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Introduction to How Fatherhood Works

As one of six children being raised by her widowed father, 16-year-old Sonora Smart-Dodd felt bad for dad while sitting through a Mother's Day sermon at her Spokane, Washington, church in 1909. Recruiting her reverend and the local YMCA, Smart-Dodd spearheaded an annual celebration of fatherhood, first held on June 19, 1910, just a couple weeks shy of her dad's birthday [source: Scott]. Then, after decades of government and advertising publicity campaigns, Father's Day finally became a national holiday in 1972, when President Richard Nixon -- himself the father of two daughters -- signed a proclamation reserving every third Sunday in June for its observance.

But what exactly does Fathers' Day celebrate about the 70 million men who claim the title of "Dad" in the United States [source: U.S. Census Bureau]? Unlike motherhood, which involves a specific set of biological processes, fathering can seem like a scientifically nebulous concept. In the animal kingdom, in fact, fatherhood is a bit of an anomaly. Certainly, sexual reproduction requires both male and female contributions, but the dad doesn't always have to stick around to ensure offspring survival. Male chimpanzees and bonobos, humans' closest primate relatives, don't monkey around with their progeny at all, for instance, and only 5 percent of mammalian species practice routine paternal caregiving [source: Martin]. In that way, invested fatherhood is a uniquely human trait that anthropologist Margaret Mead once referred to a "biological necessity and a social accident" [source: Hewlett].

Those social trappings and expectations of fatherhood have been in constant flux for centuries. They also vary from society to society, ranging from the East African Kipsigi men -- who don't hold new infants for the first year -- at one end of the spectrum, to the Central African Aga men -- who collectively spend more time with their kids than any other papas on the planet -- on the other [source: Cooney]. Meanwhile, Western fellows tend to fall somewhere in between, spending a handful of hours with their sons and daughters during the week.

Beyond clocking in and out of hours with the little ones, the cultural history of American fatherhood in particular also reveals a deeper relationship between men and parenting that's driven less by family dynamics than economic inertia.

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American Dad: A Brief History

By 1910, when Sonora Smart-Dodd's dream of pioneering Father's Day came to fruition, the paternal role in Western society had already undergone a significant transition. Thanks in large part to the Industrial Revolution, which rumbled to life around 1750, agrarian society, which focused family life around at-home production of goods and services and earning income off the land, had come to a close. And with that, the role of dads shifted beyond the homestead, simultaneously transferring primary parental responsibilities to hearthside moms [source: Mintz].

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the father had long been considered the primary parent, an idealized combination of provider and intellectual caregiver. That primitive patriarchal model stretched back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and held more or less stable during the ensuing centuries, reinforced by religious doctrine. Legally and culturally, men were granted authority over their wives, children and land, a default position of power demonstrated by the direct coverture laws that denied wives property rights, down to the symbolic throne-like armchairs that became the sanctioned seat for dad in early American homes [source: Mintz]. In addition to their more disciplinarian duties, pre-Industrial Revolution fathers also guided their children's academic and religious upbringing, and in divorce cases, judges almost universally granted child custody to dads -- a legal trend that would eventually swing in favor of mothers [Larossa].

By the mid-1800s, mothering had become the cherished and lauded parental function. Fathers toiling in industrial centers outside the home cemented their job duty of bringing home the bacon, while child psychologists and women's publications of the day exalted the nurturing that dutiful wives and mothers had to offer. Although a distinction between so-called women's work -- cooking, cleaning -- and men's work -- farming, manual labor -- had existed previously, the geographical cleaving of the home and workplace effectively promoted the mother-child bond as the fundamental parent-child relationship. The tumultuous first half of the 20th century, which bumped along with the Great Depression, World War I and World War II, further molded the institutional fatherhood ethos of masculinity and moneymaking.

In recent decades, American dads once again reached a crossroads between worker and caregiver roles, spurred by the rise of a complementary breadwinner: the working mom. Although the close of World War II sent many women back home from their temporary wartime employment, they wouldn't stay in the kitchen for long. From 1948 to 2001, the rate of mothers working outside the home doubled, and as of 2010, 70 percent of moms with school-aged children were employed [source: American Psychological Association and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics]. Soon, the detached dad of the post-War era would be a cultural relic -- replaced by a new kind of fatherhood.

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New Fatherhood and the Modern Family

In many ways, 21st-century fatherhood emulates the softer sides of parenting. The desire to provide economically for their families hasn't disappeared among men, yet they don't see gainful employment as their primary role anymore. A 2010 survey of new dads conducted by Boston College found that a majority considered childcare as important, if not more important than, earning a paycheck [source: Harrington, Deusen and Humberd]. Detailed demographic data from the fatherhood research also indicates a shift in attitudes among younger generations of dads who embrace a broader range of paternal responsibilities that bridge emotional and financial support. For instance, survey participants over 40 years old were more likely to perceive fatherhood as strictly a breadwinner role, compared to their younger counterparts [source: Harrington, Deusen and Humberd].

