Mom still rules when it comes to taking
care of the kids, but dads are getting closer.
BY AMY NOVOTNEY
In 1968, only 20 percent of mothers with a child under age 5 were in the work force, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. By 2002, that number had reached nearly 60
percent, and by 2011, nearly 64 percent.
The shift has been especially profound among white women,
researchers say — and has led to fathers spending more time
caring for their kids than ever before. In fact, fathers have nearly
tripled the amount of time they dedicate to child care from
1965 to 2011, according to a 2013 report from the Pew Research
Center. They now report spending 7 percent of their time on
child care — compared with 2. 5 percent in 1965.
Mothers, while still devoting more of their time to taking
care of children than fathers, also reported an increase in the
time they spend on child care, from 10 percent in 1965 to 14
percent in 2011.
“Fathers have gone from being occasional assistant parents
to being much more active co-parents,” says Michael Lamb,
PhD, a Cambridge University psychology professor.
This gender convergence in the way mothers and fathers
divide their time between work and home is good for families,
says Ross Parke, PhD, a psychology professor at the University
of California, Riverside, and author of “Future Families” ( Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). Decades of research by Parke and others
suggest that parental roles are to some extent interchangeable
— that fathers and mothers both can serve as competent
caregivers and provide the critical ingredients for children’s
And while, traditionally, mothers’ and fathers’ styles of
interacting with babies and toddlers have differed, with mothers
providing more gentle and verbal interactions and fathers
engaging in more physical, rough-and-tumble play, children
develop into capable social and intellectual individuals in
families in which parental roles are reversed and shared equally,
“We’re in a period of flux, where you can almost think
of parenting as kind of a cafeteria model, with various
components that need to be included, such as nurturance,
sensitivity, educational guidance, stimulation,” Parke says.
“Historically and culturally, this was often a function of gender,
but it could be as the roles change and we move away from the
two-parent, picket fence 1950s family, parents can choose the
components they’re most comfortable with providing. The
Evidence also suggests that mothers and fathers are
providing similar levels of support and advice to children into
young adulthood. In a 2012 study, for example, researchers
led by Karen Fingerman, PhD, a psychology professor at
the University of Texas at Austin, surveyed 633 middle-aged
mothers and fathers about how often they provided emotional,
financial and practical support and advice to their adult
children. They found no difference in the amount of support
fathers provided compared with mothers, and no difference in
the amount of support needed by sons or daughters. Fingerman
says she has seen similar findings in several recent studies
related to rates of parent-child contacts and strength of parent-
child ties among this cohort.
“Mothers are still more involved — both emotionally and
on a day-to-day basis — but not consistently and not as much
as they were in older generations,” Fingerman says. “That’s not
necessarily because mothers are less involved. It’s likely because
fathers are more involved. Some fathers who are divorced or
never married the mother may not have a relationship with
their grown children. But the involved fathers are looking a lot
more like mothers, which is a great finding because it means
we’re seeing more family cohesion, even after the kids are
Amy Novotney is a journalist in Chicago.