Rise of the Super Dads


Seismic shifts in our understanding of the science and sociology of fatherhood have paved the way for big societal changes. Research by Professor Gayle Kaufman sheds new light on modern families.


pgs26-31_SuperDads-yellowSD“Welcome, ladies,” The head of the Davidson Elementary School PTA cheerfully greeted her colleagues, despite the fact that the group included recent inductee Kevin Bell, the father of a Davidson Elementary student. Although Bell sat in plain view of the PTA leader, she opted to use the feminine pronoun for the duration of the meeting.

“I felt somewhat like an outsider,” Bell admits as he recalls the meeting. “All of the other members were women, and most stay-at-home moms. I felt as if I had encroached on their domain.”

At the suggestion that the PTA leader simply mistook him for a woman, Bell points to his balding head and smiles. “I don’t think that’s likely.”

Bell has managed to put the challenges of work-at-home fatherhood in perspective by remembering that women faced criticism and exclusion when they first began entering the work force en masse. Much like those trailblazers, he is pushing against longstanding societal norms.

Bell became a work-at-home father after he left a job with the Charlotte District Attorney’s office, where he was a prosecutor until 2007. Faced with countless hours in a downtown conference room rather than unlimited quality time with his son and daughter, he chose to work from home as a legal fiction writer.

“The fear of not being there for my children played a big part in that decision,” Bell says. “I didn’t want to be the dad who was always working. I wanted my life to primarily involve my family.”

Bell’s days now are spent writing from morning to afternoon, when children Emily (13) and David (10) are at school, and then spending time with the kids once they return. His legal thriller inspired by his career working with the Charlotte DA, The Third Letterbox, is currently under review by a literary agent.

Shifting Priorities

Bell is a prime example of someone Davidson’s Professor of Sociology Gayle Kaufman would call a “Superdad,” or a modern father who prioritizes family life over work life. He’s also the person she calls husband and editor (and perhaps even inspiration) for her recent book Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century.

Kaufman began researching fathers and fatherhood in graduate school, before she and Bell had kids of their own (so she may have, in fact, inspired him). Kaufman says she became disillusioned with the widespread focus on studying women’s issues and maternity. “I became interested in researching work-family conflicts in particular because that had always been framed as a women’s issue,” Kaufman explained. “I thought that if we brought men into the conversation, it would end up helping women in the long run.”

Furthermore, although stay-at-home fathers and Superdads are doing nothing more extraordinary than the working mothers of the past and present, it’s the unusually male-centric focus of Kaufman’s research that may lead to greater gender equity in the future—both by changing cultural expectations and encouraging broad changes in work-family policies.

For Superdads Kaufman interviewed 70 fathers from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds and categorized them as “old dads,” “new dads” and the titular “Super” variety.

Old dads are archaic only in the ideological sense: they think of themselves as providers and make no changes to their work schedules to accommodate their family lives. They also tend to have stay-at-home wives who take care of their children. “This doesn’t mean they don’t want to be involved in their children’s lives,” Kaufman says. “They do, but they see the importance of earning money for their families as the highest priority.”

New dads, the most common of the three groups, make minor changes to their work schedule for their children, like leaving early to attend a soccer practice or ballet recital. Kaufman explains, “This group struggle the most because they really want to be involved with their children’s lives, but they have a difficult time finding the right balance between work and family.”

Superdads completely subordinate their work decisions to their family’s needs. “These dads make very large changes to their work life,” Kaufman says. “The most extreme case is quitting their job, while others change jobs for another more fitted to their family’s needs, change positions within their workplace, work from home or become self employed.”

Bell made the decision to prioritize family over fortune after he completed law school at Wake Forest, well before he left the Charlotte DA to become a writer. “Lawyers typically have very long and demanding work weeks, but I chose to work at the DA because government jobs offer lawyers a more manageable schedule that can accommodate their families,” Bell explains. “So I became a prosecutor despite the fact I preferred studying constitutional law over criminal law.”

=In the interviews for her book, Kaufman encountered many Superdads who made difficult decisions similar to her husband’s. One of these men, for example, was a factory worker who took on a third shift in order to spend more time looking after his daughter: resting during her school hours, awaking when she returned home and then returning to the factory once she fell asleep. Another was a lawyer who used his three weeks of annual vacation time for the birth of each of his children, so that after the birth of his third child he hadn’t had a true “vacation” in over five years.


