Millennial Dads and the Caregiving Praise Conundrum

Should we encourage people to stop treating dads like they walk on water for doing basic childcare? I’ve come to a conclusion that surprises me.

Millennial Dads and the Caregiving Praise Conundrum
Photo by Juliane Liebermann / Unsplash

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We’ve all seen it happen. A dad takes his crying baby out of a restaurant and four people come up to him to tell him what an amazing father he is. A video of a dad learning to braid his daughter’s hair (Something literally millions of moms do daily, without comment or praise) is a viral sensation. I love this satirical video about a Boomer Grandma praising a father as “Dad of the Year” for doing childcare pickup; I think it really hits the nail on the head. And while we can roll our eyes at how entrenched gender stereotypes are around parenting, these differences in how we view mothers' and fathers’ roles actually have real-world negative consequences. Research by a think tank called Third Way and summarized by the NYTimes, found that “on average, men’s earnings increased more than 6 percent when they had children (if they lived with them), while women’s decreased 4 percent for each child they had.”

Millennial dads, born between 1981 and 1996, are perhaps the most hands-on fathers of any previous generation in American history. While studies show that in hetero two-parent families, dads today do more childcare and housework than previous generations, they also overestimate how much they are contributing, with mothers still doing a majority, even if they both work for pay full time. I love the example of this Morning Consult/NYTimes time use study done during the first year of the pandemic found nearly half of men said they were doing a majority of the homeschooling, while only 3 percent of women agreed with that assessment. 

So, should we encourage people to stop treating dads like they walk on water for doing basic care for their children? After researching culture and narrative change for my report for Better Life Lab at New America, A Playbook to Transform How America Cares, I’ve come to a conclusion that surprises me: keep the praise coming. The stone-cold truth is that men have more power than women to change cultural norms about care, so we need them to keep at it.  

“Traditionally care responsibilities have fallen on women,” says Nicole Jorwic, the Chief of Advocacy and Campaigns at Caring Across Generations, on why she thinks men speaking up about care has an outsize impact. “I do think it hits differently when men are talking about these issues and the need for those collective solutions because it's not an expected voice.”

Here are some recent cultural examples of what I think outsize impact looks like:

  • When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced, he was going to take two months paid paternity leave after the birth of his first child in 2015, the fact that such a powerful executive was publicly doing this was considered an international news story. By the birth of his third child in 2023, it was no longer shocking that a man of his stature would take paid parental leave—it was simply discussed in the context of other things happening at Facebook. 
  • Alex Ohanian, a successful tech founder married to tennis superstar Serena Williams, became a paid leave advocate after Willams nearly died during the first week of her postpartum period in 2017. His advocacy and lobbying Congress for federal paid leave has made national headlines
  • In 2014, New York Mets player Daniel Murphy and his wife were publicly criticized when he used Major League Baseball’s three days of allotted paternity leave at the start of the season. Nine years later, pro athletes taking paternity leave had become much more normalized. In April 2023, four Dodgers players were all on paternity leave during the same week. Instead of criticism for taking time off following the birth of their children, the news was met broadly with congratulations and lots of jokes about what was happening nine months prior. While paternity leave for MLB players is still a paltry three days, basically to allow them to attend the birth, the story about the Dodgers is a high-profile example of culture change. 
  • In 2023, Congressional dads became a multi-week international news sensation after posing for pictures while caring for their infants. Fawning adoration was heaped on the fathers for their deft parenting skills as they navigated the delayed swearing-in of the 118th Congress due to the tumultuous election of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. We all know that if the situation was a bunch of mothers with babies hanging around Congress, the narrative would have been around why they hadn’t arranged childcare and if they were committed enough to be a congressperson.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif), along with Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and others have formed the Congressional Dads Caucus of men with younger children who want to support each other as working fathers and advance care policies. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who is slightly older than the official definition of a millennial but has young children, is putting paid family leave and universal childcare at the center of his 2023 “Economic Patriotism” agenda and is the co-founder along with Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) of a new bipartisan childcare caucus. These encouraging stories and actions along with research suggest that many millennial dads want to be equal partners in the care movement. 

For those like me who are deeply interested in gender equity and believe our home lives are integral to how women are able to participate in public life, it’s a conundrum. An important part of advancing change is making sure there are new and different attitudes around caregiving highlighted in mass media – both in news coverage and in fictional TV and film, so highlighting and praising these changes IS actually helpful to larger goals of gender equity in caregiving. But do Dads deserve praise for caregiving tasks mothers do by default that no one ever notices?

Regardless of whether Dads actually deserve the praise for caregiving, we should give it to them anyway. We should give public praise to media figures, cultural influencers, and men who are somehow taking risks by defying social expectations around care because it works as positive reinforcement and makes it less risky for other dads to follow suit. But with this praise comes responsibility, including to acknowledge that moms don’t receive the same reception for parenting. Dads who garner caregiving praise should use that moment to mention that they think it’s important for parents to share tasks equally or that they have noticed their female partner or other moms aren’t lauded in the same way. And if they have a platform or a position of power like some of the dads mentioned here, they should use it to promote men’s caregiving and call out gendered double standards.

My husband, auditioning for Dad of the Year

Also, let me be clear. On the individual family level, I do not think mothers should be wildly praising fathers for contributing to caregiving and domestic tasks. Partner’s standards and expectations of dads in relationships should remain high and equity is an ongoing and constantly moving goal. I personally think a big reason dads do these public-facing challenges to care norms isn’t just because they want to but also because their wives are expecting and demanding different dynamics at home. The wives of several of the men listed above are prominent and very successful in their own right. 

Or, maybe instead of saying Dads don’t deserve praise but we should give it to them anyway, we should instead say that we ALL deserve praise. Caregiving is hard, especially in a country with minimal support for parents and a fierce culture of individualism. Although it doesn’t happen often, I personally enjoy compliments for managing my three boys on a solo outing or being offered respect for doing the hard work of raising twins. For every suppressed eye roll about how a dad who does daycare pickup is “dad of the year” we will only get to normalization if more men keep doing this. It’s also everyone’s job to remind Dads that this praise isn’t a red light to stop where they are in the quest for equality at home but cheering signs of encouragement along the marathon route.  

For this week’s members-only thread, I’m going to ask you all to sound off about this juicy topic: what is your experience with men receiving caregiving praise, and what are your thoughts on it?

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The research was supported in part by the Better Life Lab and YOU, our members. 

November Members-Only Hangout

Thursday November 16th at 1pm ET

Please join me on Thursday, November 16th at 1 pm ET to talk about how we can transform how America cares! I want to make my research and reporting as accessible as possible to my beloved Double Shift community, so I am going to give a 15-minute overview of the extremely cool solutions I’ve found and spend a bunch of time answering questions and talking informally with you all about effectively transforming care in America. This is an actually hopeful and inspiring topic, and I think we could all use some of that right now. You absolutely DO NOT have to have read my report to join! Members will get an email and calendar invite.

Join me and my colleague Brigid Schulte along with Courtney Martin from The Holding Co to discuss my playbook to transform how America Cares. It will be a great virtual event! RSVP here.


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