When I became a father four years ago, I knew nothing—absolutely nothing—about parenthood in America. I didn’t know how to change a diaper, feed my baby, or give him a bath. I didn’t know anything about paternal leave. I didn’t know anything about the cost of childcare and preschool, or how economic forces would shape our caregiving arrangements. I hadn’t thought about how parenthood would affect our household division of labor or my relationship with my wife. I had no big ideas about what might make for a good father.

And when I started to take care of my son Liko every day as a stay-at-home dad, I didn’t see myself in any way that was positive. At first, I only saw the negative aspects: no regular work, no free time, no adult companionship, no respect. I certainly didn’t see myself as a pioneer or rebel or anything of the sort, as some called me, and in many ways, I wasn’t: This was not a role I embraced self-consciously. I wasn’t trying to undermine an age-old sexist social order. I wasn’t trying to make the world a better place.

We were just trying to take care of our kid, going day to day, and we had bad days as well as good days. In other words, we were normal, and we still are.

I spent the first six months of caregiving acting and thinking as though we were taking a short trip on a little raft, crossing from one side of a lake to another. It didn’t occur to me that the experience might change the way I thought about myself, my family, and the world.

But slowly, my view broadened. I reflected on my feelings and experiences. I talked to my wife. I talked to other parents. I started to read. I delved into the history, economics, and science of male caregiving—trying to understand why the older generation reacted the way it did to our arrangement, and why people of our generation didn’t seem to think it special or unusual—I discovered that our family had a significance that went beyond our internal emotional dynamic.

Our choices were made possible by social changes that preceded us. At the same time, our choices have consequences. History isn’t just something you read about in books; it isn’t just made by presidents and generals, moving pieces on some giant chessboard. It’s something that all of us make every day, through an accumulation of little decisions and reactions.

Today, I’m a writer and editor, and, of course, still a dad. And most of my research and writing for the past couple of years has been intended to help thoughtful new parents see the social context in which they make their decisions, in hopes that they can make each decision more confidently.

Fathers are often made to feel—and they make themselves feel—that they are losers for wanting to spend more time with kids and less time at work. Meanwhile, mothers are often made to feel—and they make themselves feel—that they are losers for wanting to spend more time at work and less time with kids. As a result of following traditional gender roles, both parents can feel guilt, anger, and anxiety. Both feel like losers.

The reverse can also be true: Mothers inclined to feminist ideals beat themselves up for wanting to stay home with kids. Fathers raised with high expectations of involvement, but who remain dedicated to their jobs, feel like they fall short as fathers…and sometimes they do. Both moms and dads struggle to adjust their self-images and strike a balance, and there is almost nothing in our culture or economy that helps them in any positive way.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are alternatives. And there are many reasons why more flexible gender roles make sense: to give young children the attention and care they need; to allow both mothers and fathers to pursue their desires and opportunities; to strengthen a father’s bond with his child; and more.

I am grateful to Mothering for giving me this forum to explore these ideas for an audience of both mothers and fathers. “There is a new generation of fathers who are not second-class parents to their wives,” writes Peggy O’Mara, editor of Mothering magazine, in the current issue. “They are fully present and know what to do. Just like mothers, they have to figure things out for themselves and learn from their mistakes, but more of them than ever are willing to show up and get involved.”

As Peggy writes, Mothering magazine is expanding editorially to show fathers as integral to parenting–they are adding blogs like this one, as well as new departments, articles, and images that include dads. This is brave, and reflects a wider change in our culture, one that I welcome. I’m glad to join them, and I hope our conversation helps the world to be a better place.

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