Also, with flexible work options and paternity leave becoming more common benefits in the workplace, dads are investing more time in their children, not because they have to but because they want to. Sweden, for instance, has become known for its generous parental leave policies, guaranteeing new fathers at least two months off at 80 percent of their salary. Consequently, 85 percent of Swedish dads take advantage of their paternity leave, staying home an average 84 days in 2002 [source: Bennhold]. The United States, on the other hand, doesn't offer legally protected paternity leave, and American dads rarely leave the office for more than a week following the birth of a new child. Perhaps for that reason, 77 percent of U.S. fathers report wanting more quality time with their kids [source: Harrington, Deusen and Humberd].

The rise of the at-home dad is another signpost of this melding of the motherhood and fatherhood dichotomy. And like a reverse exodus of the Industrial Revolution-era fathers from homesteads, economic forces have swept millennial men back over the threshold. With the Great Recession disproportionately gouging male-dominated industry sectors, the percentage of working moms out-earning their husbands leapt to 25.9 percent in 2007 [source: Mantell]. In 2010, the U.S. Census estimated 154,000 at-home dads, a 60 percent jump from 2004 [source: Randall]. Moreover, University of Texas associate professor and at-home father expert Aaron Rochlen suspects the actual number to be much higher, since the Census Bureau doesn't count gay households, single fathers, or dads who earned any income in the at-home tally.

Yet a debate still simmers on many home fronts about who does what behind closed front doors, and more specifically, about what exactly dads do.

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What does the modern dad do?

Two of the quintessential dad activities that have persisted in the American cultural mindset for decades are mowing the lawn and playing catch. For many families, those images still ring true, with modern dads remaining the go-to sports facilitators, whereas moms more often regiment housework and homework [source: Cullen and Grossman]. In addition, dads with the option engage more with sons than daughters [source: Gray and Anderson]. But the laundry list of other domestic duties and kid interactions that men take on has certainly lengthened since women entered the workforce en masse in the 1970s.

For starters, today's dads spend far more time hanging out with their kids than their paternal predecessors did. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, working wives provide just 17 minutes more childcare per day than working husbands, which amounts to a three-fold increase in paternal participation since 1965 [source: Konigsberg]. Meanwhile, the specific household chores husbands and wives take on still split into stereotypical pink and blue territory. A 2005 study published in the journal Sex Roles surveyed same-sex and heterosexual couples about who does what around the home. Predictably, hetero husbands mowed the lawn, took out the trash and drove the family car, and their wives tended to grocery shopping, ironing and laundry [source: Solomon, Rothblum and Balsam]. Interestingly, homosexual couples in the same study divvied up the tasks more evenly, regardless of which partner earned more money.

Where employed moms and dads are beginning to meet in the middle, in addition to the childcare hours they put in, is the stress of striking a work-life balance. A common complaint among career-minded moms, the work-life tug of war has become a salient issue for husbands as well. A 2008 survey from the National Study of the Changing Workforce found, for the first time, that employed fathers actually experience more career-family conflict than working mothers [source: Harrington, Deusen and Humberd].

Perhaps because of that job stress, fathers are slightly more likely to take a backseat as disciplinarians. A 2005 study on couple conflict conducted at George Mason University noted that, while different fathers may see themselves as more or less authoritarian than their spouses, mothers almost always considered themselves the more authoritarian parents [source: Winsler, Madigan and Aquilino]. Nevertheless, when it comes to enforcing family rules, dads are more consistent and systematic in laying down the law [source: Cullen and Grossman].

But if Margaret Mead was right, and fatherhood is more a product of human society than biological necessity, do dads make any difference in children's lives?

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What difference do dads make?

Today's dads are slightly more likely to give their kids hugs than dads of families past were. According to research published in 2002 by Scott Coltrane, fatherhood expert and sociologist at the University of California, Riverside, 93 percent of fathers give their children a squeeze at least once a week, compared to 90 percent the previous decade [source: University of California]. A hugging statistic may seem trivial, but that physical contact can have profound ripple effects. As recent research on father-child relationships catches up to the reams of data collected on maternal bonding, it clearly indicates that receiving affection from dad is equally important to maternal doting [source: American Psychological Association].

In a nutshell, active and engaged fathers have a positive long-term effect on sons and daughters. Having dad around the house is associated with higher academic achievement, as well as lower rates of substance abuse and delinquency. For instance, a 2004 analysis of 24 longitudinal studies on father involvement reiterated that paternal engagement helps produce smarter, happier boys and girls who stay out of trouble [source: Sarkadi et al]. Even fathers tidying up or mowing the lawn with kids in tow can reap rewards beyond spotless homesteads. UC Riverside sociologist Scott Coltrane and his colleague Michele Adams charted a correlation between dads who cleaned their houses and kids with better-adjusted social skills [source: Lovekin].

