Helen Fisher, PhD

The New (Prehistoric) Dad

What will you do on Father’s Day?  Skip it?   From the results of a new study of 1500 men, that’s what many men expect.  

How odd that we overlook this holiday.  Fatherhood is human.  New fossil finds from East Africa suggest that ancestral men and women began to form pair-bonds over four million years ago, rearing their children as a team.   Men still parent—everywhere in the world.   Moreover, I shall maintain that men are moving forward, busting entrenched myths about men’s roles as fathers and reassuming ancestral behaviors toward their young.

As this survey vividly shows, men are no longer scuttling off to play ballgames with comrades as the chores of parenting mount around them; instead men are taking on fatherhood with pride and gusto.  Some 68% of the men reported that they bonded with their baby in about the same amount of time as did the mother.   Fathers are sharing housework too.   Almost half (48%) of new dads say they are equally busy in the laundry room; 46% do just as many dishes; 34% prepare just as many family meals; and 43% spend equal time with the mop and vacuum cleaner as your partners.  Yet dads also continue their traditional responsibilities of yard work, auto care and household repair.  

Dads are changing their priorities too.  Time with single and childless friends; hours playing group sports; watching television: these have all become less important, these men report.  Some 50% are more conscious of their health.  And 44% say that parenting has made them more practical. 

Moreover, 70% find fatherhood fulfilling; 72% are confident in their parenting ability; 58% feel they spend enough quality time with their children; and 89% think they are good fathers.   In fact, 59% believe they are better dads than their fathers were.   Their own fathers, these dads estimate, were better at providing financially; but they believe that they spend more time caring for and educating their children, as well and more quality time with their partner.   Indeed, 54% feel closer to their parenting partner.

In 1989, sociologist Arlie Hochschild wrote a highly popular book, The Second Shift, about the struggles of working women who also do the vast majority of childcare and housework.  Are men now struggling with the second shift as well?  Perhaps. Some 48% of these dads also report that they have become more stressed with fatherhood.

This study captures a sea change in men’s parenting attitudes and behaviors.  As women have poured into the paid labor force, they have smashed long held myths about women’s interests and priorities—particularly the mantra that a woman’s place is in the home.  But men are smashing stereotypes of men as well.  They are assuming more duties around the house. And this is natural.  In fact, both sexes are returning to habits our forebears developed long ago.  For millions of years ancestral women commuted to work to gather fruits and vegetables, returning home with over 50% of the evening meal.  Women were crucial to the labor force.  And men were crucial in the home.   Men educated the boys.   And when in camp, they helped to entertain, soothe and educate their growing young.

Do dads think differently than moms?  “Yes,” replied 91% of fathers in this survey.   I was glad to see this response.   Some Americans would have us believe that men and women are (almost) exactly alike.  What nonsense.   Men and women are, on average, different in many ways.  But men and women are like two feet:  They need each other to get ahead.  And as the roles of women expand, men’s roles are expanding too.  Unchained from rigid traditions that arose during our farming past and have kept men out of the nursery for centuries, men can once again express who their really are–energetic, caring, responsible, available dads.