White House Urges Dads To Join Work-Life Balance Conversation

Originally published on June 14, 2014 12:56 am

Earlier this week, the White House held a summit on working fathers. It was another sign of just how much modern fatherhood is changing: the number of stay-at-home dads in the United States has doubled since 1989, and is now around 2.2 million.

But dig down a little, and something more complicated is afoot. According to numbers from Pew researchers, about a quarter of stay-at-home fathers said that they choose to stay at home with their children. But a similar number said they were at home because they couldn't find work, while about a third said they were at home due to illness or disability. This suggests that the growth in at-home dads has as much to do with redefined parenting roles as it does with big changes in the economy.

Still, fathers who are actively involved in child-rearing are still seen as anomalies. You might recall the castigation heaped upon New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy by some sports commentators for taking paternity leave for the birth of his first child.

Or take the case fro of Doyin Richards. Richards, a blogger, was home from paternity leave from his corporate job, when he posted what he thought was an innocuous photo online. "I have two girls, one was three and one was three months at the time," Richards told David Greene on Morning Edition. His wife was running late to work, and he told her he would get their daughters ready. But his wife was skeptical. I'll believe it when I see it.

"So I had to take a photo of it so she would believe me," Richards said. The picture shows Richards holding his youngest daughter across his torso in a baby carrier while he does his three-year-old's hair. "At that point, I posted it on social media to say "Hey, check out this cute little picture I took. And the Internet exploded."

Richards' photo was shared tens of thousands of times, and he was deluged with responses. He unwittingly found himself at the center of several different conversations about fatherhood. Some people, he said, wanted to put him on the Mount Rushmore of greatest dads. Other people pointed out that mothers do this everyday, and the same picture, featuring a mother instead of a father, would be seen as unremarkable. Others were more vile, like the who said they thought that Richards, who is black, was probably a deadbeat.

Indeed, a whole lot of the response was specifically because Richards was a black father, and black fatherhood in the popular imagination, is marked by absence, not activity. (On Code Switch, there are commenters who point to absent black fathers as the proximate cause of nearly racial disparity that we report on, whether it's the wealth gap or the low numbers of blacks in Major League Baseball.)

"I feel like when i started my blog two years ago, it was just talking about fatherhood," he said. "But then people started showing up to my blog and the whole issue of cognitive dissonance comes up. People have a core belief about black dads — whatever it is — and they'll either hold onto that core belief of 'Oh, my gosh, black guys are deadbeats' and not listen to a word I'll say," he said. But there was another response. "The other people are the people who have their core belief shattered. This guy seems pretty cool, he's black and loves his kids. What's going on?'"

But Richards is hardly an anomaly. The Centers for Disease Control released a study from earlier this year that showed that black fathers were as involved in their children's lives as white or Latino fathers across an array of indexes — and in some cases more so. Black fathers were more likely to bathe, clothe, and read to their children everyday.

Black men are less likely to marry and more likely to live apart from their children — 24 percent of black fathers do, compared to about 8 percent of white fathers. And But the CDC study found that even among fathers who didn't live with their children, black men were as likely or more likely to be involved with their children.

"The assumption in the broader culture has been that these fathers don't care, they're kind of hit-and-run dads," Kathryn Edin, who co-wrote the book, Doing The Best I Can, which focused on inner-city fathers. "But instead, we kind of find this overwhelming desire to father, and to father well. And what's remarkable about disadvantaged men who have children in really tough circumstances, often outside of marital ties, [is] how desperately they want to be parents and not just paychecks."

Richards is not disadvantaged, but he wants the conversation to start from the position that dads like him — black or otherwise — are not aberrations. "My issue is that I want it to be a discussion about modern fatherhood where it's oa and it's okay for men to be behave the way I'm behaving as far as caring for their kids," he said. "It's not unusual."

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Father's Day is Sunday, but the White House celebrated early, hosting the first ever summit on working dads. A panel of working dads, administration officials and researchers spoke on Monday about the need to create more work-life balance for fathers.


They also looked at the need to eliminate the stigma fathers get for wanting to spend more time with their children. Recent data shows fathers are more involved in their kids' lives than ever.

GREENE: And yet, still, dads who choose to be involved in child rearing say they are often seen as the exception to the rule. This is especially true for African-Americans. To talk about this, we called up Doyin Richards, a father who blogs at daddydoinwork.com. Doyin, welcome to the program.

DOYIN RICHARDS: Thank you, David. It's a pleasure to be on.

GREENE: And in our studio is Gene Demby from our Code Switch team, that focuses on race, culture and ethnicity. Gene, welcome back.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Doyin, let me talk to you first, if I can, because late last year you had kind of an unusual experience when you posted a picture of you and your kids that just went viral. Tell me about the photo and the circumstances.

RICHARDS: What happened was my wife was working, and I was on paternity leave at the time, from my corporate job. And I have two girls. One's 3 and one is - 6 months at the time, I believe - 3 months at the time. And she was running late for work, so I told my wife that I would get my daughter ready - my oldest daughter, Amiko (ph) - her hair brushed while Reiko (ph) was in the baby carrier. She's like, there's no way you're going to do that. There's just no way.

GREENE: Yeah, I'm looking at the photo here. So you have your baby kind of on your stomach in the baby carrier holding on, and you're doing your daughter's hair.

RICHARDS: So I had to take a photo of it so she would believe me. At that point, I posted the picture of social media just to say, hey, check out this cute little picture I took, and then the Internet exploded. And...