But what about when dad isn't around? According to the National Center for Fathering, 39 percent of school-aged kids and teenagers don't live with their biological fathers and are five times more likely to live in poverty [source: National Center for Fathering]. Due to the high percentage of single-mother homes, the U.S. government also funds the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse as a way to encourage active fatherhood among American men and study how it relates to child outcomes.

At the same time, with lesbian and gay households becoming more common, it should also be noted that the child outcome advantages of having an involved father isn't so much the product of gender, but parenting resources. A 2010 study from New York University found that children in loving lesbian households fare as well as children with loving heterosexual parents, since both sets of kids receive support and resources -- financial, emotional, intellectual -- from two people [source: Bryner]. In fact, lead researcher Judith Stacey suggested that gay fathers may turn out to be the best fathers, since the hurdles they must cross to adopt a child speak to their commitment to fostering his or her brightest future [source: Conger].

And not only do dads have a positive impact on children, fatherhood can be a boon for men, too.

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How Fatherhood Affects Men

After pop superstar Beyonce Knowles gave birth to daughter Blue Ivy in January 2012, her husband, rapper Jay-Z, publicly promised to quit referring to women in his lyrics as a not-so-nice term for female dogs [source: Wade]. Perhaps, Occidental College sociologist Lisa Wade conjectured, that verbal about-face was a real world example of how fatherhood can alter a man's mindset. To support this idea, Wade pointed to a 2011 study published by a team of Stanford University sociologists in which the researchers discovered that having a daughter, as opposed to a son, can diminish a new father's gender biases [source: Shafer and Malhotra]. In Jay-Z's case, he wouldn't want to hear Blue Ivy slurred on account of being female, hence he felt compelled to eliminate similar sentiments in his own vocabulary.

Having a child certainly impacts a new parent's mindset in various ways for the sheer fact of having direct responsibility for someone else's well-being. It's common knowledge that pregnancy can irrevocably change a woman's body, leaving behind stretch marks, swollen breasts and wider hips. More recent scientific attention paid toward fathers also underscores that becoming a dad can have a physical effect on men as well. For instance, doctors acknowledge that Couvade syndrome, or sympathetic pregnancy, isn't out of the ordinary for expecting fathers [source: Nippodlt]. A 2009 British survey found that men gained an average of 14 pounds (6 kilograms) during their partners' pregnancies, which could be attributed to sympathetic pregnancy, and other Couvade syndrome symptoms include nausea, leg cramps and backaches [source: Belkin].

Physiological changes related to new fatherhood also shed light on how men may be more biologically engineered for caregiving than previously thought. During partners' pregnancies, dads-to-be produce more prolactin, a hormone that signals the body to store fats and sugars and tamps down the libido [source: Pincott]. Meanwhile, the stress hormone cortisol surges as the birth days approach, keeping men both attentive to their pregnant partners' needs and primed to take action when the water breaks [source: Abrams]. Once a baby is delivered and dad embarks on changing diapers and feeding, another compelling hormonal reaction occurs: His testosterone drops. A September 2011 study out of Northwestern University confirmed that new dads who are actively involved with infant caregiving exhibit markedly lower amounts of testosterone in their bloodstreams than their childless bros [source: Gettler et al].

Considering the testosterone drop and the how modern dads are assuming more traditionally maternal roles, it might seem like active fatherhood is simply making men more like women. But long-term health studies of dads versus their childless counterparts actually find otherwise. Diminished testosterone keeps men's risk-taking behavior in check, and engaged fatherhood is associated with better mental and physical health down the road, after the kids have flown the nest [source: Cullen and Grossman]. In 2011, for instance, a Stanford urologist calculated dads have a 17 percent lower chance of developing fatal heart disease than non-dads [source: Goldman]. But researchers also emphasize that it isn't the sperm donation that makes the difference. In other words, merely having a child won't magically transform a regular Joe into the Bionic Man. On all levels -- childhood development, relationship satisfaction, personal health benefits -- it's playing-catch, helping-with-homework, hugging-and-kissing fatherhood that reaps rewards for the entire family.

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Author's Note

Until recently, fatherhood has gotten short shrift, scientifically and culturally speaking. When it comes to parent-child relationships, motherhood has long been considered the crucial bond, which makes sense since moms are babies' biological conduits. But fatherhood also makes a powerful impact in children's lives, as evidenced by governmental efforts to get more men involved with their families. And even without prompting, modern men have taken a greater interest in fatherhood, spending more time than ever before with their children and helping around the house, putting in their own "second shifts."

This article was a welcome chance to shed light on how the cultural constructs of fatherhood developed as well as the ways that fatherhood impacts families -- and the men themselves. In that way, giving proper due to dads can only improve prospects for healthier, happier families, and it's high time that we understand the difference that they make.

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