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A group of like-minded fathers who call themselves ''Dads in the Dark'' meet monthly at Conley's in Watertown after their kids are safely tucked in for the night. Sharing a laugh are (from left) James Chung, John Bowe, David Goldberg, Gregg Fowler, Sam Zales, and John Carson. Right: Chung and Bowe banter about their day.
A group of like-minded fathers who call themselves ''Dads in the Dark'' meet monthly at Conley's in Watertown after their kids are safely tucked in for the night. Sharing a laugh are (from left) James Chung, John Bowe, David Goldberg, Gregg Fowler, Sam Zales, and John Carson. Right: Chung and Bowe banter about their day. (Globe Staff Photos / Dina Rudick)

Gen X Dad

Luxury vacations, fast-track careers, and bigger houses used to be a priority for family men, but no longer. Today's young fathers are taking paternity leaves, rejecting overtime, and rushing home after work to do all the things many of their own fathers didn't.

As darkness falls on a drizzly autumn day, hundreds of workers spill out of elevators, past potted palm trees standing on marble floors, into the spacious lobby of One Lincoln Street, a downtown office tower. Clutching briefcases, bags, and umbrellas, they brace themselves for Boston's rush-hour traffic. It's 5 p.m. Among the exiting masses is Gregg Fowler. Tall and slender, he's a new dad with new priorities. Kudos from his boss can't compare with hugs from his kids. He arrives early to his job as a software developer so he can leave in time for dinner with his family. At 36, he says, nothing gives him more satisfaction than evenings of bubble baths, blocks, and bedtime stories.

One week earlier, I had met Fowler along with a half-dozen other fathers in their 30s and early 40s who gather monthly at a Watertown bar called Conley's. Everything about them seemed to confirm the latest research trumpeting a new breed of father. They experience, as working women have for decades, the joys and anxieties of wanting it all: the satisfying career and the time with their family. These guys dub themselves "Dads in the Dark," though they see their group as far from unenlightened. They grab paternity leaves and reject overtime even when they could use the money. They are as adept at sculpting Play-Doh as they are at drafting memos. A manager at Fidelity Investments says being home by 6 p.m. is not just a target, "it's firm."

One of the regulars, a market strategist in his late 30s, has studied these trends among fathers in his age group. He says the dads "behave, think, and are wired differently." These men met through their wives, who were in a local mothers' group. The guys liked one another so much that they kept meeting (but only after 8 p.m., when the kids were down), talking about everything from the Patriots and the Sox to the job market and office politics and home renovations. Juggling work and home demands is exhausting, they say, but they refuse to replicate the life of a traditional breadwinner - in many cases, the life their own dads led. Many of them, like Fowler, grew up with parents who followed the breadwinner-homemaker model - only to divorce in their 30s and 40s. The men at Conley's aren't looking to put their feet up at the end of the day.

"It's important for me to see my children," Fowler says as he shares beers and hamburgers with the other men. "And to find balance."

As we ride the Red Line, Fowler talks easily about the routines of his two children, Caitlin, 4, and Kyle, 3, including dinner, cleanup, and teeth brushing. He says his wife was laid off a few years ago as a consultant but is looking to return to work any day. "I don't know many Stepford wives anymore, do you?" he asks while we retrieve his car from the Alewife commuter lot. When we arrive at his home in Belmont shortly after 6 p.m., his children pounce on him, screaming, "Daddy!"

Within 10 minutes, Fowler has changed out of his work clothes, downed a plate of spaghetti and meatballs at the kitchen table (everyone else has eaten already), and bounded up the stairs to be the evening playmate to his children. His wife, Jules Giggie, is a warm and outgoing woman who met her husband while studying for her master's degree in social work in Austin, Texas. She says she and her husband have typical marital spats, but she describes him as always being "about fairness and respect." They work hard, she says, to break down male-female stereotypes in front of their children. Giggie, who has volunteered at a battered-women's shelter, tells her husband: "Just because I have ovaries doesn't mean I'm better at making meals."

Later in the evening, Caitlin, an exuberant preschooler with a tumble of short curls, races into the kitchen, trying to enlist more adults in her game of hide-and-seek.

Who gives you a bath at night? I ask Caitlin.

"Mommy and Daddy," she says, twirling around the kitchen table.

Who helps you brush your teeth?

"Mommy and Daddy."

Who takes care of you when you are sick?

