Chris Schulz Published

More Involved Dads Are Changing What It Means To Be A Father

A man in a white shirt with a light beard sits on a grey couch while holding an infant facing him. The infant, wearing a white onesie with a multicolored pattern of animal outlines is attempting to put the man's nose into his mouth. The image is bordered by a blue gradient with pastel colored circles above and below. In the top left of the frame are the words "Now What? A Series On Parenting" and in the bottom right is the WVPB logo.
What it means to be a father is being redefined by a new generation of parents.
dusanpetkovic1/Adobe Stock

Being a parent is a 24-hour role, and a lifetime commitment that has historically fallen to women. As men have started to take on more domestic work, what it means to be a father has started to shift.

Adam Webster has a lot of fond memories from growing up.

“My mother was able to spend a lot of time with us and we had a farm that we could go play and visit and help with work on the farm,” he said. “In hindsight, as an adult now looking back, my dad was working around the clock so that we were able to do those things.”

For many years, Webster’s experience was considered the norm: a father who provided the sole income for a household and a mother who stayed at home with the children. That dynamic has started to change in recent years.

A study published last year by the Pew Research Center shows that fathers now make up 18 percent of all stay at home parents, up from 11 percent in 1989.

It’s a new reality that Webster experienced firsthand after moving back to West Virginia years ago, when his daughters were still young.

“My wife was the one who had full time work when we got back,” Webster said. “I did notice that playgroups and activities during the day were mainly mothers. But there are definitely fathers out in that mix, too. In fact, I met a few good friends when we first got back, because they were the only other dads in these play groups.”

As men take on a more active role in child-rearing, what it means to be a father is changing.

Jessica Troilo, an associate professor of child development and family studies at West Virginia University, said fatherhood changed once before when industrialization caused people to move away from the home for work.

“As fathers started moving to cities to work, that’s where this notion of the breadwinner really kind of started to take hold,” she said.

Troilo said fathers were seen as providers, but less responsible for day-to-day child rearing. In fact, she said studies of parenting have historically focused on mothers, and only in recent years have researchers started to focus on other caregivers, such as fathers.

“In my field, one of the main journals goes back to the 1930s,” Troilo said. “If you look at parenting, it’s not parenting, it’s mothering. I think what we think of as parenthood is really based on mother’s experiences. Father’s experiences really weren’t taken into consideration until the 1970s.”

Beyond their focus on mothering, Troilo also said many studies in the past generalized a middle-class experience of single-income households, something that has become harder to achieve with rising costs and stagnating wages. As economic realities changed, Troilo said men started to look to different sources for their model of what a father can and should be.

“That Gen X group was really the first group of fathers or men to say, ‘I’m not going to look at my father as much. I’m going to look at my friends to see what they are doing,’” she said. “They started looking at peers more and saying ‘Oh, okay, well, my friends are more involved in nurturing, they are changing diapers, they are getting up in the middle of the night. So maybe I should be doing that, too.’” 

Women still represent a majority of caregivers in America. The Pew study shows that the rate of stay-at-home moms has only decreased slightly, from 28 percent to 26 percent.

Troilo said part of what has held men back in the past has been a positive feedback loop of skills passed down from generation to generation, even perceived by some to be innate in women.

“I think it became kind of this norm, when a baby would cry, it was ‘Well the moms can handle’ or ‘The women in the family can handle this because they know what to do,’” she said. “‘Don’t let the dad try to step in.’ So then you have men not learning how to soothe the child.” 

Jonathan Beckmeyer, an assistant professor in the School of Counseling and Well Being at WVU, studies the connection between young people’s social relationships and their health and well being primarily at adolescence and as emerging adults. 

“Parenting is a skill. It’s a skill that people build over time,” he said. “They build through experience, and they build by watching other people engage in these behaviors. It’s the same thing for fathers and fatherhood. If a man is interested, or wants to be a more involved father in this child’s life, there’s nothing to prevent them from going and doing that.”

For many, being a father is tied up in ideas of what it means to be a man. Beckmeyer said depictions of fathers in the media often relied on tropes of either incompetence around the house, or stoic disciplinarians. As time went on, that didn’t fit with people’s lived reality.

“The kind of the shift has been a lot of men recognizing ‘Well, that’s not my life. And that’s not really a productive way to view other men and that’s not how I view myself,’” Beckmeyer said. “That narrative slowly starts to change within how individual men go about their family life. I think that’s been something that’s been really powerful, recognizing that good men can be emotional, and they can be supportive, and they can ask for help, and all of these kinds of things that have broken down a lot of the stigma around what is and what isn’t, masculinity, is starting to transition that over into family life.”

For young fathers like Cody Cannon, a comedian based in Morgantown, helping his son connect with his emotions is one of his key goals.

“I just want to make sure I have the impact on him that above anything else, it’s important to be empathetic and caring, and a good person,” Cannon said.

Despite not living with his son and being separated from his child’s mother, Cannon also emphasizes the importance of supporting his co-parent to ensure the best outcome for his child.

“I think it’s important for me to nurture the best aspects of him and to help make sure his mom is doing okay,” he said. “In order for him to have a better life, I had to make sure she also had a better life.”

Beckmeyer said kids need supportive, positive adult caregivers in their lives, regardless of gender, and mutual support can be an important part of that balance.

“Any and all parents and caregivers can have a really important impact on young people’s lives,” he said. “Mothers aren’t more important than fathers, fathers aren’t more important than mothers. It’s about ensuring that people are providing the supports and resources that the kiddos need.”

What it means to be a parent of any gender is deeply personal and individual, and there is no one way to do it. But according to experts, allowing for a greater variety in those roles can help create not just good outcomes for kids, but parents and families as well.

A light blue background with text that reads, "Now What? A Series On Parenting, From WVPB." On the blue background is a silhouette of a pink stork holding a baby in a bundle. There are also artistic half circles on the top and bottom of the graphic that are yellow, blue and pink.