(Updated March 21, 2016)
As Canadians prepare to celebrate Father’s Day, modern fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers are redefining what exactly fatherhood means to families and society. Canada’s 8.6 million increasingly diverse dads are taking on a greater role in their children’s lives. This evolution in fatherhood has had positive impacts inside and outside the family home.
“This is one of the biggest social changes in our time,” says Vanier Institute of the Family CEO Nora Spinks. “The ‘Leave it to Beaver’ family model accounts for fewer and fewer of Canada’s families as family forms and relationships become more diverse and complex.”
There’s no question that fatherhood has become more diverse over the past 50 years. A growing share of Canada’s dads was born outside the country, bringing with them ideas of what fatherhood means. More same-sex couples are raising children, one in five being male couples. Over the past two decades, there has been an increase in lone-parent families headed by men. The number of indigenous fathers is growing at a faster rate than those in the general population. This evolution of Canada’s family portrait means that there is no single “fatherhood experience.”
The classic father figure has traditionally been portrayed as an emotionally distant figure whose primary role was to earn the family income. This depiction overlooks the diversity that has always existed. Historically, many women have played a role in managing family finances and generating income inside and outside the paid labour force. In 1976, one-third of Canadian families with at least one child under age 16 had two earners in the paid labour force. By 2014, this accounted for 55% of these families.
A growing number of dads now play a bigger role in their children’s lives. In fact, an increasing number of dads are leaving the breadwinning to their partners altogether so they can focus on raising children. In 2014, 11% of single-earner families with a “stay-at-home” parent had a father who was staying at home – up from only 1% in 1976.
Whether they’re working or not, fathers are spending more time with their families than in the past. According to Statistics Canada, men spent 360 minutes per workday with family members in 1986. By 2010, this reached 379 minutes. Three-quarters of surveyed Canadian dads say that they’re more involved with their children than their father had been with them.
Fathers who decide to play a greater role in the lives of their children aren’t anomalies. In a recent study comparing parental leave in Quebec with the rest of Canada, author Ankita Patnaik found that when given the option, most men embrace paternal leave. Since 2006, the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) has offered non-transferable leave for men, making Quebec the only province where father-specific leave is available.
Patnaik found that before QPIP, Quebec fathers took an average two weeks of leave. After the parental leave policy was reformed, the average Quebec father took the full five weeks available under the paternity leave program. In addition, the share of Quebec fathers taking parental leave jumped from 27.8% in 2005 to 78.3% in 2014. Outside Quebec, only 9.4% of recent dads report taking leave.
Patnaik’s study also found that in Quebec, there was a “large and persistent impact” on gender dynamics in the three-year period following parental leave. Fathers remained more likely to do housework, while mothers were more likely to engage in paid work. Quebec dads also spent an average half-hour more per day at the family home.
Father involvement can have a positive impact on child development and well-being. Literature reviews from the Father Involvement Research Alliance (FIRA) have found many benefits of “highly involved” fathers. Children in these families experience higher levels of cognitive development and resilience. They tend to perform better in school. They also report higher levels of life satisfaction and psychological well-being.
Modern fathers continue their involvement in the lives of their children even after a marriage or common-law relationship has come to an end. More than one-third of divorced or separated parents share or alternate major decision making related to their children. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of divorced or separated parents report that their children either spend equal time living with mom and dad, or live primarily at the father’s residence.
In a 2014 report from the Involved Father and Gender Equity Project, interviews with new fathers revealed that family life benefited from their expanding involvement. Many said that their entry into fatherhood was a “transformational journey” that gave them a new outlook on life and relationships. They also reported that greater participation in housework and child-rearing promoted equality within their relationships. Many said that community supports and connections with other fathers encouraged their increased involvement.
“While modern fatherhood today consists of many diverse experiences, today’s generation of fathers is certainly taking on a greater, broader role in family life than in the past,” says Spinks. “As they’re sharing the breadwinning role, spending more time with family and taking more parental leave, these dads are changing what fatherhood means in Canada.”
Nathan Battams is a writer and researcher at the Vanier Institute of the Family