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Dads don’t want to give back family time gained in pandemic

When the pandemic hit, Steve Gaffney was laid off from his longtime job at a company that provided lighting for events. Three weeks later, his daughter Morgan was born.

At 42, he became a stay-at-home father. It made sense for their family: His partner, who unlike him has a college degree, earned more, and as a facilities manager she was always on call. As a result, he has experienced Morgan’s childhood in a far different way than he did raising his three older children with his former wife.

He’s making sure she hears him speak as many words as possible each day. He’s noticed how much less frustrated he is with dinner and bedtime than he was after a long day at work. He and Morgan have developed their rhythm — laundry and housecleaning during nap time, and walks on the trails near their home in Pembroke, Massachusetts. “It’s just me and the stay-at-home moms down at the pond,” he said.

During the lockdowns of spring 2020, men took on much more of the work of raising children and running households than they had before. Most fathers, particularly when schools reopened, largely reverted to their old division of labor, according to an analysis released last week. It is based on a continuing survey since April 2020 of 4,550 parents living with opposite-sex partners (roughly 500 have participated in all the surveys).

But a sizable share, one-fifth, has continued to do more child care than before, and one-quarter has continued to do more household work, the survey found. It asked respondents if they were spending more, less or the same amount of time on various domestic tasks compared with pre-pandemic days and compared with their partners.

For these fathers, the pandemic offered a chance to reorganize their lives to be more involved in family life — and now, they don’t want to give it up.

“It’s helped make the pandemic a little bit easier for me,” Gaffney said. “It’s a change no matter what for all of us, but I was put in another role that gave me a direction for the change.”

Even before the pandemic, the generation of fathers currently raising children wanted to be more involved than their fathers had been, research has shown. But they hit obstacles — including societal expectations for traditional gender roles, and workplaces that penalized men who prioritized family and rewarded those who were always available. The shared crisis of the pandemic seems to have offered some fathers a path around those obstacles.

“What the pandemic did was force everyone to do it, so no one was vulnerable to being punished for this,” said Daniel L. Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Utah and an author, with Richard Petts of Ball State University in Indiana, of the new analysis.

They found that lower-earning fathers who could work remotely (in jobs such as customer service or tech support, for example) were most likely to have kept up the nontraditional division of family labor.

“The expectations of father involvement have increased in the last generation, across all social classes but especially for those most marginalized,” said Timothy Black, an author of “It’s a Setup: Fathering From the Social and Economic Margins” and a professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “Many of these fathers have embraced these messages.”

Other data similarly shows that for fathers, the additional time they had with their children was a silver lining of pandemic lockdowns, and that some men are adjusting their work lives to maintain it.

Pew Research Center asked fathers in 2017 and again in the fall of 2020 if they felt they were spending enough time with their children. The share who said they spent too little decreased to 48% from 63%. A survey by Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project in June 2020 found that more than two-thirds of fathers said they felt closer to their children since the pandemic started.

In April 2022, 47% of employed fathers said flexibility and control over their hours was a top priority, 10 percentage points more than those who said they felt that way before the pandemic, found a Morning Consult survey for The New York Times. And a survey by Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan, found that nearly half of working fathers said they planned to work less or pursue a less demanding job in the future — more than the share of mothers who said so.

“For a lot of dads, this was a profound experience,” said Richard Weissbourd, director of the Harvard project. “It was really getting what a wonderful relationship with your kids could be like, and it was gratifying.”

Ryan McCarty, the Cincinnati branch director for the employment agency Robert Half, was away from home for 13 hours a day before the pandemic, including evening events and his 45-minute commute. Now he works from home, which he said has enabled him to be there for his two toddlers for meals, doctor visits and milestones. One took his first steps in the middle of a weekday morning. McCarty is there in a video of it, in a button-down shirt and sweatpants, having run out from his home office to witness it.

“For the longest time, it was: The male is the provider,” he said. “I was that guy. But now I’m not ashamed to say this is who I am in my life. That’s what COVID did. We had a lot of downtime to reflect and think about what’s important.”

As a recruiter, he has noticed that men now regularly ask about flexibility. A recent client told him that his priority was meeting his child at the bus at 3:30 p.m., and that he’d give up pay to do that.

“You would never have heard that out of anybody’s mouth,” he said. “Never. And now it’s commonplace. It’s not a sign of weakness anymore.”

Ben Campbell, the father of two daughters under 5 in Smithville, Texas, got used to spending time with his children during the day when his sales job went remote at the start of the pandemic. So in a later job, when a boss commented on how often he had parenting obligations, he responded, “Yeah, and that’s not going to change.”

He said it makes a big difference that his current employer, AffiniPay, is led by a mother who talks to staff about juggling work and family. He now works from home four days a week, and his wife is also remote. On breaks, they run child-related errands, or their children show them the artwork they made with their nanny. They couldn’t imagine giving that up if they worked in offices full time.

“I take pride that we have a partnership in how we raise our kids,” he said. “There’s not one part of it that’s more hers or mine.”

These arrangements are still a rarity in the American workplace. Many fathers, even if they want to spend more time with their families, cannot. Just 1 in 5 workers primarily works from home. Many employers still require long, inflexible hours and penalize workers for prioritizing family life.

The new analysis found that the fathers who have continued to do more domestic work, in addition to being more likely to be lower earners who could work remotely, often had partners who could not work from home and who earned about the same as they did.

These findings align with a variety of past research. Studies have shown that while highly educated couples express more egalitarian ideas about gender, they are less equal in their daily lives, while working-class parents are more likely to share the load. High-earning jobs typically demand very long hours, this research has found, making it hard for both parents to work in commensurate jobs. Low-earning jobs are often inflexible in their hours, requiring parents to tag-team work and parenting.

When fathers are forced to handle parenting on their own, such as when a mother is hospitalized after childbirth complications, they end up feeling much more capable and fulfilled as fathers, found Fatima Suarez, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And especially for unemployed or low-income men, hands-on parenting can be a way to demonstrate their value.

Gaffney is working on potty-training Morgan and applying to preschools. His family needs a second income, so when she starts school, he’ll look for a job. But he worries about the gap on his résumé, and frets that any job he finds would pay less than child care costs.

They are concerns that would sound familiar to a generation of mothers.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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