Q&A: Today's Dads: Same Old Parenting Trap (extended)

A new book dissects the work-fatherhood conflict

Despite feminism, two-income households and divorce, most men cling to old-fashioned attitudes about home, family, and the role work plays in their lives. Or so argues Nicholas W. Townsend, an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University, in The Package Deal (Temple University Press, $19.95), which analyzes marriage, work, and fatherhood in men's lives. Townsend studied 39 San Francisco-area men who graduated from high school in the early 1970s.

Townsend finds these men troubled by contradictions. They want to be closer to their children than their own fathers were, but long commutes and demanding employers cut into the amount of time they can spend with family. They want financial security for their families, but they discourage their wives from working full time.

The author's own life differs from that of many of the men he surveyed. A Briton who earned his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley, he's married to a sociologist who teaches family studies at the University of Connecticut and he has two grown stepchildren. At 50, he is slightly older than the men whose lives he examined, first for his 1992 doctoral dissertation and again for the new book. Reached at the village of Metsi, South Africa, where he is studying how villagers balance work and family in post-apartheid times, he spoke with Joseph Weber, BusinessWeek's bureau manager in Chicago. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: What's the main point of your book?

A: Virtually every man I spoke to said, "I want to be closer to my children than my father was to me." At the same time, they judged themselves and felt that the culture judged them on their ability to provide for their families. So they threw themselves into work. And, to [afford] a house, they moved further and further away, so the commute became longer and longer.... To be good fathers, they spent [more time] away from their children. How do you make sense of this?

Q: What is the answer to that?

A: They say, "Well, I show my children how much I love them by...providing them...opportunities I didn't have." Then, they say, "It's really important that the children have a parent at home, and I work so my wife can be home."

And, even if their wife was working, they would present it as, "Well, she works for the extras, she only works part-time. But one of the things I do as a man by working is [make it possible for] my wife to be close to my children." Which is not quite the same thing as being close to them yourself.

Q: Why are the findings important?

A: Men want to be close to their children. Children want their fathers to be close to them. Women expect their husbands to be involved with the children. But the behavior of men is changing less than one would expect. There is more going on than men refusing to be close or being unable to be close. Men are trying to do the right thing, and that works against being close [to their children].

Men define themselves in terms of their work.... If they have a job, they're doing what men ought to do. That expectation is incredibly strong. And...one feels better if one is doing better as a provider, as a worker, even if it is at the [expense of being able to spend time with] your family.

Q: Did anything you found surprise you?

A: I was surprised at how sympathetic I felt to these men, who get criticism from all directions.... Some criticisms are probably justified, but what struck me was that these men were really trying to do the right thing.

Q: The men you surveyed have surprisingly traditional attitudes toward fatherhood. How can such attitudes endure?

A: They are very deep in our psyches and pervasive in our culture. We tend to pay more attention to the signs of change than to the signs of stability.... There's a real feeling that if, as a father, you reduce the amount of time you work, it's because you're actually not quite up to being a full-time worker.

Q: You say that men's identification of masculinity and fatherhood with employment helps explain why the "revolution in family life" has stalled. What do you mean?

A: We've got equality for women, or we're moving in that direction.... Mothers are working in unprecedented numbers. There's a sense that the division of labor in families should be equal, and a lot of people accept that, at least theoretically. So...one would expect there would be an enormous difference from one's idea of the Beaver Cleaver kind of family. But when you look at what actually is happening, you see that much less has changed than you might have expected.

Q: What does your research say about the real effect, if any, of feminism on family life?

A: Many of the changes, including changes brought about by feminism, have opened the way for men to be the kind of fathers they would like to be. But there [has to be] more than simply an act of will involved. So I think of [feminism] as having opened up opportunities for us to make new family arrangements.

Q: Most of the men you talked with didn't have college degrees. Do you think there would be a difference in views on the roles of mothers vs. fathers based on education level?

A: I would expect that expressed attitudes would be different, but their behavior might be much less different than we would expect. That's partly because there were a number of guys in blue-collar union positions who could say, "I have my 40 hours a week, that's what I do. I go home. And I spend more time at home than [other] people."

Some of the people who were the most career-oriented were also the most educated and, to that extent, they would [throw] themselves more into work. Perhaps their jobs were more interesting and more rewarding to them. But they weren't necessarily as able to leave it behind as a blue-collar worker.

Q: Women refer to the difficulties of having it all -- balancing careers and families. Are men just used to the trade-offs?

A: Men have not thought [about having] it all in quite the same way. As they expect to, they will encounter many of the same difficulties.

Q: You refer to a "surrogate closeness" provided by mothers. Are men emotionally unfulfilled?

A: There is a frustration that the real closeness that they missed with their father [is also something] they are not having with their children. Some of it is very sad.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE