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What happens — or should happen — when dad is lead parent?

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New America
Publication Date: 
29 Sep 2015



Andrew Moravcsik has held many titles: political scientist, Princeton professor, father, and husband to Anne-Marie Slaughter, New America’s President and CEO. He can now add to that list: author of “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First,” which quickly became the most popular article on The Atlantic’s web site after its publication on September 10 and which “Good Morning America” featured the following morning. Slaughter and Moravcsik both spoke about their experiences as professionals and parents on NPR’s Weekend Edition, with Moravcsik describing in detail what it was like being “lead parent” to two teenagers.

After decades of making the case that “women [with children] cannot compete fairly with men when they are doing two jobs and men are only doing one,” he writes in The Atlantic, just asking men to “help more at home” isn’t the answer. “Men must also take the lead.” For him, being a lead parent to two teenage boys means “being on the front lines of everyday life” — the go-to parent, the emergency contact, “the one” who steps in when things happen. Acknowledging that many dads in similar situations struggle with the cultural barriers and feelings of isolation or inadequacy in their roles, Moravcsik concludes that at the heart of it, being a lead parent “unlocks a capacity for caring and closeness that can last a lifetime.”

Moravcsik’s article previews this and other takeaways from Slaughter’s book, Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, which is in stores this week. The book highlights growing communities of experts and dads on the ground who — day in and day out — are figuring out what being a lead parent is all about.

New America reached out to a number leaders in these communities to ask them to weigh in on the challenges and rewards for dads in lead parenting roles. We asked these dads and experts:

What are the challenges and rewards for dads in lead parenting? Is there one thing that you would do to change the conversation around care work for men—and if so, what would it be?

Take time to be a hands-on parent right from Day 1. Whether your organization offers paid paternity leave or you take vacation time or unpaid time off, it is important to be present and involved in the first weeks of your child’s life. While 89 percent of the fathers in our 2014 paternity leave study rated paternity leave as important, fewer than 15 percent of companies offer that benefit. Fathers should be vocal in asking their employers about paid leave to increase the demand for and conversations about this benefit.

When men fail to be active co-parents in the first few months of the child’s life, it sets up a pattern that is difficult to change. For three, four, or six months, most mothers develop a close bond with their child as well as the confidence and competence to become the primary caregiver. As a result, fathers are often cast in the role of a supporting actor. Unless some extraordinary event occurs—for example the father takes an extended leave following the mother’s return to work—there seems to be a low likelihood that the roles will be reversed or even equalized.

Men who seek to be shared-caregivers with their spouses or significant others should understand the critical role the earliest days of a child’s life plays in bonding with their children, building confidence in their child care skills, and establishing their role as an equal partner in parenting. Aside from breastfeeding, men have the ability to perform most caregiving tasks. Dads must be willing to set traditional gender norms aside and negotiate new family roles with their partners. Fathers’ involvement at home can also increase the ability of their wives to continue and develop their careers.

The more men speak up about their caregiving roles, take advantage of work-life policies, and demonstrate their support for other fathers, the more involved fatherhood will be accepted as the norm.

We encourage dads to be vocal about the importance of their caregiving role with their employers and advocate for more family-friendly workplace policies like paternity leave and a flexible work environment. The more men speak up about their caregiving roles, take advantage of work-life policies, and demonstrate their support for other fathers, the more involved fatherhood will be accepted as the norm.

-Professor Brad Harrington, Executive Director, Boston College Center for Work and Family; Research Professor, Carroll School of Management

When it comes to viewing and respecting men as caregivers, a lot of important groups are on board. Our wives and partners, of course, are the happiest about it, because seeing dads as uninterested, ineffective, ride-along parents puts an outsized burden on the moms — one they don’t need or deserve. Brands have pulled a complete 180 with their messaging, embracing and encouraging dads in videos that sometimes go viral, and other times become Super Bowl ads seen by half the planet. Academic research is showing over and over that having a dad is a vital good for a kid, and by extension, society as a whole.

Paid paternity leave is also developing a full head of steam. Governments are convening committees and developing policies that are catching up to modern living. Large, progressive tech companies are overhauling choices for working families, because it’s becoming known as good business (and it keeps up with market forces). And the leave itself is being reevaluated as a time for a dad to bond with his child, rather than merely to hang around and “help Mom.”

The problem remains, however, that although more leave is available, men aren’t taking as much as they can. And that’s because of the other men in their lives who dismiss caring as a male virtue. Taking time away from work to devote to your family still carries a stigma, either because of the entrenched (and debunked) notion that more work always equals more productivity, or worse, because caring is perceived to diminish a man’s manhood.

I want to take some of these non-believers about 20 years into the future, to see what our society will look like with more women in leadership and government positions and more men caring for kids.

I want to take some of these non-believers about 20 years into the future, to see what our society will look like with more women in leadership and government positions and more men caring for kids. Any couple allowed to play to its respective strengths in order to raise a family will be happier and more productive, and I’m convinced that, as stereotypes fade away, this is exactly what our country’s future holds.

-Doug French, Co-Founder and Director of Programming, Dad 2.0 Summit

When Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece Why Women Still Can’t Have It All — chronicling the difficulty maintaining a high-powered career while still being able to nurture her teenage sons — became the most read article in The Atlantic’s history, the field of work/life, long in the shadows, catapulted to center stage. It hit a nerve with women and men. Now her husband Andrew Moravcsik has written, also in The Atlantic, about his experience as the primary parent. This too is part of a new wave of interest among men, especially millennial men.

When my first child was born, in 1987, and I was inspired to shift the focus of my research from leadership to work/life, I met significant, albeit well-meaning, resistance from my students and my mentors. “We’re here to learn about business, not family,” some students said, and “Why give up a promising career to study a women’s issue?” colleagues cautioned. There were, back then, some men taking on the primary parenting role, but they were pioneers. I was often the only man in the room at work/life conferences.

But almost three decades later it’s an entirely different world. Our 20-year longitudinal research on Wharton students indicates that men now want and expect to be engaged and involved fathers, unlike the male graduates from 1992 for whom this was not a salient issue. Indeed, in recent cohorts I’ve heard for the first time that some male students aspire to be at-home dads — and these are Wharton students! One of our alums, Matt Schneider (Wharton 1997), founded NYC Dad’s Group, which has spawned similar groups for engaged and at-home fathers across the country. Another, Jason Toff (Wharton 2007), who works at Twitter, has been vocal about taking his full paternity leave for a variety of reasons, including setting an example for his direct reports. Last year a group of Wharton men (mostly from our super-macho rugby club team) founded a group called The 22s (signifying the percentage pay gap between men and women) with the intent of finding ways to enlarge the issue of work and life to include more men. Of course it’s not just Wharton men. There is a veritable cottage industry of daddy bloggers, stay-at-home dads, and communities for dads like the new web site Fatherly. Indeed, men, like Josh Levs and others, are now suing their employers for the right to take parental leave.

As women have been doing for decades — straddling two roles, one at home and one at work — we now see that men are increasingly embracing their dual roles as breadwinners and caregivers. We are seeing more and more choices available for men and women in work and family. Change is difficult and it takes time, but the more high-profile people like Moravcsik and Slaughter, newscaster Josh Levs, and athletes such as Daniel Murphy of the Mets set an example, tell their stories, air their desire to be nurturing, involved parents, the more this will make the weird seem normal and the faster we’ll realize the dream of real freedom for men and women to lead the lives they truly want without fear of stigma.

-Professor Stewart D. Friedman, Director of Wharton Work/Life Integration Project and Founder of Total Leadership

-reprinted from New America 

Entered Date: 
30 Mar 2016
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