While doing research for a class, I stumbled upon Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, a novel published in 2016 that some credit with sparking the current wave of feminism in Korea. The novel follows intergenerational and societal experiences of misogyny, centered primarily on two sites: the home and the workplace. Kim Jiyoung, the protagonist, continually defies the patriarchal social order that expects her to get married, have children, and exit the workplace to serve as a caregiver until death, only to finally succumb to the isolation and pain of motherhood at the end of the novel (which manifests in a personality split through which she occupies the pain and personalities of all the women she knows, but that’s an entirely other issue). Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is structured so as to point to motherhood as an almost inevitable trap of economic servitude and spiritual desperation for women, and to point beyond women’s pain to the failure of men to become the fathers, colleagues, friends, and allies that a just society requires of them. Though Jung Daehyun, Kim Jiyoung’s husband, expresses actionable sympathy for her situation as a pregnant woman with career ambitions, caught between familial obligations and her desire to make a place for herself in the world, ultimately it doesn’t matter. Because he, as a man, earns substantially more for the same work and is more likely to get promoted, the couple decides that it simply doesn’t make sense for them, starting a growing family, to prioritize her career over his more stable, higher-paying one. In the end, economics and social hierarchies trump good intentions: the dedicated, feminist husband becomes a distant, if still well-meaning, father—all in the name of finances.
While this particular story, based partially in fiction and largely in fact, occurs in a different context than that of America, both politically and historically, I appreciated the insight that the distance of this experience from my own afforded me. Across the Pacific, across cultures, the reality of womanhood was remarkably similar, and the critiques universally scathing. Through exposing the conditions of womanhood and motherhood, feminist media, in books, television, film, and art, inevitably speaks also to the ever-present but oftentimes far more hidden conditions of manhood and fatherhood. As viewers and readers of media across the world watch mothers and other birthing parents experience bloody birth, clean up bodily fluids, discipline rowdy toddlers, guide their children through math homework and elementary school essays, chaperone middle schoolers to field trips, and give teens the uncomfortable sex talk, it eventually begs the question: Where are all of the fathers?
Overall, it does seem that representations of fatherhood are improving, at least marginally so. With regard to modern media, good dads are increasingly diverse and easy to find. One can easily open Netflix or sift through the dozens of lists, essays, and rave reviews on the subject to find countless examples of tender, open, and present fathers. Among my own visual media favorites of recent years have been Harry Kim of Always Be My Maybe, a middle-aged father who gently eases his adult son through grief, love, and growing up, Chief Tui of Moana, who, anxious about the future of his dying island, entrusts his daughter with preserving its culture and community, and Burt Hummel of Glee, a bumbling Ohioan whose earnest, often awkward approach to parenting his gay son through homophobia, the loss of his mother, and growing pains echoes with heartfelt sentiment. Netflix’s teen-oriented television series On My Block also offers quite a few representations of good dads. In books, we’ve been blessed with Arthur Weasley of Harry Potter, attentive father of seven and rare social justice advocate in the wizarding world, as well as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’s gruff, unnamed father, who shelters his young son from the mysterious, apocalyptic world around them. Fathers are increasingly complex individuals, whose roles in advancing the stories we tell go beyond comedy and trauma. It’s not difficult to find representations of fathers who fail but mean well and regroup, who cry with their children in moments of hardship, and who find time to be there for both the moments that matter and the ones that don’t.
That’s surely progress.
In the United States, American fathers are doing more in the home and less in the workplace. As of 2016, the average father did 18 hours of combined childcare and housework per week, an increase by almost three times of that of the 1960s. In the workplace, average working hours per week for fathers have decreased from 46 to 43 in the same time. As of 2016, 17% of all American stay-at-home parents were fathers, a significant increase over the last four decades. However, past representations and current realities continue to loom over modern media, and the reality is that fatherhood has a long way to go—in almost every country and culture. Significant gaps between motherhood and fatherhood, as well as between fatherhood and home life, more generally, still show. Mothers still do 14 more hours of childcare per week, report enjoying parenthood less, and struggle more with work-life balance than fathers. At the center of all of these changes are questions primarily of labor and finances—questions that popular media, politics, and individual families have all been unable to escape. Good real-life dads struggle to be present even if they have the best of intentions, and the most obvious reason is their occupation of the role of ‘provider.’ Even in dual-income households, fathers, on average, work longer hours and make more money, and they report feeling greater pressure to provide for their families financially. Financial stress has hit Americans hard, especially since the pandemic, and working parents have been one of the groups feeling this stress most intensely. This undoubtedly affects how parents interact with their children, and the division of labor that occurs between mothers and fathers. The ease of being the relatable, tender-hearted father as shown in media becomes disconnected from the realities of American life.1 2
One governmental response to this has been the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse’s Fatherhood Media Campaign, which features the slogan “Take time to be a dad today,” and frequently airs on sports-related television networks. On the Clearinghouse’s website, they offer toolkits, activities, and data packets available for purchase. In these, it is mentioned that there are barriers to making what seems to be such a simple choice (whether or not to spend more time with your child). However, the structure of the campaign, which falls under the arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, still ultimately places the responsibility of making time and creating conditions that allow fathers to be present on individual fathers themselves. This strategy seems disconnected from the scale and causes of this issue.
Policy that addresses structural issues, like proposals to implement paid maternity and paternity leave, which would allow households to more equally divide the labor of childcare and housework from the beginning of parenthood itself, are a good start. Paid leave also holds the potential to lessen tension between work responsibilities (making money and ‘providing’) and home responsibilities, which are unpaid and often considered less economically valuable (though there is plenty of data to suggest otherwise). Legislation to shorten the working week from its current 40 hours has also been introduced recently, and, if passed, would encourage the continuing shift of fathers’ time from paid work to housework. Proposals to raise the minimum wage would also have to accompany this, as, otherwise, poor, working parents might simply have to take on second or third jobs to make up for lost wages (although many working parents have already joined the roughly 13 million Americans with two or more jobs). Policy addressing gender equality in the workplace and gaps between men and women’s earnings are also necessary, so that, if women wish to continue their careers and become mothers, there is ample support for them to do so.
Like Jung Daehyun, many fathers want to do better. These changes create space for them to actually be better, and to create a more just future for their children along the way.
– A. Littlejohn-Bailey
Note: Beyond this, questions of feminism, culture, and the oppression of racialized fathers still remain. Once a father becomes more active, what kind of roles does he take on? Just the role of fun, easy dad, leaving the hard work to mothers? Without widespread feminist cultural reform, that future is very plausible and still deeply unjust. It also doesn’t make sense to blame a migrant father who is deported or a Black father who is unjustly convicted and incarcerated for their absences from their children’s lives. Without racial justice, immigration reform, and anti-interventionist foreign policy, it is reasonable to imagine a future in which white fathers of the Western upper class thrive, and nonwhite, poor fathers across the world and their children are left behind. That is still not justice. As the conditions of fatherhood tend to reflect the conditions of society, and improving society is a much more complicated issue than simply figuring out how to get fathers to do more childcare work, just economic, racial, gender, sexual, immigration, trade, and legal policy must be implemented across societies. Unjust policy creates unjust, harsh conditions for fathers, and the reverse is true, as well.
Sources and Further Reading