The US Navy has tripled the maternity leave it offers female sailors and Marines to 18 weeks. The men of the Navy, meanwhile, are entitled to only 10 days of paid paternity leave. That gap might not be huge in comparison with the 18-plus years of active parenting to come, but it’s a sign of the way we continue to define gender roles in parenting.
A 2011 paper by Tina Miller in the journal Sociology investigates how differences in maternity and paternity leaves, along with stubborn cultural assumptions about gender, help reproduce traditional parenting roles even among couples who want to break with previous generations’ assumptions about mothers and fathers.
Between 2006 and 2009, Miller conducted multiple interviews with 17 middle-class men in the UK who were married to, or partnered with, women. In the first interview, which occurred during their partners’ pregnancies, the men all said they planned to be hands-on parents, sharing care with the mothers and working out a balance between their jobs and parenting.
Yet Miller points out that the way they talk about parenting already reflects traditional gender divisions. One father talks about sharing nighttime parenting with his partner and “hopefully doing my bit, doing whatever I can.” Miller notes that it’s hard to imagine a mother-to-be using this kind of language.
In a second set of interviews six to 12 weeks into their children’s lives, the fathers continue to describe themselves in non-traditional terms. Some talk about an “immediate bond” with their babies or describe an “instinctive” understanding of how to parent—language traditionally used to describe motherhood. The fathers take two to seven weeks of paternity leave. This is, of course, generous by American standards, but it’s still much shorter than the UK’s 39 weeks of government-funded maternity leave. As they return to work, the fathers miss the minutia of their babies’ lives while the mothers become the parenting experts. In this set of interviews, they point to the importance of their role as bread-winner for the family’s well-being.
In interviews when their babies are nine to 12 months old—and in a smaller set of interviews at two years—Miller found the men more involved in daily parenting than they remember their own fathers being. Some of their partners were now working part-time, and some fathers were doing regular solo care. But the men had generally ceded planning work like choosing what to feed the baby tomorrow to the mothers while focusing more on their own paid work.
One of the fathers said he was surprised how important he found “the male pride thing” in his life: “I sort of still feel the need to prove myself in my job more than anything else and perhaps it’s not valid or recognized to prove yourself as a father.”
The interviews show that parenting roles have changed enormously over just a generation, but they also demonstrate the some of the ways that traditional norms are still being propped up.