The most dedicated fathers in the world may be the men of the Aka, a nomadic pygmy people of central Africa.
Fathers spend nearly half their time in close contact with their babies, according to Barry Hewlett, an anthropologist at the University of Washington. His book about the Aka, “Intimate Fathers,” describes how mothers remain the primary caregivers but also go hunting frequently - and in the mothers’ absence, Aka fathers cook the meals and let crying babies suckle on their own nipples.
That custom aside, the Aka sound a lot like the fathers in the U.S. and many other countries who have embraced a deeply engaged, affectionate paternal style, spending nearly triple the time caring for their children as fathers in the 1960s did.
Sixteen-month-old Luna Benjoya, for example, toddles around her Brooklyn apartment most weekdays in the care of her father, Dave, a musician and web developer, while her mother teaches school. Benjoya has found fewer jobs lately, but says he feels lucky.
“I like my work, and when I find work, I’ll pick it up and do it, but how do you compare that to spending all this time with this new person in the world that you love more than anyone? It’s such a gift. I mean, my daughter’s not going to remember what things were like when she was a year old, 16 months, but I’m still connecting with her in a way that’s irreplaceable,” explained Benjoya.
Lance Somerfield, co-founder of a group called NYC Dads
, left his job to be an at-home dad when his son was born five years ago - a choice that would have been seen as emasculating for men of his father’s generation, he said.
“My father thought that being the caregiver to me, and the provider of the family, didn’t mean providing hands-on, engaging interaction with me on a daily basis. It meant earning for the family,” he said. “That was the culture back then. These days, I think our cultural assumptions are starting to shift. You see it in pop culture, in the media, commercials, in how dads are portrayed.”
NYC Dads co-founder Matt Schneider agreed. “The difference between even eight years ago and now is pretty astounding,” he noted. “You go to any playground, any doctor’s office, school pickup, you’re going to see a lot of dads very involved with their kids. The role of dads and families, the relationships between moms and dads, is changing by the day, it seems.”
The trend is worldwide, according to Stony Brook University sociologist Michael Kimmel, driven by women’s entry into the workforce, including in some cultures where women with careers once were a rarity.
“All across the world, men are becoming more engaged as fathers, more active as fathers,” said Kimmel, the author of “Guyland,” and “Manhood in America.” “In Japan, in Singapore, in Australia, men are very more highly motivated to be good fathers.”
“Younger men, Generation Y men, are far more family-oriented than previous generations,” he added. “They assume that their wives are going to work outside the home and be committed to their careers, and they assume that they are going to be really involved fathers, dedicated to their families; they’re going to be great dads.”
“In Europe as well, men are far more involved as fathers,” he said. “But there you have government policies that encourage families to balance work and family better: free onsite child care, flexible working hours, parental leave,” Kimmel added.
The “new” fatherhood, as it’s been called, is especially evident at “boot camp” training sessions for expectant fathers that NYC Dads offers around the city. Experienced fathers, with babies six months or a year old, return to demonstrate their new skills in things like diaper-changing and bottle-feeding.
“For dads-to-be, to be in a room with other, confident veteran dads who come in with their live babies, it’s a real confidence booster,” explained Somerfield. “We hope that through three hours they’re in a room with other dads, talking about their experiences, best practices, and walking out of here saying, ‘You know what, I’m not going to break the baby.’”
Michael Kimmel noted that the egalitarian trend in child rearing is not across the board. He said that heterosexual men tend to spend more time on the “fun” side of child-rearing, taking their children to the playground, for example, while leaving the more tedious aspects, such as scheduling appointments and laundry, to their wives. And he observed that child care can be pretty boring.
Dave Benjoya probably wouldn’t agree with that latter point, however.
“Everything is undiscovered: seeing the simplest thing, and focusing on it because you want to teach it to her,” he said. “Watching like her consciousness, like the communication come from nothing: a little spark here and there, and then she understands words and then she says
word. The whole experience is so overwhelming, I could spend all day thinking about it, even when I’m not with the baby,” he said.
Kimmel said that however fathers feel about spending time caring for their children, the benefits to children are clear. He said studies have found that the children of more involved fathers are happier, healthier, do better in school, and are less likely to be the victims or perpetrators of violence.