Fathers are as important in raising kids as mothers, which is why adults need to be careful about perpetuating gender stereotypes.

Recently I entered a room and found three four-year-olds playing “house”. As they didn’t register my presence, I watched the two little girls engage in a typical domestic exchange between a mother and child. The third child remained a passive bystander. When I asked him why he was not playing, he answered, “I’m the father. I don’t have to do anything at home.”

This little role-play speaks volumes of how gender stereotypes of mom as caretaker and father as breadwinner are transmitted. Despite women foraying into the workplace, traditional gender roles seem to persist on the domestic front. Working mothers thus do a “second shift” in the words of sociologist, Arlie Hochschild. In her newly released book, the feisty COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, points a finger at women for cutting back on their careers during the childrearing years. Understandably, this position has stirred a hornet’s nest; critics accuse Sandberg of being oblivious to the daily demands and dilemmas that average women contend with. However, by focusing solely on the juggling acts of working moms, an equally pertinent issue is sidestepped by our collective consciousness. How do working fathers straddle the competing tugs of work and family? Unless and until this question becomes relevant for men, gender equality will evade women with children continuing to cling on to conventional attitudes.

Many qualified and talented women opt to stay home to raise kids. This choice, unfortunately, is not equally available to men primarily due to the social pressure of ingrained stereotypes. We typically view fathers as providers and mothers as nurturers. But what happens when usual gender roles are swapped with mom going to office and dad changing diapers?

The tribe of stay-at-home fathers is, in fact, steadily increasing, at least in western countries. In the U.K., fathers constitute around 10 per cent of those who stay at home to raise children. The unemployment that followed the latest recession in the U.S. also resulted in social changes that were unthinkable only a few decades ago. As a greater percentage of men lost their jobs, many women became the sole breadwinners. In earlier times, men would spend less time caring for kids, especially when they were unemployed, as they felt their masculinity was threatened. In fact, they would often succumb to alcoholism. But thanks to changing social mores, more men are taking on the mantle of primary caregiver as their wives work full-time. For many families, this arrangement makes the most economic sense.

However, as stay-at-home dad Jeremy Smith points out in his book, the decision for a father to be the main caregiver is not always motivated by economics. Many couples are uncomfortable with putting children in daycare. With the advent of the Internet, the nature of work has changed considerably with many people working part-time and from home. If a man has a more flexible job than his wife, he may opt to chauffer the kids to school, take them to classes and doctor’s appointments.

Most fathers who are primary caregivers admit that they initially found childrearing daunting. But just as new moms learn on the job, they too do get better with time. Moreover, men report experiencing increased levels of bonding with their child, which they would not trade for anything in the world. Professor Aaron Rochlen studied 214 stay-at-home fathers and found that those with social support do better in terms of overall satisfaction.

Even as we rewrite conventional gender roles within families, we need to ask if both parents are suited to raising children. While women have established their competence in the workplace, how do men fare on the childrearing front? Yale psychiatrist Kyle Pruett interviewed children of stay-at-home dads and found them to be physically and psychologically healthy. The only difference was that, as they reached adolescence, these children did not have fixed views on gender roles.

Harvard professor, Kathleen McCartney, argues that “Modern motherhood” is not “biological destiny.” She says that before the Industrial Revolution, gender roles were not so rigidly circumscribed. Only when men started working in factories were women tied to the home and hearth. Further, biology prepares not just women but also men for parenthood. Just as pregnancy and childbirth cause hormonal shifts in a woman, these life-giving processes also engender changes in a father’s body. Biologist Katherine Wynne-Edwards and colleagues have found that testosterone, the hormone typically associated with male aggression, falls considerably in men when a child is born. Men also exhibit increased levels of prolactin, the hormone associated with lactation and care-giving in females.

As women continue to make strides in the workplace, men also need to embrace domestic duties. In fact, it is in the best interests of children when couples are able to trade places with relative ease, depending on the family’s current circumstances, be it a parental illness, a crisis in the extended family, or a job loss. A large scale study of 19,000 children in the U.K. found that children whose fathers had taken time off work during the birth of their child and opted for flexible hours had children with fewer emotional and behavioural problems than dads who did not. Children thrive best when both parents can care and provide for them.

E-mail: arunasankara@gmail.com

A monthly column on issues relating to children and their wellbeing; physical, mental and emotional