Over the last 50 years, fathers have become vastly more engaged and active with their children. By one estimate, fathers today spend seven times more time with their kids than in the 1970s.
This shift in male domesticity has occurred without any formal movement behind it. There is hardly any intellectual edifice to the change, no icons or revolutionaries. There are barely any books telling fathers what to do; the guides for mothers vastly outnumber the guides for fathers.
Whatever the forces behind the shift, the effects are likely to be salutary. Rethinking fatherhood is an essential step toward creating gender equality. Societies where men are more engaged fathers tend also to be more egalitarian.
Take the men of the Aka tribe in central Africa, who are often described as the “best fathers in the world.” Although Aka fathers are somewhat famous for the sensationalist detail that they occasionally breastfeed their children, what is more extraordinary, really, is that they spend nearly 50% of their day within arm’s reach of their children.
“For hunter-gatherers in general, fathers provide substantial amount of direct care, by comparison to fathers where you have farming,” Barry Hewlett, an anthropologist at Washington State University who lived among the Aka, recently told me. That close physical contact has biological and social consequences. Compared to other central Africans, Hewlett said, the Aka are much more egalitarian in terms of gender.
Rethinking fatherhood is an essential step toward creating gender equality.
This relative egalitarianism is partly a function of the Aka’s practice of net-hunting, in which men and women work together. By contrast, if men are off tending to cattle while women are taking care of the children, boys are not exposed to men. Their childhood passes among women, so that when they grow up, they come to understand manhood as the rejection of femininity.
Exposure to fathers lessens that fissure of identity. “It means that boys, when they’re growing up, do not have to devalue those things which are feminine to increase their masculinity,” Hewlett said. “Girls, when they’re growing up, because they’re around their mothers, intimately know what it’s like to be female. For boys, it’s problematic. But not among the Aka.”
If being a man means not being a woman, patriarchy is inevitable. Patriarchy gives the role of the father overwhelming political dominance, but only as a metaphor. Historically, it established an imaginary father as the figurehead of power. The president is the father of the country. The CEO is the father of the company.
Such patriarchs are always distant fathers. Distant fathers are idealized fathers; idealized fathers are distant fathers. And so, somewhat ironically, the cure for patriarchy is exposure to a man.
The father being nearby simply removes idealization. “The most important message for me is ‘stay close,’” Hewlett said of the Aka. “The quality time, yeah, there’s probably some truth to that, if you’re not around your kids very often. But the quantity time matters, because your kids get to know you intimately.”
This may come as good news to many fathers. The most important thing is just being there. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be good. You just have to be there.
Societies around the world are figuring out that the drive toward equality has to start with positive and active fatherhood. For instance, the Canadian government has expanded parental leave to 40 weeks, so long as the second parent takes five weeks. Canada was following the example of Sweden, where 60 of 480 days of paid parental leave are reserved for the father. Japan has started programs to increase the presence of fathers in the home.
You can’t fix work culture until you fix home culture, and vice versa. The pay gap between men and women might be more accurately described as a pay gap between mothers and fathers. Recent studies in the United States and Europe have shown that the single largest cause of the pay gap in the developed world is the birth of children. Women’s pay declines precipitately when they have children. Men’s pay doesn’t.
Gender inequality emerges from family structure and the social and economic responses to family structure. It emerges from how we think of mothers and how we think of fathers.
Feminism focuses on the lives of women, naturally enough. But half the gender revolution takes place in the lives of men, and the arena for the male revolution is fatherhood.
When masculinity is defined by a real, live human being in flesh and blood, the role of manhood no longer takes on the emptiness of an impossible abstract idea. As you know when you live with a dad or when you are a dad, the present father is human, often all too human. But that’s the point.
Stephen Marche is the host of the podcast “How Not to … Up Your Kids Too Bad,” available on Audible.