Why do dads lie on surveys about fatherhood?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 17 2010 6:44 AM

Why Do Dads Lie on Surveys About Fatherhood?

And why their lying is socially significant.

A dad. Click image to expand.
Do fathers lie about how much time they spend with their children?

A new Boston College study makes the modern American dad look positively Swedish in his dedication to his children and his zeal to participate equally in raising them. The yearlong qualitative study of 33 first-time fathers, released yesterday, found that they viewed themselves as sharing family responsibilities 50-50 with their wives and claimed to devote an average of 3.3 hours each workday to child care. The new dads openly gushed about the way parenthood had changed their priorities and career aspirations. "I love being a father so much more than I thought I would," said one study participant about his new baby girl. "The highlight of my day is in the morning when I hear her start to wake up and I can just go in there and pick her up."

Could that be true? Has the American father adapted so quickly to modern feminist demands? The researchers themselves were somewhat suspicious. After all, the most recent large-scale, benchmark studies on time use found that fathers spend significantly less time on child care than mothers. The Families and Work Institute, for instance, puts fathers at three hours and mothers at 3.8 hours with kids under 13, while Census Bureau time-use surveys found that married men spend about 1.2 hours per weekday caring for children under age 6, while married women spend 2.6 hours on the same activity. (For both benchmark surveys, the most recent year available is 2008.)

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The answer, it turns out, is that the men in the Boston College study were probably lying about how they spend their time. But that's no reason to be disappointed. The Boston study relied upon in-depth interviews with men after the fact. Time-use studies involve questions about the previous day's behavior. With in-depth interviews, researchers expect subjects to have imperfect recall or exaggerate behaviors they perceive as being socially desirable—weight loss and breastfeeding are classic examples. But the direction in which they lie is socially significant. Thirty years ago, dads claimed to spend less time with their children than they actually did, since child-rearing was considered women's work. Now they are lying in the opposite direction, which suggests that they perceive doing half of the parenting to be a manly affair.

Social psychologists call this aspirational lying—the unconscious shading of the truth to make us appear smarter, more generous, and closer to the person we want to be. "What you want leads to what you do. If you say you're doing more, it really is a measure of the societal change," said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. "If it were not OK to be doing things with your kids and to be nurturing them— not just bringing in the money—you might lie in the other direction." When Galinsky was studying New Jersey factory workers in the 1980s, she knew from her research that they were heading home so their wives could make the night shift at the hospital, for instance, but they would lie to their co-workers and say they were going out drinking. "It wasn't OK in their macho world to say, 'I'm going to tuck in my children,' " she recalled.

What is the current reality? To begin with, the stay-at-home dad is such a rare species that the Census Bureau created a new annual table on stay-at-home parents to debunk 2003 media reports that there were more than 2 million at-home dads in the United States. In actuality, there were 158,000 SAHDs, compared with 5.1 million stay-at-home moms in 2009, according to Census. Typically, when men become parents they don't seek part-time schedules or formal flexible work arrangements, as women do. Instead, fathers get sneaky. (In keeping with their mendacious nature.) "We call it a stealth approach,"  said Brad Harrington, a professor and executive director of Boston College's Center for Work & Family, who headed the new research. "These guys say, 'I just slip out; my boss gives me a wink and a nod.' "

But this puts men at about where women were 30 years ago—new to the work-life-balance issue and unsure how to square all their identities. The Families and Work Institute saw fathers' levels of work-life conflict skyrocket to 59 percent in 2008, from 35 percent in 1977, while mothers experienced a modest rise to 45 percent from 41 percent over the three decades. "The good news is that we have a whole new generation of men who can't even remember what the world was like before the gender revolution. They take it for granted that their partners will work," said Kathleen Gerson, a New York University sociology professor and author of The Unfinished Revolution. "On the other hand, they're facing very uncertain times without any clear paths to follow."

Take Jorge Torrico, 29, a bank manager who lives in Burke, Va., with his wife, Yoonji Kim, and their two toddler sons. Coming into marriage, his idealistic goal was to be an affectionate father and equal partner with his wife. They both work, and he figured that whenever the inevitable child-care emergency arose, they would decide who could handle it on the spot. But when it's Torrico's turn, he encounters astonishment from some colleagues who "can't conceptualize that the father is the one taking responsibility for some of these things: the doctor's appointment, taking care of the sick child." Once, he was without child care and had to take his son to a monthly team meeting at work, held in the early evening. One peep from the preschooler, and Torrico was admonished not to bring him again. "The workplace doesn't really accept the modern-day father," he concluded.

Then there's the bling. As much as his wife appreciates his help, once in a while she seems to be longing for the old-fashioned provider type. "The biggest pressure I feel would be from my spouse," Torrico said. "She wants me to be the breadwinner and the dad-plus," Torrico said. "There's a mild competition among female friends. You hear from your wife about how her friend has this husband who makes tremendously more money." Also, women are sometimes reluctant to relinquish control, so they may encourage men to take on a task—dressing the kids, for example—but then criticize the way he does it. And when both partners are responsible for children and the household, they both want a say in every family decision—providing many more opportunities for conflict.

Where do we go from here? It's hard to imagine men becoming truly like working moms. They don't typically take paternity leaves, which might help them adjust to their new identities. And given the paltry maternity leaves offered to women, it's unlikely men will soon. So for the moment, they will have to muddle through, fudging the truth for researchers and employers both.

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Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a writer focused on work, family, and finance. She has written for About.com, the Fiscal Times, Msn.com, Parade, the Washington Post Magazine, and the New York Times.

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