Cover Story

Andrew Greengrass changes 21 diapers a week-ballpark. Sometimes more.

Despite his demanding job as an attorney-editor for the legal publisher Thomson/West, Greengrass says his first priority is his family.

Outside the office, he devotes his time to cooking-he'll make nearly anything as long as he has a recipe for it-and caring for his 10-month-old daughter Rebecca.

Weekday mornings Greengrass and his wife take turns changing and dressing Rebecca, then most days he drops her off at day care on his way to work. He picks her up 10 hours later. He telecommutes to work once a week so that he can spend time with Rebecca. And two or three times a week he straps his daughter into a baby backpack and heads to the grocery store to shop for that night's dinner-be it chicken parmigiana, tacos or chicken marsala. When whipping together the ingredients, he adds the spiciest ones last so that Rebecca can try them.

Andrew's involvement with his daughter reflects a trend for fathers to take a more active parenting role than in years past, says Michael Lamb, PhD, a Cambridge University social and developmental psychology professor. Lamb and his colleagues point to psychological research across ethnic groups suggesting that fathers' affection and their increased family involvement help promote children's social and emotional development. In turn, researchers are hoping to change the way therapists and the court system view fathers.

The shift in fathers' roles began, Lamb says, around the time when more women entered the work force. Between 1948 and 2001, the percentage of working-age women employed or looking for work nearly doubled-from less than 33 percent to more than 60 percent-according to the Employment Policy Foundation's Center for Work and Family Balance.

As a result, fathers like Greengrass have assumed roles that were formerly mainly the province of mothers, Lamb says.

"Formerly, fathers did not tend to be too involved with their children early on," he says. "Their relationships were broadly based only later in their children's lives. Now they've become significant child-care providers from early in their children's lives."

Father love

The cultural shift's effects are just beginning to be explored through psychological research, says psychologist Ronald Rohner, PhD, director of the Center for the Study of Parental Acceptance and Rejection at the University of Connecticut.

"Even being a single dad myself, I've been knocked in the head a few times because I didn't fully appreciate the importance of father's roles," he says. "By limiting our research by looking to children's mothers to understand the youngsters' development, we were only getting half the story."

In a 2001 article in the Review of General Psychology (Vol. 5, No. 4, pages 382-405), Rohner and social worker Robert Veneziano, PhD, examined more than 90 articles published between 1933 and 2001 that explored the influence of fathers' warmth and affection, or "father love," on children. They found only 27 articles published between 1933 and 1980 related to the topic. But since the 1980s, nearly three articles each year have been published on the topic, many of which suggest that the influence of father love on children's development is as great as the influence of a mother's love.

"We've seen a realignment of roles within the vast majority of families," he says. "Men are expected to be loving and supporting fathers rather than just a pocketbook."

Rohner's research suggests that father love helps children develop a sense of their place in the world, which helps their social, emotional and cognitive development and functioning. Moreover, he's found that children who receive more father love are less likely to struggle with behavioral or substance abuse problems.

Lamb adds that father love provides an important template for meaningful relationships later in a child's life.

"[Children] need to experience a sense of emotional security within their relationships with their parents or caregivers in order to learn how to relate to others," he says.

Lamb rejects previous research that suggested that, to develop a sense of "manhood" and to understand social relationships, boys need a traditionally masculine father who primarily concerns himself with what goes on outside the home, rather than domestic details.

Instead, he says that fathers' and mothers' roles, and their impact, are more similar than different.

"What's important is that children experience nurturing, warmth and sensitivity, and that someone is investing the time and energy in the child," he says.

Spanning demographics, income levels

Most men, regardless of income level or demographics, share such a desire to be a nurturing father, says Jeffrey Shears, PhD, a professor of African-American studies and social work at Colorado State University.

"Across demographics, fathers are no longer content just shaking their children's hands before they go off to work, like Ward Cleaver," Shears says. "Fathers want to, and are, assuming caregiving roles."

In an upcoming article in Families in Society, Shears and his colleagues found little variation between Hispanic, black and white fathers' notions of their own caregiving, regardless of their children's gender, how many children they had and whether they were in a relationship with the children's mother.

In another study currently under review, Shears and his colleagues asked 485 fathers how often they engaged in 33 child-related activities, such as playing ball games or changing diapers.

Shears found cultural variations in fathers' caregiving practices that counter several negative stereotypes. For instance, he found that black men are more likely to physically care for, feed and prepare meals for their infants than either white or Hispanic fathers.

That variation leads Shears to suggest that researchers should change the way they measure fathers' involvement-from measuring the frequency and types of activities fathers engage in to focusing on how they interact with their children.

"Part of the perception that black men are not being there for their children is that we weren't measuring what it is that they're doing," he says.

Likewise, psychologist Ross Parke, PhD, director of the Center for Family Studies at the University of California, Riverside, has found that some Mexican-American households are more egalitarian in terms of child care than previously thought, countering previous research that had suggested a pervasive hierarchical structure in Latino families, with an in-charge father who has limited interaction with his children.

"We've found that the stereotypes associated with Mexican-American families are simply not true," he says. "If anything, Mexican-American fathers are more involved with their children and more supportive of their children."

Parke and Shears suggest that researchers broaden how they define father participation in child-rearing.

"There is not simply one role of fathers," he says. "There's a lot of variation out there."

Shears points to the range of child-care tasks men like Greengrass perform, from cooking dinner to changing diapers.

Clinical and court implications

Rohner also suggests that even if fathers are less actively involved-for example assuming a lesser role in a joint-custody situation-they still significantly affect their children. And that impact should be reflected in both therapy and the courtroom, he says.

"In clinical settings we have a tendency to...assume that problems that arise from childhood have something to do with something that mom did," he says. "But we need to take a look at dad too."

William DeFranc, PhD, a Harvard Medical School psychologist at Children's Hospital Boston and a public school psychological consultant, agrees. He suggests that clinicians need to recognize that fathers' presence is essential to understanding family dynamics.

For instance, during a recent intake interview, DeFranc met with a mother and child about the child's separation anxiety. The mother told DeFranc that the child threw tantrums when the mother left her at preschool in the morning. However, after talking with the woman's husband, DeFranc found that the mother was also having a hard time letting go of her first born.

"It's important to get both sides," he says. "We need to know how a child acts across different settings."

In the court system, Rohner says family court judges are often not aware of the important role many fathers play in their children's lives, despite numerous studies' findings that suggest benefits of joint custody (see page 60).

For example, a 2002 meta-analysis in the Journal of Family Psychology (Vol. 16, No. 1, pages 91-102) by psychologist Robert Bauserman, PhD, of Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, found that children in joint-custody settings have fewer behavioral and emotional problems, higher self-esteem, better family relations and better school performance than children in sole parental custody.

When judges order one-size-fits-all custody arrangements, fathers who want to be actively involved in their children's lives are often not allowed to be, Rohner suggests.

When loving fathers are cut out of their children's lives, everyone suffers, he says.

"Fathers can have a tremendous influence on their children," he explains. "And they need to realize that their children need to feel their love."