In recent decades fathers have become both an “optional extra” for single-mother households and the “essential second parent” in middle-class families where the mother is in the workforce. But is it merely a question of parenting, or do fathers do something irreplaceable for their children? In this interview with MercatorNet Associate Professor David Eggebeen of Pennsylvania State University suggests some answers.

MercatorNet: The role of fathers in child care and other domestic tasks is a hot button topic these days when so many mothers are in the workforce. But is there more to this issue than simply “shared parenting”?

David Eggebeen: Certainly there is. My work looks at fatherhood in two different ways. First, in the way that almost everybody else in this field does: What do fathers do for kids? How important are fathers for the lives of children? But my most recent work addresses a further question: Do fathers make unique contributions to child development? In other words, is there something that fathers bring to the table of parenting that is not easily replicated by mothers, and which is of benefit to kids and cannot be given by just two “parents”?

To put it another way, Do kids need both a mother and a father? You can make the case that fathers are important to their children, but if fathers are just giving “more parenting”, then it doesn’t matter whether the parents are male or female. So we need to find out whether fathers play some essential role in bringing up kids. That’s the question that’s beginning to see some examination.

It’s controversial, no doubt about it. But it’s logically the next step. The reason it’s controversial, of course, is that not only does it imply that children with two parents do best, but also that those with both a father and a mother do best. This has implications for the growing concern about same-sex marriage and adoption and the likelihood that children may end up in these families.

MercatorNet: And what does your research show?

David Eggebeen: My most recent research shows that children, both girls and boys, do get additional benefits from their father. They not only add to what mothers do, but there is also evidence that fathers make some unique contributions.

Probably the best known example is that fathers tend to rough-house with their young children — infants and toddlers — they throw them up in the air, tickle them and so on, usually getting them all wound up and emotional, and, yes, sometimes alarming the mother. But developmental psychologists view this as a good thing because it’s an opportunity for children to learn emotional regulation, and this is a very important developmental task.

As children get a little bit older they confront lots of opportunities for their emotions to boil up, and to the rough-housing prepares them for this: how to soothe yourself, how to settle yourself down — all of which is important when kids first start school, since being able to settle down and focus is conducive to learning. This is something that fathers do; mothers tend not to do this.

My own research shows that fathers uniquely influence their adolescent children. If the father has a poor relationship with his child at this age and does few activities with them, and if he has a low education level as well, it is more likely that both male and female adolescents will show signs of depression — regardless of what the mother is like. There is a similar effect with regard to teenage delinquency.

MercatorNet: What does fatherhood do for the dads — do they improve?

David Eggebeen: I am also very interested in this question. In the early part of my research I got a lot of correlations of data suggesting that they do; more recently I have addressed the question of causality. You may have a correlation, for example, between church attendance and fatherhood, but is that because religious men are more likely to become fathers, or because becoming a father leads to more religious behaviour? I’m trying to disentangle these.

Findings? The bottom line is that there are significant differences between men who become fathers, especially those very involved with their children, and those who are not fathers, and these differences show up in their social lives. Men who are not fathers tend to organise their social lives around recreational activities: they play in sports teams, they drink in bars, they hang out with their friends.

Men who are fathers, especially the very engaged ones, tend to reduce involvement with friends, time spent in bars and they spend more time in churches, and more time in organisations that benefit kids — such as parent teacher associations, cub scouts, in youth group leadership roles, or coaching a sports team their child is in. They are more involved with their extended family, their own and their partner’s parents.

They also behave differently in the work environment — they have fewer days off, fewer bouts of unemployment, and generally they become better employees. Again, this might be caused by a sense of “I am a father, I have to be more responsible,” and, because they tend to be the main breadwinners, “I have to care for my family more, I have to earn more.” This is what economists call the “wage premium”. There’s a well known wage premium for married men over single men, but there seems to be an additional premium for men who become fathers.

MercatorNet: Some research shows that a parent’s general sense of wellbeing takes a hit when a child comes along. Did you find that fathers actually felt better about themselves?

David Eggebeen: We did look at some measures of subjective wellbeing, and it turns out that there is really no difference between men who are fathers and those who are not. When you ask men, “Taking all things together, are you satisfied with your life?” the two groups are not significantly different. However, other researchers with a more refined statistical approach have found differences, with an increase in happiness for fathers.

My interpretation of my own data is that becoming a father is something of a mixed bag of satisfaction. There are some things that are hard and some things that are very rewarding and they sort of balance each other out. Interestingly enough, fathers tend to be in poorer health than non-fathers, which is not surprising when you think of the extra responsibility and financial effect of adding a child to the family.

MercatorNet: So, dads continue make a distinctive contribution to how their children grow up. And yet there is an ideological push towards “symmetrical” domestic roles in which women and men do half of everything. Isn’t this going to work against what they do best?

David Eggebeen: The reconfiguration of fatherhood has certainly shifted it from a narrow focus on breadwinning to an expectation — certainly among middleclass families in the US and I suspect in Europe too — that you will be actively involved, not just in interactions with your child (for example, playing with them) but in responsibility for them. You’ll worry about their overall health; you’ll be concerned enough that you will go to their parent-teacher meetings because you want to know about their learning environment — you won’t just say, “That’s something my wife will take care of.”

You can see evidence of this all over. You go into a men’s bathroom and there will be a changing table there; twenty years ago that would have made no sense to most people. You can go to the most conservative churches these days on a Sunday morning and go into the nurseries and see men there with the kids — unheard of 20 years ago when only the women would have been asked to volunteer to care for the kids.

So the level of social change and expectations has been very broad and reached into groups in society that ought to be pretty immune to such cultural forces.

And yet, the change has been both uneven and complex. Uneven in the sense that right alongside these middleclass men are those who father children out of wedlock or divorce the mother of the child and literally abandon their children. So you have two groups of fathers out there — men who are investing heavily in their children’s lives, and men who are not feeling any responsibility towards kids.

But even the men who are involved are still not engaged in the same way as the mother; there’s a lot of similarities in the way they parent but there are differences in both the type of things they do and the amount of time they spend with them.

And yes, you’ll see news stories about dads who cut their hours and quit their jobs to become house-husbands, but they are in the news because they are unusual, not because they are the leading edge of a social change.

So in some respects men cling to breadwinning as their primary activity, often involving themselves in the lives of their kids at the expense of their personal or free time. But their wives still are the major caregivers of the children, even if they themselves are still employed to some extent in the labour force. Other research has shown that this “adaptive” strategy is by far the most common approach amongst married couples with young children.

David Eggebeen is Associate Professor of Human Development in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He contibuted a paper on The Social and Civic Consequences of Parenthood for Adults at the Whither The Child? experts meeting hosted by the Social Trends Institute in Barcelona last month.