4 Wishes for Father’s Day

My post on Thursday expressed concerns about the cultural assumption that taking care of young children is a woman’s role. Today, I present a four-part wish list of public policy interventions. With Father’s Day coming up, these proposals seek to recognize dads as able caregivers.

Image from iStock.com/OlgaLebedeva

Image from iStock.com/OlgaLebedeva

1. Mandate dad-inclusive paid parental leave

The United States is notorious for being the only high-income country that doesn’t require employers to provide paid parental leave. Among employers that do offer some form of paid leave to new parents, many provide leave to new mothers (often framed as disability leave) but not to fathers. A report from 2014 estimated that 58 percent of employers offered paid leave to new mothers, but only 14 percent offered it to new fathers. Another study from 2012 reported that only 13 percent of fathers who took parental leave were paid, compared with 21 percent of mothers.

The first item on my wish list is a law requiring paid parental leave and, importantly, the law should grant leave rights to both moms and dads. A handful of states already have such legislation, but we need the whole country covered. Proposals for paid parental leave have already garnered a lot of attention, and that’s great. I think it’s important, however, not to focus too narrowly on this issue. For reasons that I discuss in a forthcoming essay, we also need to address other aspects of our social environment that affect dads as caregivers, including the following wish list items.

2. Require equal access to diaper changing facilities

Cities like Honolulu, Miami, and San Francisco have laws that give men and women a right of equal access to diaper changing facilities. I wish this right existed across the country. In 2014, California’s legislature passed two laws that would have required new and newly renovated buildings to grant men equal access to diaper changing tables by placing changing tables in men’s restrooms or family restrooms. It’s a shame that Governor Brown vetoed the measures. All too often, diaper changing tables are located exclusively in women’s restrooms. This is troubling because of the difficulty it creates for dads who need to change diapers. Moreover, lack of equal access sends the troubling message that only women should be expected to care for young children.

Restrooms have long been sites of regulation because they are so central to health and well-being. OSHA rules, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and state-level Restroom Access Acts all aim to make restrooms accessible. There is also pending litigation about the extent to which federal civil rights laws protect transgender individuals’ ability to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity. Further regulating restrooms to ensure that men have equal access to diaper changing tables is long overdue.

3. Reframe state-supported “Mommy & Me” classes

When my daughter was a few months old, I began exploring community events for infants and parents. Friends told me how fun it would be to take her to “Mommy and Me” classes. “They’re called Mommy and Me classes, but I’m sure they’d let a dad in too,” one friend tried to reassure me. Mommy and Me classes abound—for example “Mommy and Me Yoga,” “Mommy and Me Music,” and “Mommy and Me Tender Twos.” While these classes may technically be open to fathers, the Mommy and Me moniker sends the message that fathers do not belong. This framing reinforces cultural expectations that caregiving should be left to mothers.

To be clear, these classes are not biological in nature. They are not breastfeeding classes. For example, Huntington Hospital in Pasadena offers a “Mommy and Me” class that it describes as “song time, parachute play, and bubbles with baby.”  All of these activities could surely involve fathers. Some places have begun to offer Daddy and Me classes, but these options are rare and I see no reason why moms and dads need to be segregated for song time and bubble play. Moreover, I’ve found that Daddy and Me Classes take place outside of the usual work schedule—on weeknights and weekends—thus reinforcing the outdated assumption that dads are breadwinners and moms are caregivers.

While we should lobby companies to rename their Mommy and Me classes, public policy also has a role to play. Many, if not most, Mommy and Me classes are offered by government-funded entities such as hospitals and public libraries. As a public policy intervention, the government should condition its funding on the reframing of Mommy and Me classes. Some places have already begun to call their classes “Baby and Me” instead, a name that is much more inclusive of dads and other caregivers. The government should require this change of any state-funded entity that offers a Mommy and Me class.

4. Recast the image of dads in the federal government’s Fatherhood & Mentoring Initiative

The federal government runs a public education campaign that encourages fathers to be more engaged with parenting. While this is certainly a laudable goal, the program has set a very low bar, focusing on preventing fathers from being completely absent. As a result, the campaign’s media clips risk reinforcing the belief that dads ought to leave the bulk of hands-on caregiving to women. For my fourth wish list item, I wish the government would revamp its media campaign.

Consider, for example, the first video clip at the bottom of this post. It features three television personalities from the MLB (Major League Baseball) Network.  The men are in their offices, taking a moment out of the day to call their children by phone or videoconference to say hello.  The clip closes with one of the men telling viewers: “Remember: You’re never too far away from your kids to be a dad. Reach out and take a second to check in—because sometimes, the smallest moments can have the biggest impact on a child’s life.”

This clip might have the unfortunate effect of reproducing the idea that a model father is, first and foremost, a breadwinner. And being an engaged father simply means picking up the phone to call the kids from work. I wish the federal government would replace videos like this from its campaign with clips that showcase multiple sides of fatherhood, including images of fathers as hands-on caregivers.

To close today’s post, I include the second video clip below as inspiration. It’s Dove Men+Care’s 2015 Super Bowl ad. The video portrays fatherhood to include experiences such as soothing a crying child, doing a daughter’s hair, assisting a child learning to dress himself, assisting another child on the toilet, sitting at mealtime with a child in his high chair, and lots of father-child play. These various aspects of caregiving are all celebrated. I hope the federal government will develop content for its media campaign that similarly depicts fathers as able caregivers.

Thank you for letting me share my Father’s Day wish list with you. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, especially the two fathers closest to me—my husband and my dad!

[Update 6/27: click here for the third and final post in this series.]

This blog post is adapted from my forthcoming law review essay entitled “Shaping Expectations about Dads as Caregivers: Toward an Ecological Approach.”

 

Video from the President’s Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative:

 

Dove Men+Care’s 2015 Superbowl Ad:

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