GREENE: It was an avalanche. You got huge reaction - some of it was positive, right?

RICHARDS: It came, usually - one of two areas. One, people who were just racist for, you know, spewing hate. That just happens. I'm a black guy. That happens online. And then two, the people who want to put me on the Mount Rushmore of dads. Oh my God, this guy's the greatest dude ever. And it's like, woah, I'm not. I'm just a dad.

GREENE: Yeah, reactions in different ways but very, very extreme.

RICHARDS: Yeah, very passionate.

GREENE: You actually put in a blog, some of the negative reactions. One person wrote, quote, "I would bet anything that you're a deadbeat."

RICHARDS: Yeah, and you know what David? I get that. At least once or twice a month, I'll get an e-mail with someone dropping an N-bomb on me or something. It's just - the fact of the matter is that I'm a black man who embraces fatherhood. And there are some people in society who just do not want to get with that for whatever reason. It's OK. My issue is that I want it to be a discussion about modern fatherhood, where it's OK and expected for men to behave the way that I'm behaving, as far as caring for their kids. It's not unusual.

GREENE: Well, Gene Demby, let me just bring you into the conversation here. I mean and let me just ask first, why so much reaction to Doyin's photo?

DEMBY: A lot of it was just about the fact that he is a black guy, right? And there is this idea that black men are not involved in their children's lives. In fact - I mean, just from our comments I can tell you - on Code Switch, almost every story we do about disparities, there is someone who pushes back and says, well, you know, maybe a lot of this about the fact that there are no black fathers in the household of black children. And this could explain any number of things from mass incarceration to educational outcomes. So someone like Doyin taking a picture of himself helping out his two daughters, becomes a flashpoint for these larger conversations about the anxieties around black families.

GREENE: You mentioned larger conversations. I mean, we're - a lot of issues to kind of tackle here, but one is, there has been this stereotype of the absent black father. And is debunking that sort of part of a larger conversation today?

DEMBY: Right. I mean, I think this is why Doyin was held up, right? I mean, part of it is the idea that, look, there are black guys out here who are being active fathers. A few months ago, the CDC actually released some data about fathers and found that black fathers were actually more involved. Black fathers are more likely to bathe, and more likely to diaper and dress their kids every day. They're more likely to read to their children each day than white fathers were and Latino fathers were. And that kind of goes against this idea we have about how involved black fathers are.

GREENE: Do you get a sense for why these stereotypes have - are sustaining - are still out there?

DEMBY: Well, so these things we know are true, right? We know that there are a large number of black children who are born to unwed parents, but I think it's important that we recognize that unwed parents is this big umbrella, right? There are a lot of others who are involved in their children's lives who are not in the home. We spoke to Catherine Eden (ph), who actually wrote book about this.

CATHERINE EDEN: The assumption in the broader culture has been that these fathers don't care. They're kind of hit-and-run dads. But instead, we find an overwhelming desire among these men to father and to father well. And what's remarkable about this advantage to men - men who have children in really tough circumstances, oftentimes outside of marital ties - how desperately they want to be parents and not just paychecks.

GREENE: Want to be parents, not just paychecks - so the point we're making here is that there might be kids in the black community growing up with a single mom.

DEMBY: Right.

GREENE: That might mean that there's a father who has left or abandoned the family, but not necessarily. There might be a lot of - there are a lot of fathers out there who want to be involved as best they can.

DEMBY: Right, the single black mom does not mean an absent black father.

GREENE: Doyin do you feel like you have become sort of part of a campaign, albeit accidentally, to sort of debunk the idea that black men are often not good fathers?

RICHARDS: Yeah, and actually, David, it's funny that you say that because I feel like when I started my blog two years ago, it was just talking about fatherhood. Then people would show up to my blog and the whole issue of cognitive dissonance comes up. People have a core belief about black dads, whatever it is, and they'll either hold on to that core belief of, oh my gosh, black guys are deadbeats, and not listen to a word I say. The other part of it are the people who have their core belief shattered when they see me, like, whoa, this guy actually is pretty cool. He's a nice guy, and he's black, and he loves his kids. What's going on? And one thing that Gene mentioned earlier - we're talking about black dads and the stereotypes of black men, you know, not being involved. I don't know that guy. Like, I was just talking to one of my friends about this. I don't know one black dad who isn't involved with his kids. So it was - it makes me wonder, why are these stereotypes still existing? 'Cause I don't - I've never come across that dude.

GREENE: Well, Doyin, let me ask you this - I mean, the White House has brought up this topic. It's a conversation that's clearly happening. You're making the point that - hey, I'm just a dad who really cares about my kids. It's not that big a deal. I mean, how do we have a conversation without exaggerating a problem here?

RICHARDS: I just think it's about being inclusive - trying to make sure that every single dad who is doing his best to raise his children, are celebrated - but not celebrated to the fact of, oh my gosh he's the greatest guy ever. Just like, he's doing what he's supposed to be doing. And to the same token, I think that women play a really strong role evolving fatherhood - in making sure that men are doing the right thing by not putting them on a pedestal 'cause if you keep blowing men up, saying oh, you're the greatest guy ever for doing this mundane parenting task, then he's going to think he's a superstar instead of just doing his job as a dad.

GREENE: All right, Doyin Richards. He's a working dad who blogs at daddydoinwork.com. His new book, also called "Daddy Doin' Work," comes out later this year. Gene Demby from our Code Switch team - thank you both.

RICHARDS: Thank you so much.

DEMBY: Thank you, David.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.