The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family, by Jeremy Adam Smith (Beacon Press, 256 pp., $25.95)
Like many fathers, Jeremy Adam Smith spent the first year of his son Liko’s life feeling like he was on the outside looking in. His wife seemed to know how best to care for the boy, and Liko definitely preferred mom. Then, when Liko turned one, Smith found himself at a career transition point, and so as a modern, progressive father, he decided to take his turn at primary parenting. For a year, he cared for his son while his wife worked. At first, he felt isolated and inept. But slowly, he developed a closer relationship with his toddler, and more parental competence, than he ever thought possible.
As he looked around the playground, and as he began blogging about his experiences, Smith realized that he was not the only man making this transition. While the U.S. Census counts a relatively small number of “pure” stay-at-home fathers, by some estimates fathers provide primary care for about one-quarter of pre-school children in the country. Even in more traditional families, few contemporary dads believe that earning a paycheck exempts them from changing diapers anymore. So Smith decided to write about this “movement of fatherhood from solely breadwinning to both breadwinning and caregiving,” and the result is his new book, The Daddy Shift.
Smith’s book arrives at a fortuitous time. Men have accounted for roughly four out of every five jobs lost over the past year and a half, and many have been forced into caregiving roles, whether they wanted them or not. Partially as a result, The Daddy Shift has gotten more media attention than Smith and Beacon Press expected. Unfortunately, much of it has dwelt on the tired image of apron-wearing, stay-at-home “Mr. Moms” bumbling around, learning to cook. A closer reading of The Daddy Shift finds that Smith has uncovered a more valuable insight: that men and women are different, and as men take on more caregiving duties, they are changing the definitions of working and caregiving in ways that people who view the world through the lens of the Mommy Wars cannot see.
For starters, Smith found that almost all men who take primary care of their children are either still in the labor force or intend to return shortly, “minus the anxiety many moms seem to feel,” he writes. For most of the year that Smith took care of Liko, he was freelancing or consulting for a few hours each morning before his wife left the house for her job. A subset of fathers is taking on primary caregiving as part of a temporary career break. These fathers tend to see that “homemaking can be a life stage instead of a life-consuming career,” Smith writes. They see caregiving as less necessary when the kids get older.
Smith may wind up being an inadvertent example of this approach. Shortly after The Daddy Shift came out, he learned that his job at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine would be eliminated due to California’s budget cuts. When I asked him if he intended to do another full-time caregiving stint, he said no, implying that five-year-old Liko didn’t need it. This makes sense, but plenty of homemaker mothers do not return to the workforce even after their kids have become teenagers. It’s a different mindset.
Men’s attitudes about maintaining a personal life also differ from women’s. “Even fathers who are full-time, career homemakers are often skilled in cultivating private spaces where they can regain their sanity and maintain a connection to a wider community,” Smith writes. He tells of one father who spends hours building furniture on weekends, noting that “he does not apologize for it the way I’ve heard mothers seem ashamed of their hobbies and interests apart from children.”
Caregiving fathers may push their children to become more independent, and they tend to spend more time outdoors than, say, vacuuming. Smith also notes that housekeeping tasks are far more evenly distributed in households where the at-home parent is male than in those where the at-home parent is female. While this can be frustrating to breadwinning moms—who expect to enjoy the traditional male breadwinner’s prerogative of exemption from cooking and cleaning—it can be a liberating realization for their at-home sisters that child care and cleaning duties don’t have to come as a package deal. These roles can be negotiated separately, and just because you are playing with and taking care of your kids during the hours of 9 to 5 doesn’t mean that you have to do all the laundry, too.
Women have been battling to make corporations more family friendly for years, but Smith predicts that men will tip the balance in this effort as they become more involved in their children’s lives. As he writes, “there’s nothing masculine about sitting at a computer in a fluorescent-lit office instead of coaching your daughter’s softball team.”
Of course, as a good progressive, Smith believes that despite the inevitability of more egalitarian parenting in a world where women earn more college degrees than men, the government still needs to play a big role in helping parents. He cites the usual wish list of subsidized day care and the long-term, paid parental leaves granted in nations like Sweden, with rules that make it socially acceptable for men to take a chunk of this largesse. But utopias are hard to create; anything that makes it more expensive to employ people either drives up the structural unemployment rate or pushes people into temporary jobs or self-employment. A recent survey found that a quarter of American workers now consider themselves “free agents.” How will the government force freelancers’ “employers” to let them take a year off to help care for their children?
For all of his complaints about conservative politicians and religious figures trying to idealize the more traditional family model, Smith doesn’t seem to question a rather conservative idea he himself holds: namely, that kids are better off having a parent, whether mom or dad, at home during the first two years of their lives. Two years is an arbitrary designation, possibly chosen simply because that’s what Smith and his wife did. The right duration of time would certainly vary with family and childcare situations.
Still, The Daddy Shift is an elegant book, blending a narrative of Smith’s journey as a father with more solid social-science research than one normally encounters in memoirs. He weaves in thought-provoking ideas, such as that making money should be seen as part of mothering, and that underemployment among young black men wouldn’t be a social problem if leaders and communities made a convincing case for these men to spend that time nurturing their children instead of doing less socially desirable things. Inevitably, political diatribes miss what’s actually happening on the ground, which makes The Daddy Shift a welcome antidote to the Mommy War tracts crowding bookshelves these days.