The Reality of Parenting Today

Prince Harry, not Meghan Markle, cradled baby Archie for his first public appearance, earning him praise that he’s on track to be a modern, hands-on dad…but what exactly does that mean? Dads are more involved now than they’ve ever been, but moms still shoulder 65% of child care chores. At this rate, it will take 75 years before men catch up and do equal work. Read below for my conversation with psychologist Darcy Blackman, author of the forthcoming All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership and find out why the reality of parenting today is often a lot different than it’s portrayed.

Katie Couric: We tend to think that men’s approach to parenting has evolved a great deal, but has it really?

Darcy Blackman: Part of the cultural conversation of the last 20 years has been about the so-called modern, involved father—a sort of anti-Don Draper. And that is a glass half-full kind of interpretation. The percentage of childcare labor fathers rose from about 20% in the 1970s and 80s to about 35% by the end of the 90s. But that was as high as it got. It leveled off there without ever reaching parity. The optimistic tale of the modern involved father leaves women today with a general idea that they’re signing up for something like 50/50, but we haven’t actually gotten there yet. And that’s a big 15% on both ends. Parenthood is very demanding.

So how would you describe the role of dads as it actually exists today?

Men are a lot more involved with their kids than they used to be (though, by the way, so are mothers, in terms of how much time they spend with their kids). But those changes are more about a general consensus that fathers are important parents too—with a wink and a nod. No one really thinks of fathers as primary parents, even when they are that. One mother I spoke to, whose husband is actually the primary, noted that the school still always calls her, that the other mothers always send her the birthday party e-vites. She gets the message that she’s the one who should be in charge. No one says “dad’s babysitting” anymore, but working women away on business are always asked: Who’s watching the kids? while fathers all but never hear that question.

You experienced similar things in your own life and write that you would often look at your husband’s approach to parenting and wonder “how is this still happening?” Have you found the answer?

It wasn’t his approach to parenting that felt that way. He’s great with our daughters. They adore him. It was his approach to co-parenting that left me frustrated. Like most mothers, I found myself doing about 65% of our household’s child care even though we both worked. He didn’t pay the same kind of attention that I did to what was going on around us. When spring break was coming and we would need alternative child care. Who needed new shoes. And when I brought it up (angrily) he would often respond defensively (as people do). And then we never got anywhere. The book is really a deep dive into why this is still happening. But very briefly, couples don’t pay much mind to the way that growing up in a culture that values men more and puts their comforts and ambitions above women’s will play out in their romantic relationship. We think we live outside of that in our homes. We do not.

In talking to men, what did you learn about their perspective on the situation?

One of the most striking things about the interviews I did was that while women were uniformly enraged and could talk passionately and at great length about this topic, the men who agreed to talk to me were generous with their time and their thoughts, but they were so clearly disinterested. Like, if someone interviewed me about golf I would sound about like they did. They knew that their wives had some gripes about the matter, but it was of not much real interest to them, and they didn’t fully see themselves as the source of these gripes.

And what’s the fallout for relationships as a result? And for women in general?

The toll on marital happiness is high. There’s tons of research on this. Women who believe their division of labor is unequal are more likely to be depressed. Mothers (and not fathers) take a health hit in the early years of their children’s lives. The gender wage gap is now understood to be largely a motherhood gap as mothers are less likely even to be granted job interviews than all men, including fathers, are passed over for promotions based on assumptions about their unavailability. I could go on. It’s a pretty long list.

I thought it was pretty stunning that, at the current pace, it would take 75 years for men to catch up and do their fair share. How can we change this timeline?

First, we can really interrogate our own sexism. Men and women both. I so often reflexively find myself going out of my way to make sure my husband isn’t inconvenienced. I was raised female and trained to do this. There’s some research that shows that of all gender combinations of couples lesbians co-parent most harmoniously. I think this is why. If you’ve got two people going out of their way to make sure the other is good, you’re bound to have more harmony. And second, we can avoid what most couples do, which is to just let the cards fall as they may. A vague commitment to equality is not enough. You almost need a spreadsheet. And an agreement that if each parent has a different standard of “good enough,” some compromise that works for both parties is reached.