What Dads Really Need for Father’s Day

Kind gestures are appreciated, but dads need much more

This Father's Day, I'd like us all to recognize that fathers today face serious challenges that often go unacknowledged – and unresolved. These challenges—from misrepresentations in media to lack of adequate family leave—are big and serious. They cause all sorts of problems, not only for families and businesses but for the entire country.

I first became aware of these issues while I was working as a reporter for CNN, interviewing groups of dads and fact-checking reports about modern parents. Then I experienced them firsthand with my former employer. My battle for fair parental leave inspired me to write my book, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses – And How We Can Fix It Together.

I now work full-time for gender equality in the workplace, doing my part to ensure men and women have equal opportunities to be caregivers at home. Based on my eight years of research and conversations with men, women, and experts all over the world, here are ways we can start really supporting men in modern parenthood:

Recognize that dads are working as hard as moms
According to the American Time Use Survey, when you combine paid work with childcare and household chores, fathers and mothers put in equal hours. (Overall, dads work 54 hours a week to moms' 53.) Yet there is a lingering perception -- fueled by inaccurate news reports -- that dads are not doing enough.
This myth of the lazy dad hurts everyone, especially when people in power – the policy makers and corporate leaders – believe it. Less than 1-in-5 U.S. businesses offers paternity leave. And that’s just on paper. Often, when men try to take leave that is offered, bosses think they’re asking for a luxury or an opportunity to opt out, instead of much-needed institutional support. So they punish these men.

My book includes stories of fathers who were fired, demoted, or lost job opportunities as a result. Studies by the Center for WorkLife Law found this problem rampant. The net result? Men can’t make these crucial moves for healthier lives and healthier families, so women end up getting pushed to do more at home. It’s a sexist cycle.  

Understand the emotional health issues fathers face
Although there is growing awareness that it's common for many women to have perinatal mood and anxiety disorders during and after pregnancy, it's not as well known that men experience them at nearly the same rate.

Research shows that up to one-quarter of men show depressive symptoms four weeks after the birth of a child, and up to 50 percent of men experience paternal postnatal depression when their partner has a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder. In the postpartum period, nearly 20 percent of dads report anxiety symptoms severe enough to warrant diagnosis and treatment. And mental health struggles can surface throughout parenting, not just in the first year.

The American Psychological Association recently found that men and women now report stress levels that are just about equal. But men are much less likely to get help than women. And one reason is that, as a society, we don't acknowledge or accept the very real mental health issues fathers face, or offer good support.

In 2015 I had the honor of being a keynote speaker at the Men's Mental Health Forum in Denver, where I addressed the men's mental health crisis. My main message was that it's time to acknowledge men's stresses, help them feel comfortable opening up about them, and destigmatize mental health care for everyone.

I work with companies on building policies and cultures that treat men and women as equal caregivers, and treat work-life balance initiatives as gender neutral. Part of this work includes meetings for men only, to give them a chance to talk about these issues openly. Guys tell me they are wary of speaking about work-life conflict, especially in front of women. They’re afraid they’ll be judged harshly or accused of minimizing women’s struggles by sharing their own. But I explain that most people want to have open discussions about stresses and worries because it benefits everyone.

I also encourage everyone to ask the men they know how they're doing as often as they ask women – and mean it. Inviting men to open up and share their stresses as a part of everyday life acknowledges that this time of life is hard on all of us. And we all deserve to be supported through it.

Enact paid family leave
The United States desperately needs federal paid family leave, an insurance system already proven successful in three states: California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. (New York's program will kick in next year.)  

These programs do not require businesses to pay salaries during leave. Instead, a tiny payroll deduction creates a fund that provides partial pay while employees are out. So far, the results are overwhelmingly positive: Profits, productivity, and employee retention are all up. More women and men are taking leave.

Represent dads realistically
When I speak with groups of fathers, fictional portrayals of dads are often their first complaint. Ads, TV shows, movies, and comics rely on the same tired stereotype: the bumbling, clueless dad who can't handle basic parenting skills, has no real interest in his kids, and acts like one of them. These misrepresentations keep sending the message to everyone, including children, that dad is the less capable and less interested parent.

A global survey by Dove Men+Care (a brand I partner with to promote realistic images of fathers), found that only 7 percent of men relate to the way the media depicts masculinity. According to the same survey, 86 percent say masculinity has changed since their father's generation, and 9 out of 10 consider their caring side to be a sign of strength.

So what we need instead are realistic, three-dimensional depictions of dads who are equally capable of – and interested in – taking care of children. It’s time to normalize this reality.

Build community
One thing has become really clear to me over the past decade: Many dads feel alone. After I speak at events across the country and around the world, men come up to me and say things like, "I always thought it was just me!"

Because the stereotypes are so prevalent, dads don't realize that millions of other men understand how hard they're working and what their struggles are.

Many dads tell me they have also experienced moments of isolation at events and locations that are ostensibly for parents, but really aimed at moms. That’s what inspired Chris Bernholdt, another man I interviewed for my book, to start the Philly Dads Group. Dads in other cities have created similar groups, and they're making a big difference. A great resource to find them is citydadsgroup.com.

This Father's Day, let's do something more. Let's work together to bring about the bigger changes we need to support fathers and fatherhood in the ways that are helpful, necessary, lasting -- and good for all of us.