In 2012, former State Department official Anne Marie Slaughter published an Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," that ignited a firestorm of debate over whether mothers can have it all. Now, that conversation is shifting toward fatherhood: what it means, where it stands and where it's headed. Some of the country's foremost voices in the politics of parenthood noted at a panel for the Aspen Ideas Festival on Sunday that fathers, particularly by college-educated dads, are eager to take on a larger role but questioned whether policies and attitudes toward paternity leave may thwart that transition.
The issue has the attention of President Obama, who held the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families last week. Hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls, the Department of Labor, and the Center for American Progress, the event convened policy and business leaders to discuss how to promote paid parental leave and other family-friendly policies at work. "It's a little more acceptable to be the dad at the playground, but the vast majority are terrible about taking paternity leave," said Mark Oppenheimer, a New York Times columnist and Yale professor.
Stronger federal policies would ensure that fatherhood is accessible to all families, not just the upper-middle class, the panelists agreed. "It's easier to be a good dad when you have more money," said Oppenheimer, who noted that he feels privileged to spend the majority of his 30-hour workweek at home. "It would badly hurt my parenting if I were poor. For one thing, I'd be meaner to my kids." For most middle- and working-class fathers, however, paternity leave and flextime are not options available to them.
There are signs that our culture is ready for change. As their workplaces become less central to their identity, some men are choosing to become more involved fathers, according to panelist Kay Hymowitz, who writes about family issues. The decoupling of healthcare from full-time employment is spurring a shift, too, though panelists said it's unlikely there will be meaningful change until employers improve their policies and fathers don't fear the stigma of adopting them. The bias against lower-income fathers in seeking aid also needs to be addressed, according to panel moderator and American Public Media's Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal. The abbreviation for the government's food stamp program – WIC, which stands for "women, infants and children" – is a prime example, he said.
Pop culture's portrayal of fatherhood is another critical marker, according to panelist Hanna Rosin, author of 2012's The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. "For the vast majority of American history, the dad in the home was an idiot," said Rosin, evoking the Homer Simpson prototype central to most sitcoms. Storylines that treat fathers as incompetent and show mothers unwilling to cede control have been central to the way we view parenting roles, she said. Rosin said that she's heartened by one sitcom in particular, NBC's Up All Night, which relied upon stereotypes during its first season but has since inverted the traditional roles so that Chris (Will Arnett) is an expert father while mother Reagan (Christina Applegate) flails.But for the most part, said the sole single father in the audience Sunday, "pop culture makes dads look like orangutans."