Supporting Fatherhood: A Feminist Issue

For as long as I can remember, I have called myself a feminist. As I begin my early twenties, I have been spending time examining what being a feminist means to me. I learned the importance of practicing intersectionality in feminism, historical feminist, and LGBTQIA+ movements, and what women's rights are at risk in the upcoming election. In all of the time that I spent learning about feminism, something that I didn’t expect to see in this research was how supporting fatherhood is a feminist issue. Of course, I knew that feminism is not just about supporting women, it is about supporting equality for all, yet for some reason this topic had never occurred to me as a feminist issue. Upon reading about this topic, I decided to contact Dr. Carrie LaFevre Sillito, a professor at the University of Utah, who studies Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and teaches classes about gender and family problems. We spoke about the many ways that supporting fatherhood uplifts women in society and how the lack thereof has impacted women negatively. 

Supporting Fatherhood in the Home

While I can’t speak for every family, it does seem that mothers take care of the responsibilities in the home whether or not they work outside of the home. This statement was confirmed by the National Science Foundation, (NSF) saying that married women do about 28 hours of housework a week, while men do around 9. The Second Shift is the idea that when women are done with their regular jobs, they have to come home and have the so-called second shift of work at home. When I asked Dr. Sillito about this, she said “In ‘traditional’ families, men grow up believing housework was women’s responsibility. In ‘modern’ families, men and women see housework as a shared responsibility. We all ‘do gender’ – we do the things we think our gender is expected to do. So, the one *big* thing here, in my opinion, is that we need a cultural shift to where housework is not seen as ‘women’s work,' but as a shared responsibility at home.” Not only that, but women often carry the emotional load of the family, which can be stressful and taxing. The pandemic has highlighted gender inequality in household responsibilities. National Public Radio (NPR) pointed out the women are overwhelmed by caring for the household, helping children with school, and continuing their work responsibilities. This stress makes us ask how to better divide family responsibilities to help women be successful outside of the home. By sharing the responsibilities in the home and emotional labor, both women and men can engage in the family, creating more equality for women in housework and establishing that fathers are just as important in the home. 

a bottle of clorox, hand sanitizers and a container of lysol wipes sit on a wooden table Kelly Sikkema | Unsplash

Child Custody

The U.S. Census reports that four out of five children are placed in custody with their mothers. Not only does this almost leave out the role of the father completely, but this is also another burden that falls on the mother. The additional childcare responsibilities for a mother after a divorce contributes to a phenomenon called the “Feminization of Poverty." While child support is supposed to cover the financial cost of raising a child, it rarely does so. The reported average payment of child support given in a year to women is around $4,600, which is much lower than the actual cost of raising a child. According to Dr. Silltio, this puts the custodial parent (which we know the majority of the time is the mother) at a serious financial disadvantage. Supporting fatherhood after divorce can lessen the poverty gap between men and women, which can help women in the workforce that are fighting for equal pay. 

Criminal Justice System 

Incarceration rates between men and women are dramatically different. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, women make up 6.8% of the prison population, while men make the other 93.2%. A more pressing part of this issue is that the prison population is racially biased. If you are a Black man, you are twice as likely as a Hispanic man and six times as likely as a white man to serve a life sentence in prison, as reported by the Bureau of Justice. So what does this mean for men, more specifically men of color? Well, Dr. Sillito said that "this particularly harms Black men and Black families. It’s harder to get a job if you have a criminal record. This makes it hard to provide an income for a family or to pay child support. If you’re in prison, it’s impossible to be physically present as a parent.” This has serious implications in regards to how a man can be a parent to their children. Mass incarceration leaves children without their fathers and puts more pressure on mothers. Supporting fatherhood from a feminist perspective has to include supporting fairness and equality in the criminal justice system too.

The “Breadwinner” 

The idea of the man being the breadwinner in a family started to take off in the 19th century. However, according to Jessie Bernard, author of the article “The Good-Provider Role: Its Rise and Fall” this has changed; men are no longer deemed the head of the household. This role of the breadwinner is strongly attached to the masculine identity of the man, and loss of identity can lead to greater stress. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that men are more likely to die from suicide, and that middle-aged men have the highest rate of suicide. In a study published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, rates of suicide rose during the 2008-2009 economic recession as a result of added financial pressure and job loss and was once again highest in the middle-aged men. Risk factors as outlined by the CDC include isolation and loss (including job loss,) while protective factors of suicide include family support and connectedness. Support for fathers in the home can help cope with the financial stress and toxic masculinity that often correlate with the idea of being a breadwinner. Dr. Sillito mentions that “having less stress of providing, coupled with greater family support would likely be helpful.” This can help the overall well-being of a family, including both men and women. 

Paid Parental Leave

Currently, the U.S. does not have a mandated paid maternity or paternity leave — this makes the U.S. one of the developed countries that does not have some sort of parental leave policy. Evidently, this puts families at a disadvantage, especially for mothers. The closest nation policy to ensure maternity leave is the Family Medical Leave, but this is only for women who work full time and have worked at a company for a specific amount of time. This leaves out part-time mothers and newly employed mothers. This does not give new mothers a chance to heal, nurse, or figure out how to care for the child. Dr. Silltion talked about her own experience with maternity leave and the difficulty of not having enough time: “When I had each of my 3 children, I received zero maternity leave. My son was born the week between spring and summer semesters. I started teaching classes when he was a week old. My middle was born over Labor Day weekend. I was back to teaching on Tuesday after her birth. My youngest child was born a month prematurely, and I was grading papers and finals in the hospital while in labor and after giving birth. I didn’t have any time off at all with her.” She also highlights that we cannot talk about paid paternity leave before we establish paid maternity for all mothers. 

That being said, paid paternity leave also provides a workplace environment to recognize the importance of fathers in family life. A study done at The University of Illinois and Seoul National University concluded that paid paternity offers better outcomes for the family, including higher job satisfaction and relationship satisfaction. Paternity leave acknowledges that both parents have responsibilities to their children and that women are not a risk in a workplace environment. Dr. Sillito notes that “Family leave, where both men and women can take off time without unfair financial or social repercussions would be a big step toward gender equality.” In the case of paid parental leave, supporting the whole family system will help us move toward creating an equal family life.

Working Together as Equals

The big question stands, how can we as a society support fatherhood from a feminist perspective? Well, the big problem that exists is that there are still gendered roles within the home. Dr. Silito believes that gender equality in the home will continue if men aren’t seen as equal participants in the home. As long as women have an unequal share of household responsibilities at home (including taking time off of work for childcare and emotional labor,) they will be at a disadvantage in the workplace. The best way to support fatherhood is by uplifting both fathers and mothers and encouraging them to work together as equals. So yes, fatherhood is a feminist issue and yes, it is our job to support males in their family role. This way there will be less pressure on women, and they will be able to have more opportunities outside of the home. 

father and daughter, family, father, love, people, children, happiness Photo by Caleb Jones from Unsplash

A major thank you to Carrie LaFevre Sillito for taking the time to answer my questions and offer her knowledge and opinion on the topic.