Taking Time to be a Manly Dad: Gender Inequality and the Politics of Fatherhood

By Jennifer Randles

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In 2008, the Advertising Council launched a media campaign featuring fathers with their children. Several United States government agencies were partners in the campaign, including the Administration for Children and Families, the Office of Family Assistance, and the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse. Superimposed over images of racially diverse fathers reading to, playing with, and holding their children were the taglines “The smallest moments can have the biggest impact on a child’s life” and “Take time to be a dad today.” Given that most mothers spend hours per day cleaning, cooking, and caring for their children, a similar ad with an image of a woman playing with her children that read “Take time to be a mom today” would not resonate in the same way. In a society where women still do most childcare, what are the gender implications of publicly encouraging fathers to “take time” to be dads?

            Understood in context, the ads make more sense and raise more questions. They are part of a larger policy effort to address a perceived crisis of fathering in the U.S. In the past decade, the federal government has funded hundreds of “responsible fatherhood” (RF) programs to increase fathers’ economic stability and involvement with children. RF programs provide disadvantaged fathers with opportunities to finish school, train for work, and take parenting classes. What do fathers learn in these programs? Do they similarly teach men that good fathering is about “moments” and “taking time” to be a playful parent?

            To find out, I studied an RF program I call “DADS” that served low-income men of color. DADS taught that men uniquely benefit children as masculine role models and that fathers should be more expressive and nurturing—just like the fathers in the ads. On the surface, this seemed like a progressive revisioning of fatherhood, one with the potential to promote egalitarian parenting. The program enabled the 64 participants I studied to claim identities as good fathers and defy race and class stereotypes that they were “dead beat” dads just because they did not have a lot of money to offer children. Though they struggled to be good financial providers, DADS taught them that they were specially equipped as men to provide the affection and attention children also need.

Might responsible fatherhood programming be an innovative policy strategy for addressing the gender, race, and class inequalities that can undermine strong father-child relationships among poor families of color? In the almost two years I spent studying DADS, I learned that responsible fatherhood programming teaches fathers to “man up” as good dads who understand their masculinity as a core component of good parenting. Not only did the program teach participants that they are valuable as parents because they are men, it taught them that they are valuable as men because they are good parents. “Manning up” in this way entailed challenging gender stereotypes that manly men are domineering and stoic. Tanner, a 37-year-old, multiracial father of two, told me that he learned from the program how, “Anyone can be a dad, but it takes a real man to be a father. In this class, that means learning how to communicate, how to be in touch with your feelings, learning that a real man cries.” In a distinct departure from how U.S. welfare policies have targeted men in the past, DADS uniquely addressed men as loving, emotionally expressive caregivers and co-parents, not just as workers and potential husbands.

            The problem with this strategy is how it encouraged fathers to care for children in “manly” ways without urging them to take an equal role in childcare or household labor. Some men interpreted program messages to mean that gender did not preclude them from performing carework. David, a 22-year-old, Black father of one, explained, “To be the man of the household [means] … just help out around the house as much as I can, whether it be cooking or cleaning, or bills, or fixing things … Stepping up means not assuming something isn’t my job because I’m a man.” However, casting men as masculine playmates and helpers reinforces gender inequality in families by obscuring that women still do the majority of household labor. Tomas, a 33-year-old, Latino father of three, also used the language of “helping” to describe what he learned: “Being a man is going to work, come home, have your self time … If you have a wife, help make dinner, help do chores. Don’t just come home and think you’re king of the castle and say, ‘I work hard, and I want this done in a certain way.’ Help out with the household, with homework. A lot of guys don’t. I admit I didn’t … Now I know that is wrong … Even the minutest thing, like folding laundry, fix a bike tire.” In line with program messages, it is telling that all the images in the “Take Time” campaign are of fathers having fun with their children.

            In the end, what do government-sponsored ads reminding men to be involved with their children say about the gendered politics of fatherhood? They certainly indicate that fathers are important in children’s lives. But they also suggest, as did DADS, that “involved” fathering is about making caregiving seem masculine without making carework central to social and political ideas of responsible fathering. We must address the gendered division of family labor and financial definitions of good fathering that exclude marginalized men. To do this, we need fewer ads urging fathers to spend time with their children and more policies that promote truly egalitarian parenting, such as those focused on quality education, fair wages, and teaching about caregiving as a gender-neutral activity that takes more than a moment.

Jennifer Randles is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on family inequalities and policies. This blog post is based on her recent article published in Gender & Society. She is also the author of Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America (Columbia University Press).

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