathers accountable to these expectations, and providing structural opportunities for fathers to meet this cultural standard, we can work to eliminate parenting double standards and achieve greater gender equality.
Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University, and serves on the board of directors for the Council on Contemporary Families. You can read more about his research at www.richardpetts.com and can follow him on Twitter @pettsric.