Four Ways to Support Men in Solving America’s Caregiving Crisis
Caregiving is one of the greatest challenges of our time, with significant implications for families and our economy.
The pandemic has exacerbated the struggles facing many who care for children, aging relatives, loved ones with disabilities, and family members who are sick with COVID-19 or other illnesses. With long-stalled federal investments in a care economy, paid family and medical leave, and other policy and workplace reforms under consideration, my colleagues and I weighed in on the role men can play in providing unpaid and paid care in a series of posts this year.
They are based on reports from New America that explore the cultural, legal, and other changes that would enable more men to do this essential work.
1. Pierce myths and stereotypes.
Considerable research supports the conventional wisdom that tells us that women have long been primary providers of caretaking work, spending appreciably more time on unpaid household and care work each day than men did before the pandemic—and during it.
But as I wrote in April, it is also true that before and during COVID-19, men have been significant providers of care work, both within their families and in their careers.
With gender roles and intergenerational dynamics shifting, more men will be caregivers in the future, which is good not only for men but also for women and society. A series of reports produced by the New America Foundation and funded by RWJF sheds light on the caregiving experiences of nearly 3,000 men as fathers, as caregivers to relatives, and in their professional careers. Many find it immensely rewarding.
For men to succeed in caregiving professions, the culture must change. Caring professions include some of the fastest-growing jobs and it’s time to end the stigma and pressures that discourage men from entering those fields. Caregiving careers should be recognized as respectable for people of all genders.
2. Acknowledge the powerful role Black men play in the lives of their families.
My brilliant colleague, Dwayne Curry, grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Today, along with his wife, he cares for four children, including one with special needs, in their blended family. In a powerful personal reflection, he writes:
Media, television, and popular music perpetuate this idea that Black dads aren’t in their children’s lives, and that’s simply not true. Good Black fathers do exist, but it’s taken more time for our experience and contributions to be recognized. It is so important and powerful for a child to have a father figure. I see that my kids’ view of fatherhood is being shaped by what they see in me... Many obstacles prevent fathers from being fully present in their family's day. Because of the environment I grew up in, I intimately understand the forces holding people back. I’m referring not just to a culture that only encourages men to pursue a very narrow set of traditionally masculine career paths, but also systems that make it difficult for men to take time off when they have a new baby or a sick parent. There is no question that policymakers can do more to break down those barriers with reforms like paid family leave. There’s a role for employers here, too...
I’ve also seen what male caregiving can do to help a family grow and thrive... As someone who has been impacted by false narratives, and is working to bring about a new one, I’m grateful to be involved in this work. In my life at home, I know that I may not always have the perfect words to express how I feel on command, but my children know that I love them, and my wife does too, because I show them every day. There is nothing more important to me than that.
3. Help men succeed as caregivers to advance gender equity.
The pandemic has caused a reckoning in our country regarding caregiving. RWJF managing director, Program, Jennifer Ng'andu interviewed Brigid Schulte, who directs the Better Life Lab at the New America Foundation, about reports on men and care work. They discussed how men overwhelmingly value care work but lack supportive workplace cultures and public policies. The reports underscore the need to counter the cultural narrative that caregiving is exclusively women’s work and to advance equitable policy solutions.
We spoke to men who are nurses, childcare workers, and home health aides. They are proud of their care work and find it challenging and fulfilling. Yet one in five reported feeling stigmatized as caregivers just because they’re men... Women are still expected to serve as primary caregivers for family members—from infants to elderly family members. These outdated views... prevent women from advancing professionally... [and] prevent men from being the active and engaged caregivers that our research affirmed they want to be.
Having an accurate picture of how gender shapes care and caregiving at home and in the care economy, and understanding the motivations, goals, and barriers experienced by those who are engaged in these roles, are essential building blocks to creating the necessary new policies, workplace practices and cultural norms that will lead to a stronger, healthier and more equitable future.
4. Adopt innovations tested in other countries.
Another study by Better Life Lab and RWJF reconfirms that the U.S. status quo of gender roles, both at work and home, is not working for many families. Men are missing out on caretaking roles that enrich their lives and enhance bonds with loved ones, while women are struggling with role overload, feeling unsupported, and missing out on income and economic mobility. The U.S. can learn from the many other nations that are advancing gender equity through solutions like paid leave that benefit health, child development and family well-being, and advance racial equity.
In Sweden, lawmakers redesigned paid leave policies with individual entitlements. Rather than a gender-neutral default, each parent received a specific amount of leave. That meant that if fathers did not take their portion of leave, the balance could not be transferred to the mother, and the family would lose out... This “use it or lose it” policy change resulted in Swedish paternity leave acceptance rates skyrocketing from 5 to 90 percent within a few short years...
When policies are carefully designed to account for the cultural resistance and stigma associated with men investing their attention and energy into their children, they are especially effective. When cultural stigma and financial punishments are removed, men can and do engage in care work...
Real solutions to support men, women and people of all genders who care are not out of reach here. We—as a nation—just have to be willing to find them and make them a reality.
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.