Super-Friendly Policies

pgs26-31_SuperDads-redSDIt’s clearly challenging to attain Superdad status, but Kaufman believes that fathers’ abilities to adapt work life around family life should be made easier through policy changes. The United States, she points out, is the only developed nation in the world without a government-mandated paid family leave program. Furthermore those U.S. workers who do have access to paid family leave account for only 12 percent of the civilian worker population, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Although fathers and mothers may currently take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave thanks to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, Kaufman notes that many working-class families can’t afford unpaid leave, and a more universally family-friendly policy is needed. Some states, including California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have heeded Kaufman’s advice and passed laws creating paid family leave. California’s groundbreaking legislation of 2002 employs a small payroll-tax contribution from eligible workers to allow parents six weeks of paid leave following the birth of a child.

Meanwhile, the national debate surrounding paid family leave, and particularly paid paternity leave, grows louder. In December 2013 U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York introduced the Family Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would establish a national paid family and medical leave insurance program that allows every individual up to 12 weeks of partial income after the birth of a child or to care for themselves or a family member.

Liza Mundy of The Atlantic praised initiatives that include fathers, hailing paternity leave as a “brilliant and ambitious form of social engineering: a behavior-modification tool that has been shown to boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equity in both domains.”

Kaufman believes a federal, nation-wide family or paternity leave law like the Family Medical Insurance Leave Act is necessary in part due to the disparities between white-collar and blue-collar Superdads. “In my research, professional fathers were more likely to be Superdads because they had more access to flexible workplace policies and had more autonomy in their work,” she explains. “They were trusted to do their work from home.”

“Working class dads didn’t have those options,” she continues. “To be a blue-collar Superdad, the most common strategy was to work another shift in order to be around their children as often as possible. That was a very difficult and important decision for them to make.”

Seismic shifts in our understanding of the science and sociology of fatherhood have paved the way for the sociological changes Kaufman both chronicles and advocates. Kaufman notes a study that suggests fathers who take longer leaves in order to spend time with their families are more involved later in their children’s lives; the same study indicated that the children of these fathers may have higher cognitive scores down the road, too. A Scandinavian study showed that men who take more family leave may even have lower mortality rates.

The less obvious beneficiaries of pro-Superdad policies, however, are women. “The workplace is still, to a large extent, based on the model of men as breadwinners and women as homemakers,” Kaufman said. “But if men become more involved in their family lives, it allows women to do more in their careers. These paid family and paternity leave laws end up helping everyone.”

Her husband agrees. “Many degree-holding women that I know ended up becoming stay-at-home mothers partly because that was the expectation, and it was easier for them to take that path,” he says. “But society shouldn’t force families to make decisions based on gender. We should allow families to make the decisions that make the most rational and economical sense for them.”

Bell also believes that the rise of Superdads like himself will be influential in promoting the creation of more paternity-friendly policies. “The laws didn’t change surrounding work equality until women began entering the workplace en masse,” he notes. “Similarly, we aren’t going to see any movement in society or policy surrounding fatherhood until men begin wholeheartedly entering a traditionally female territory.”

Superdads may be able to bolster their own ranks through the policies they advocate into law. “A lot of ‘new dads’ who struggled to balance work and family felt like they couldn’t challenge their employer,” Kaufman notes. “If these men were given more freedom through paternity leave and family-friendly policies, they would become Superdads.”

Bell adds, “I think men and women are increasingly expected to contribute to childcare equally. But in order to reach that goal, you need Superdads, a group of men who are going to explicitly prioritize family over work.”

Kaufman and others have received some criticism for drawing attention to something that dads are simply “supposed to do.” Why make involved fathers seem so extraordinary, they ask? The term “Supermom” likewise precedes its paternal counterpart by approximately 40 years, as it originated in the 1970s and 80s when women headed to the workforce in droves while managing childcare and housekeeping at the same time.

Kaufman is nevertheless happy to shine a light on Superdads. “These fathers are doing something that should be praised,” she says. “Perhaps one day Superdads will be simply regarded as ‘dads,’ but I don’t think we are there yet.”


About Author

Robert Abare '13

Robert Abare is Davidson’s media relations fellow, the latest recent graduate to be granted the privilege of honing his journalistic skills under the tutelage of the bike-riding sage Bill Giduz ’74, and his office comrade, John Syme ’85. Robert graduated from Davidson with a degree in English, and is considering a career in political public relations, post-fellowship.

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