Normalizing Men as Caregivers Helps Families and Society

Apr 8, 2021, 2:00 PM, Posted by

Busting the stereotype of men as breadwinners and women as caregivers benefits families and our economy. New research reveals conditions and supports needed for men to fulfill their caregiver roles.

Father and daughter do laundry together.

When we imagine a caregiver, we often picture a woman: a mother caring for young children, spouse, and the daily household chores, a daughter nursing a father with disabilities, or a female child care provider. Historically, women have been expected to serve as primary providers of “caretaking” work, whether it’s parenting or caring for an aging family member or paid work in positions typically associated with women such as child-care providers, nurses, or health aide. Alternativley, men are often expected to be the primary breadwinners and play less of a role in the emotional or physical caretaking of a family. And men in caregiving professions that are most often fulfilled by women (e.g., nursing, child care) are often seen as the exception. While the role of women as caregivers may have been true for much of history, gender roles and intergenerational dynamics are shifting and as Ai-jen Poo, director of Caring Across Generations, notes ‘continuing to associate caregiving with one gender does more harm than good.’ 

Here is the reality: before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, men have been significant providers of care work, both within their families and in their careers. In fact, men actively contribute to the care economy. This is good for them—but, just as importantly, it benefits women and society broadly.

A series of reports produced by the New America Foundation and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation examine caregiving experiences of nearly 3,000 men as fathers, as caregivers to relatives, and in their professional careers. The goal is to understand men’s attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, desires, and motivations around caregiving. The most recent reports are:

Key findings reveal the importance of creating necessary conditions and supports that allow men to fulfill their roles as caregivers for their families. The findings also demonstrate the need for debunking societal stereotypes within caregiving professions—typically occupied by women—and significant policy and systems change such as expanding paid leave and eliminating traditional cultural norms related to men’s role in society.

Caregiving Encourages Men to Bond With Children, Family

Providing Care Changes Men shares the story of Ronald Taylor, an occupational therapist from Portland, Ore., who was laid off in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Almost overnight, he became the primary caregiver for his two young daughters while his wife worked remotely to keep the family afloat financially. However, for Taylor, providing hands-on care for his children 10 hours daily was not new.  He had already cared for his eldest daughter for 15 months after she was born while his wife continued her job. Like many fathers surveyed, he has been actively involved in his children’s lives since birth. 

During the pandemic, even more men are shedding the breadwinner identity and embracing the role of primary caretaker. Many say it is immensely rewarding. In a national survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago throughout 2019 paired with journalistic interviews with a variety of men during the pandemic, many rated “showing love and affection” to their children and “teaching the child about life” as “very important.”  

Black Fathers and Caregivers Work to Correct “Absent Black Father” Stereotype While Combating Racism

The “absent Black father” stereotype has persisted despite decades of research showing how Black fathers are often more involved with their children’s lives than their White and Latino peers. Most importantly, this stereotypical narrative conveniently ignores how Black fathers are greatly impacted by structural racism and the racist policies that lead to fewer employment opportunities and disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system. Related, Black children experience a multitude of health and economic disparities—also the result of structural racism and racist policies—which are often blamed on the “absent Black father”. A Portrait of Caring Black Men surveyed 209 Black fathers and male caregivers, finding that Black fathers and caregivers actively participate in and value care work. Other findings include:

  • Sixty-nine percent of Black fathers say they comfort, soothe, and emotionally support their children, while 67 percent make meals and feed their kids daily—demonstrating how crucial they are to their families and to their children’s development.

  • Eighty-six percent of Black men surveyed assist family members with daily activities such as grocery shopping, housekeeping, and cooking. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) report performing medical-related tasks. 

  • Overall, 89 percent of Black men surveyed say they find care work satisfying and 87 percent feel respected in their roles. 

  • Nearly half of Black men (48%) who have cared for a child with special needs or for adults feel burned out.

  • Fifty-seven percent of Black male caregivers say that the time needed to meet work demands makes it difficult to fulfill their family or personal obligations.  

Families Benefit From Active Male Caregivers 

Men’s experiences of care work can be life-changing and increase their desire to share care responsibilities equally with women. Ninety-one percent of respondents said care and domestic labor should be equally shared between men and women. In the report, Christopher, a father of two boys in New York City, expressed a view more common among the men who provide care: ‘experience itself is the best teacher.' Fathers who were surveyed similarly noted that caring for their children—like discovering the perfect speed to rock your child or the temperature that they like their milk—can be learned. Like women, they too have a caring instinct and can equally succeed at care tasks. 

Research shows that a gender-equal household is a healthier environment for the entire family. Fair divisions of work and care mean women are less stressed and can be more present for their children and/or loved ones with disabilities. Children in turn benefit from having equal fun, academic, and personal time with dad—which also benefits them developmentally.  

For Men to Succeed in Caregiving Professions, the Culture Must Change

As society ages, caring professions include some of the fastest-growing jobs and most meaningful careers. These professions include nurses, home health aides, kindergarten teachers, and child care workers. However, men in female-dominated health and education industries face many stereotypes. Professional Caregiving Men find Meaning and Pride in their Work, But Face Stigma reveals how the stigma and pressures of providing professional care work discourage many men from entering those fields. Research shows society does not respect or trust men who give care, because of their gender. 

Men in the field say that in order to succeed in their careers, society must reject the stereotype that women are more suited to care work. According to the report, to retain and recruit more men as caring professionals, we must transform the perception of these jobs so that they are viewed as respectable careers for people of all genders.

We Must Invest in the Care Economy

Values around men and caregiving are evolving, and more change may be on the horizon. Key policy and workplace changes—including a significant investment in the care economy—can help break generational barriers, advance gender equality, and better support men who care for their children and relatives with disabilities, as well as for others in their jobs.

For men to share equally in care work, policymakers must:

  • Enact a mandatory and universal paid family and medical leave policy of at least 12 weeks.

  • Increase stability for working families by raising the federal minimum wage to a livable level.

  • Invest significantly in a high-quality care infrastructure and universal family care program.

  • Enact a paid sick leave policy that guarantees workers can take paid time off when they have short-term illnesses.

To transform the work culture and enhance family-supportive policy, employers must:

  • Create paid “parental leave” for men in workplaces that support more time with family. 

  • Support universal healthcare benefits. 

  • Allow flexible work schedules.

  • Set expectations that leaders will model use of paid leave policies. 

  • Create a safe space for open conversations about the importance of using paid leave from work.

  • Help normalize the idea of men as equal and fully capable caregivers to address stigma.

  • Create opportunities and job pathways for men entering professional caring professions.

  • Recruit men into caring professions early through apprenticeships and training.

Now more than ever, the need for more egalitarianism in care work is imperative. Men’s attitudes and experiences toward caregiving outweigh the traditional gendered beliefs that America has set. Despite the structural barriers they face, men have proven themselves as active contributors to the care economy, which has equally benefitted families and communities.

All reports were authored by Brigid Schulte, Jahdziah St. Julien, Emily Hallgren, and Roselyn Miller of Better Life Lab

Learn more about how men view their caregiving experiences and explore the many benefits of supporting male caregivers.

About the Author

Gina Hijjawi, PhD, senior program officer, Research-Evaluation-Learning, joined RWJF in 2018. With her deep commitment to bridging systemic gaps in children’s health and social services, she values “the opportunity to advance understanding of how child and family serving systems, environments, and policies can support the healthy development and well-being of all children.