"Mommy and Daddy!" And then she zooms off into another room.

Even at a time when men are working as hard as ever, much has been made of the emergence of the new nurturing father. Around the time that Dustin Hoffman asked in the 1979 movie Kramer vs. Kramer, "What law is it that says a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex?" sociologists were hailing a new era. Study after study shows that today's men refuse to be stick figures in their children's lives. They recoil at the thought of acting like Distant Dad. When they see celebrities like Eminem and Will Smith embrace their children or Super Bowl winners cradle their babies, they see glamorous reflections of themselves.

No generation is more influenced by this vision of fatherhood than today's men between 26 and 40 - commonly called Generation X - and no male age group has been more scrutinized for its paternal behaviors. As research targets, men of this generation have been asked to keep daily diaries of time spent at work and home, to distinguish between reading bedtime stories (child care) and washing dishes (housework), and to know that being a "domestic manager" is not the same as being a "compliant helper."

These fathers are not the first to show signs of change. Researchers say baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) began to break the traditional mold, but it is only among today's fathers of young children that they see a broad generational shift. New paternal behavior is measured down to fractions of hours. According to research from the Families and Work Institute in New York, a nonprofit that tracks trends in family life, fathers in 2002 spent 2.7 hours each workday caring for children, almost an hour more than fathers in 1977. That reflects a 50 percent increase in male participation. During the same 25-year period, working mothers' hours spent caring for children stayed roughly the same - 3.3 hours a day. Researchers see today's dads, like the men at Conley's, as a distinct group, exposed to such dramatic social shifts that new attitudes toward family life were inevitable.

"The biggest change is in this generation. . . . It's their aspirations to be involved and their actual level of involvement," says James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the New York institute, who has studied family life for more than 30 years. "They're not just talking, they're actually walking the walk."

Levine and others say these men are far more cynical than previous generations about the rewards of the work world, even as they typically clock 45-hour-plus workweeks. They have seen lifetime company employment vanish and the dot-com bubble burst. And these men also grew up as the nation's divorce rate nearly doubled, prompting them to pause longer and perhaps think harder than any earlier generation before marrying and having children. In 1960, US men married at an average age of 22.8 years old; in 2003, it was 27.1 years. They were the first generation in which half of all men and women attended one or more years of college. They dated women who weren't racing to trade their diplomas for diapers. Men and women entered marriage with years of earning power behind them and an established pattern of equal partnership. Today's fathers, says Brad Harrington, head of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, approach family life wanting and expecting to be more involved in day-to-day life. And they are discovering what many of their wives could have told them from across the dining room table: This juggling act is hard work.

But even as they fear being marginalized if they cut back their work hours, more and more young fathers today still refuse to miss those precious years when their children are growing up. It is, Harrington says, a sort of "feminism for men."

Some men knew early on that they would rip up their father's script on parenting. Dressed in a business suit on his way into work one morning, Eric Steinert, 37, a regular at the Conley's gathering, describes his own father as a man who "chased the brass ring" in a banking career without realizing "there's a price to pay." Steinert says his father was the kind of man who would "work 60 percent more for 60 percent more pay." He says he spent his early childhood in Paris and that his parents divorced when he was 3. Although his mother remarried, he feels he grew up without any close paternal connections and, to this day, is in touch only sporadically with his father, usually by e-mail.

A father of two working as a fund-raiser for Babson College in Wellesley, Steinert has vowed since boyhood not to repeat his father's life, pouring endless hours into a job. "We're less naively idealistic about the rewards of sticking to a company," he says. Steinert still works nine or 10 hours a day, including some weekends and evenings, but he makes it to his Belmont home by 6:30 almost every night, and he takes a calculated approach to the distribution of his work and family hours at this stage of his life. His children are 5 and 2, young enough, he says, to benefit especially from some extra hours with their dad; meanwhile, he is a man in his late 30s whose career isn't going to soar or sink based on some extra office hours spread over the week. "The return on the extra time isn't high," he says.

But not all men are so internally driven to become this new nurturer; some admit that if today's fathering icon were Ward Cleaver, they might behave like him. "Men fall into the spirit of the times," says Alex de Frondeville, a 37-year-old father of twins, while sitting in his living room one weekend a few months ago. "It wasn't this huge emotional shift in me that said, 'I need to do this.' . . . It's what's done now. I can't tell if I'm doing it because of society or because I want to do it."

