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More evidence of nature's intent to design men as active parents might be seen in the effects of involved fathering on children. Given the politically charged debates over same-sex unions and single parenting, it is perhaps not surprising that the richest area in the nascent field of fatherhood research is in the results of fathers' absence. David Popenoe of Rutgers University has pointed to increased rates of juvenile delinquency, drug abuse and other problems among children raised without a male parent present. Research on the unique skills men bring to parenting is sparse but intriguing. Eleanor Maccoby of Stanford University has found that fathers are less likely than mothers to modify their language when speaking to their children, thus challenging their kids to expand vocabulary and cognitive skills. Fathers also tend to enforce rules more strictly and systematically in reaction to children's wrongdoing, according to educational psychologist Carol Gilligan. "Having a father isn't magic," says Armin Brott, author of seven books about fatherhood, "but it really does make a difference for the kids."
When men take on nontraditional roles in the home and family, it also makes a difference to the marriage. Coltrane of UC Riverside and John Gottman at the University of Washington found in separate studies that when men contribute to domestic labor (which is part and parcel of parenting), women interpret it as a sign of caring, experience less stress and are more likely to find themselves in the mood for sex. This is not to say that more involved fathering has erased marital tensions or that it hasn't introduced new ones. Dads admit they get fussed over for things moms do every day. "Sometimes you're treated like a dog walking on its hind legs--'Oh, look, he can do laundry!'" says Jim O'Kane, 47, a father of two in Blackstone, Mass. And some women resent ceding their role as top parent. When her daughter fell down at a birthday party, Amy Vachon, 44, of Watertown, Mass., recalls that the girl ran crying all the way across the room--to her husband Marc. "I admit it hurt at the time," she says, "mostly because I wondered what everyone thought. There's such a high standard in society for the good mother."
It's a slippery slope: a recent Pew survey found that increasingly, parents rank their relationships with their kids as more important than their relationship with their spouse. Just as interesting, they rank their job dead last. That most masculine of traits--the ability to go out into the world and bring home a buck--is receding in importance for the men of Generation X. Men's rates of labor-force participation have dropped from just above 90% in 1970 to just above 80% in 2005. Almost a third of young fathers (32%) say they dedicate more time to their children, while 28% say they devote more time to their jobs.
Big employers are beginning to catch on. Deloitte & Touche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Xerox and IBM are urging family-friendly benefits for their male employees and touting them to male recruits. California recently became the first state to guarantee paid time off for new dads. But the U.S. still lags far behind other countries: only 12% of U.S. corporations offer paid leave for fathers of new babies (the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act enables workers in large companies to take up to 12 weeks off, but that time is unpaid), while dads in 65 other countries are guaranteed paid paternity or parental leave; 31 countries offer 14 weeks of it or more. At companies that offer and encourage paternity leave, participation is high. KPMG reports that 80% of eligible workers have taken paternity leave since it was first offered in 2002. Still, more than half of working men say they would not take paternity leave even if it was offered, most saying they could not afford it, others fearing it would harm their careers--the same complaints long made by working women.
Today's fathers aren't the men their own fathers were but only if you insist that the nature of masculinity doesn't change--that it's a biological fact and not a mutable cultural construct. The new fathers are creating a new ideal of masculinity. It's not as Mad Men cool, but it is healthier. "The emerging and evolving norms of fatherhood and masculinity challenge men to be a different kind of guy," says Rochlen. "But on the positive side, it gives them new opportunity to embrace and enact these dimensions that are good for them and good for their families." It's even good for their emotional health. Coltrane says fatherhood is proving a "safe pathway" for men to develop and explore their nurturing side. "It's not considered wimpy or gay to hug your daughter," he adds. That's something we can all embrace.