“Nature has this all backwards,” said John Cutler, 71, of Chevy Chase, Md., the father of 9-year-old twins from a second marriage after raising a son and daughter, now ages 40 and 37.
“I just got swept away with work when I was younger,” he said. “I was home for dinner every night at 6:30, but my mind wasn’t there,” he said. “I have more time now and I’m just more relaxed.”
Cutler retired after 40 years as a partner for a high-powered CPA firm, but still works part-time as an investment adviser. Still, the time pressures are not the same as when he was building his resume.
“I don’t have to worry anymore about billing hours, begging for collections and work product rates. Now, my favorite time of the day is mornings, when Kim leaves early,” he said, referring to his wife, an insurance broker. “I’m totally in charge. … I get the kids ready for school. I make French toast and then I do laundry.”
Such cozy domesticity would never have been a possibility back in the 1970s, when Cutler first became a parent, he acknowledged. “But society has changed, men have changed … our values are better balanced now.”
The AAP report – the first on fatherhood since 2004 – reflects this period of rapid transformation. In 2012, about 189,000 – or 3.4 percent – of all stay-at-home parents were men, according to U.S. census data. Almost one-third of that group was married to women working full-time, a lingering effect, in part, of the 2008 recession, when the manufacturing sector was hardest hit.
Whether the division of labor is made for pragmatic or other reasons, the evidence shows that kids reap substantial health benefits that are unique and complementary to the mother’s role, said Michael Yogman, an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the study.
“Fathers have quite an impact on their children’s health – academically, on their language development, their coping skills and their social competence,” he said. Their participation also helps reduce adverse outcomes, including delinquency, substance abuse and truancy, he added.
This new report is more diverse than earlier AAP studies, including some traditionally overlooked populations, such as military, gay and incarcerated dads. One of the key findings: Even when dads are not living in the same household, they provide more than financial support, but are more apt to teach essential life skills, such as exploration, curiosity and taking safe risks.
On the playground, fathers are the ones who encourage their children to go to the top of the jungle gym, “while mothers are biting their nails,” said Yogman, who is an ardent advocate of paid parental leave for all. He feels so strongly about the value of more rough-and-tumble activities that he writes a prescription for dads to play with their offspring.
Fred Schulman, 65, of Sanford, Fla., doesn’t need doctor’s orders to be more “hands-on” – both as a father and a husband. When he first wed in 1970, he was just 19 – and needed his mother’s signature to obtain a marriage license. The bride was pregnant “and that’s just what you did back then.”
The second time he was married, in 1992, he had an AARP card and was just much more mindful about relationships, he said. “I had the patience, the understanding and the hindsight to do better.”
A sales representative for a furniture manufacturer, Schulman never perceived himself as a workaholic, but the job required being on the road about one week a month. But even when he was home, he left most of the day-to-day parenting responsibilities of his two sons, now ages 46 and 41, to his wife.
Today, the gender roles are more fluid. His wife, Beth, a lawyer and accountant, is the primary breadwinner and he’s a stay-at-home father to 10-year-old Megan. Schulman takes her to and from school, and one day a week, he’s volunteering at the school store, which gives him a ringside seat to her social life. The closer scrutiny can be attributed to raising daughters vs. sons, but also to a shift in attitude, he said.
“With my boys, I thought it was cool to be a young Dad; to be contemporaries. Now I tell Megan ‘I’m not interested in being your friend.’ ”
If Schulman had to choose just one aspect of child-rearing where he’s totally immersed, it would be education, which he defines as going way beyond overseeing homework. He talks frequently to Megan about “instilling good values, about faith and gratitude” – conversations that were elusive as a younger dad.
“People aren’t born good; they learn to be good. This stuff all takes time … and you can’t give them that time if you’re not there.”
While some adult children may feel some resentment at Dad’s new-found attentiveness, Joel Hood said watching his dad embrace second-time parenthood has given them both a fresh way of bonding.
The Chicago resident, 38, is the father of 5-year-old Amelia. He often compares notes with John Hood, 69, dad to Zachary, age 4, in Chico, Calif. – which helps bridge not only generational differences, but geographic ones, as well.
“We are essentially raising kids at the same time,” said Joel Hood, whose parents divorced when both he and his younger sister, Ria, were in high school and middle school, respectively. “My Dad and I have always been close, but now we have this whole other connection. We used to talk about work or politics, now we talk about kids – sleeping, eating solid food, walking – just all the developmental milestones.”
The sharing goes beyond swapping anecdotes. When Amelia moved beyond pre-school books, her parents packed them off to mail to Zachary, who, despite being a year younger, is her uncle. “It’s a great feeling to know that he’s learning to read from the very same set of books.”
John Hood’s second tour of duty came when he remarried – and his new wife wanted to adopt, despite the fact that both were in their 60s. One of the few countries open to them was the Republic of Georgia, where it’s not uncommon for grandparents to raise grandchildren. “But I don’t think my dad would have done this again if he didn’t think he had a lot more to give.”
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