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The Divergence of Fatherhood: Feast or Famine


A recent report by Gretchen Livingston and Kim Parker at the Pew Research Center explores the ways that American fatherhood has evolved over the last 50 years, particularly as it relates to the time fathers spend with their children. Since the mid-twentieth century, fatherhood has split in two distinct directions, they say: fathers either spend significantly more time with their kids, or live totally apart from them.

Fathers who live with their children have become more intensely involved in their lives, spending more time with them and taking part in a greater variety of activities. However, the share of fathers who are residing with their children has fallen significantly in the past half century.

In 1960, only 11% of American children lived apart from their fathers. Today, that share has risen to 27%, while the share of children living apart from their mothers has increased only modestly, from 4% in 1960 to 8% in 2010.
Today’s live-in fathers play a much more active role in the lives of their progeny than the Don Draper generation. It’s not enough to kiss your kids goodnight anymore; you might actually have to help with their homework and drive them to school.  Indeed, most fathers (63%) say being a dad is harder today than it was a generation ago.

In 1965, married fathers with children younger than age 18 living in their household spent an average of 2.6 hours per week caring for those children. Fathers’ time spent caring for their children rose gradually over the next two decades — to 2.7 hours per week in 1975 and three hours per week in 1985. From 1985 to 2000, the amount of time married fathers spent with their children more than doubled — to 6.5 hours in 2000.

Public opinion about fatherhood is understandably mixed. For the 73% that spend more time with their kids, there’s 27% that logistically can’t. And among that 27%, there’s a wide spectrum of how often they even contact their children. Fathers tend to agree with popular opinion, until, that is, they’re asked about their own parenting.

Only about one-in-four adults say fathers today are doing a better job as parents than their own fathers did. Roughly one-third (34%) say they are doing a worse job, and 40% say they are doing about the same job. Dads themselves have similar opinions: 26% say today’s fathers are doing a better job than their own fathers did. However, when asked about the job they are doing raising their own children, 47% say they’re doing a better job than their own dad did; while 3% say they’re doing a worse job.