Inside his white Dutch Colonial on a street in Arlington bursting with young families, he admits he might have repeated his father's lifestyle if it weren't for the expectations of his wife and his sense that men who don't change diapers are ridiculed as oppressive ogres. He wonders if other men aren't like him, just floating on the crest of the new wave; after all, he says, "there's no way we've evolved that much in 30 years."

De Frondeville, who manages software development projects for Verizon Communications in Boston, fondly recalls the years after he met Georgia Critsley at a 1993 Christmas party in Charlestown. He instantly fell for the striking blonde with a vibrant personality. Critsley was tough, a prosecutor by profession, but he loved the way she challenged him. They were a handsome couple who traveled to Europe each year, without such distractions as putting up safety gates or paying baby sitters. They married in 1999 with every intention of living a life of equal partnership. Two years later, Critsley gave birth to twins, Catherine and Christian. She planned to take a six-month maternity leave and return to her job as an assistant DA for Suffolk County. But after the six months had passed, she decided she couldn't bear being away from her twins. She stayed home for the next two years. But then Critsley, who is now 37, began missing the courtroom, the law, and she decided she wanted back in. A year ago, she took a full-time job, but with predictable hours, at a law firm.

Now she and her husband share equally all of the household chores and child care involved in raising their 3-year-olds. De Frondeville tends to focus on laundry and cleanup, while his wife cooks most meals. They try to give each other time off - he plays in Ultimate Frisbee tournaments, she sings in a choir. Beyond that, the two of them "survive" each day through a 50-50 distribution of work. Sitting in his living room next to his wife, de Frondeville fiddles with a puzzle piece left on the floor by his children. I ask if life was easier when his wife was home every day with the kids. "It was harder," he says, shaking his head.

His wife adds some insight. "I was meaner," she says with a laugh.

De Frondeville says family life operates more smoothly now that his wife is back at work. They take turns dropping off and picking up at the Arlington Children's Center. He concedes that he sometimes thinks "it would be nice if it was like the old days," when his father, the breadwinner, wasn't expected to do much, if any, household work. But now, he says, such a traditional division of labor almost seems "unnatural."

It's impossible, of course, to generalize about the behavior of an entire generation of fathers. Among today's fathers are men who neglect and even abandon their families, as well as a small but growing number of stay-at-home dads. Other men don't have the option of managing just one job but must juggle two or more, leaving little time for trips to the playground. And some men and women still proudly adhere to the Father Knows Best model of child-rearing and family life. But researchers say the new attitudes among today's fathers are widespread across this generation, articulated most passionately by college-educated men with similarly educated wives. Levine, author of Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family, travels the country giving talks at company-sponsored events to hundreds of employees. He says there is a vast cross section of men from different socioeconomic levels who want "a different relationship with their own kids" than their fathers had with them. He says that even single men ask questions at his events, anticipating the day their balancing act begins.

But Levine also perceives a rise in discontent among men trying to balance work and family demands. According to the latest study from the Families and Work Institute, women experienced about the same amount of conflict in meeting work and family demands from 1977 to 2002, but men's sense of frustration rose sharply. In 1977, about one-third of men reported tension about the juggling act; in 2002, more than half said they did.

Studies over the past few years reveal some of the reasons for this frustration. One 2000 study, by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center, found that the job characteristic most often ranked as very important by men between the ages of 21 and 39 was "having a work schedule which allows me to spend time with my family." At a time when people are being asked to work increasingly long hours, that same study found that some 70 percent of these men wanted to spend more time with their families and were willing to sacrifice pay to do so.

James Chung, a 38-year-old father of two from Belmont, is the market strategist who is among the Conley's group, and his findings show that men of his generation think differently. Chung, who runs a Boston-based company called Reach Advisors, advises companies on how to market their products to various demographic groups. He urges clients to shake the image of ambitious couples trying to earn enough to install Jacuzzis and book their next Caribbean vacation. In his national survey of 3,000 parents between their mid-20s and late 50s, he finds Generation X couples are far more willing to sacrifice money for family time. But like Levine, he also finds today's new fathers struggling far more than previous generations with how to carve out that time. "Fathers are a lot more conflicted as mothers have always been," Chung says.

Perceptions at work are not far from the minds of many fathers. That was evident as I hunted down fathers for this story. A number of men I interviewed declined to have their full names used, fearful they would be perceived by their bosses as weak in their commitment to work if they were quoted about their devotion to family.

Some researchers are skeptical about the extent of the "new fatherhood." Andrew Singleton, a sociologist at Monash University in Australia, believes many of the reported changes are overblown. He says he doesn't trust studies that rely on men to report how much they do around the house. That kind of self-reporting, Singleton thinks, is suspect irrespective of gender. Singleton launched a study of Australian parents in which researchers talked with couples from their mid-20s to their mid-30s inside their homes; only male questioners interviewed men, and female questioners interviewed women. He concluded that today's fathers participate more on the domestic front, but they are mostly "a picture of continuity rather than change with respect to young men's domestic roles, identities, and obligations."

Singleton and other researchers suggest there may also be a limit to the degree men - and women - truly embrace an egalitarian model of parenting. Some fathers complain that their best efforts to load the dishwasher or dress their children are met with "corrections" from their wives, who insist their methods are better. Some women don't want their husbands to arrange all the car pools. Does this mean that women don't want to surrender primary control of home life? And how far do men really want to go in relinquishing their time-honored role as primary breadwinner?

Nicholas Townsend, a Brown University anthropology professor who wrote The Package Deal: Marriage, Work, and Fatherhood in Men's Lives, says men, raised for generations to care for families through earning money, can't be fundamentally changed in a few decades. In the book, he followed the lives of several dozen high school seniors who graduated from the same San Francisco-area school in the 1970s. Most of these men are in their 40s today, though Townsend believes the same trends hold for younger fathers as well. The men, like their fathers before them, took great pride in earning money as a way of caring for the family, and society still sees this as the dominant contribution of fathers.

"We still measure men by their paychecks and occupational success," Townsend says. "Attitudes don't turn on a dime."

Townsend did find that many men wanted to spend more time at home but could not because of job or logistical constraints. He found men were frustrated by the difficulty of putting together the "package deal" a good job, a wife, children, and home ownership. And a chief frustration was that today's economy forces so many working fathers to buy homes far from their workplaces, imposing long commutes. Many of these men wanted more time with their children, but traveling between work and home cut into those hours.

"The time to be emotionally close to their children just isn't there," Townsend says.

Still, many researchers insist that today's fathers reflect a significant break from the past, though many repeat that "it's an evolution, not a revolution." Some, more ardent social analysts go beyond documenting the time fathers spend folding laundry and elaborately categorize dads into types. In Britain, researchers interviewed dozens of fathers in 2002, finding the traditional role has been replaced by a collection of new father personalities. The Enforcer Dad, a dying breed, is the strict disciplinarian; the Entertainer Dad is the family clown who distracts his kids while the mother attends to household tasks; the Useful Dad pitches in, though rarely takes the initiative; and the Fully Involved Dad jumps into domestic matters equally with his wife.

Beyond these labels, there is another: Exhausted Dad.

John Carson of Belmont is another member of the Dads in the Dark crowd who is among the chronically fatigued. On a November evening after work, the 35-year-old vice president of sales at Fidelity Investments in Boston raced home to greet his three children, a 4-year-old son and twin 2-year-old daughters. He is almost always there by 6 p.m.

As his wife loads food into the microwave, he cuts up chicken and slaps rice on plates for his children. Carson talks about how his own father was a successful juggler of work and family - though it came after a painful divorce. His father was forced to cook, clean, and iron for the first time after the split-up. Carson and his siblings, who lived with their father, also pitched in with an array of chores.

"I know what it takes to run a house," Carson says before racing upstairs to help start the kids' baths.

Just as he reaches the second-floor landing, there is a loud thud in the foyer. One of his girls, having made it up one step, has fallen backward onto the floor. Before the toddler can let out a single cry, Carson flees down the stairs, wraps her in his arms, and showers her with kisses. Within minutes, she is shrieking with delight in the bathtub.

After the children are asleep, Carson and his wife, Kathryn, have some time for relaxing. His wife is at home for now, though she plans to return to work. Carson says it isn't always easy being home by 6, but his bosses have respected his departure time in return for his efficiency during the day. He sees it as the only way he can achieve the life he wants.

"If it means I'm one or two rungs lower on the corporate ladder," he says, "it's worth it."

Patricia Wen covers children and family issues for the Globe. E-mail her at Wen@globe.com.

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