The Pandemic Is Making Dads Reevaluate Their Work-Life Balance

The past year and a half has been exhausting and stressful for parents. It also, unexpectedly, gave many fathers more of the family time they want.

A father and small child relax on the grass.
Eli Reed / Magnum

Zac Eash had originally planned to be home for two weeks when he became a father. But his daughter was born in early March 2020, and, well, you know. “We both got to spend a lot of time with her the first four months of her life,” Eash, a middle-school teacher living in Ames, Iowa, who finished out the school year remotely, told me.

When in-person classes resumed late last summer, Eash was acutely aware of how much less time he had with his wife and baby daughter, and he missed it. He started getting more protective of his hours at home, dropping his role as his school’s basketball coach and making a point of not bringing work home. “That time together at the beginning just set a [precedent] of a lot of time with all three of us in the house,” he explained.

By and large, the past year and a half has been a nightmare for parents. But for new pandemic dads like Eash, the unexpected time at home has, encouragingly, established a different baseline for their involvement in raising kids and managing a home. They’ve been able to “see a new kind of approach to combining their work with their family in a way that’s not been possible,” Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, told me. “They probably have 30, 40 years of being a dad and being a worker still to go. How they will combine [those roles] might be fundamentally different” from an arrangement in which fathers are more likely to work longer hours outside the house and less likely to be present for, say, family meals or their kids’ school events.

Fathers with jobs that could be done remotely received much of this family time, but the pandemic's restrictions and closures were, among other things, a painful natural experiment that kept many other parents in the house more than they were used to. This has been a particularly big adjustment for dads—after giving birth, American mothers on average take 10 weeks off work, while American fathers take only one. And later in kids’ lives, fathers also likely spend less time at home than mothers, because they average more time commuting and working for pay.

Simply by being home more, many dads have gotten a fuller sense of the burdens of child care and housework that moms usually get saddled with. John Beinlich, a father of two in Media, Pennsylvania, told me that his first kid, now 5, seemed “relatively easy” to look after as a baby, largely because his wife was the lead parent during the day, since she was in school nights and weekends. But Beinlich said that during the pandemic, as a remote worker with a newborn whose wife now also has a remote job, “I realized that I needed to be more involved in my kid’s life.” That has been rewarding, but also “made me realize how hard it was,” he told me. “I’m definitely not having any more kids.”

He and several other dads I recently interviewed said that in addition to doing more child care during the pandemic, they’ve also taken on more housework. (Their wives agreed with that assessment.) Milkie told me that although domestic workloads have increased for both moms and dads during the pandemic, dads’ increased contributions have tended to edge the division of labor toward equality because they’ve been larger proportionally. One study of different-sex couples found that the share of parents reporting that they divvied up chores relatively equally rose from 26 percent before the pandemic to 41 percent in April 2020. (It had fallen a bit, to 39 percent, by a more recent check-in last November.)

Despite these steps toward equality, the pandemic has still been brutal for moms. Like dads’, their load of housework and child care grew, and on top of that, many of them lost or had to quit their jobs, undoing years’ worth of increases in the percentage of American women who work for pay. Research also indicates that when the pandemic created the new domestic role of homeschooling supervisor, moms were more likely than dads to fill it.

Still, fathers’ stepped-up responsibilities represent a sort of progress. In a sense, aspects of their experience over the past year and a half resemble paternity leave, albeit an involuntary one that is too chaotic, too work-filled, and too socially isolated.

For men, the benefits of taking time off work after the birth of a child are well documented. Dads who do it have, for instance, been found to be more involved in their child’s first five years and to have a better relationship with their child at age 9. There’s also evidence that they’re more likely to take on a larger share of future housework and less likely to get divorced within 15 years.

The mechanism underlying many of these welcome effects is simply a matter of having more time at home, according to Richard Petts, a sociologist at Ball State University who has researched paternity leave. This time allows fathers to bond with their child, as well as to learn to solve problems as a parent. “Although the assumption is that mothers are ‘naturally’ better parents and just ‘know’ what to do, the reality is that no one really knows what they are doing when they bring a newborn home from the hospital,” Petts told me. “Paternity leave provides fathers with this time to figure things out.”

A lengthy leave also, crucially, gives dads time with their partner. “This can help parents to figure things out as a team, which can go a long way in establishing a more egalitarian division of labor moving forward,” Petts said.

Unfortunately, working American fathers don’t typically get much of a chance to experience these things, in part because they don’t have access to paid family leave. (Many mothers don’t have access, either—only about one-fifth of U.S. workers do, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—though many more employers offer paid maternity leave than paid paternity leave.) But the pandemic, in an admittedly highly unpleasant way, gave dads more family time, yielding effects similar to those of paternity leave. I heard from dads who felt more bonded with their baby than they otherwise would have been, who triaged the onslaught of newborn caregiving and cleanup alongside their partner, and who felt equipped to soothe their child instead of turning to their wife. None of that should be remarkable, but it is.

Some fathers I spoke with also talked about how the pandemic allowed them to have more rewarding relationships with their children, particularly school-age ones. They were able to have deeper, more honest conversations with their kids, and developed a better understanding of their children’s emotional needs after being around them so much. In fact, nearly half of the dads surveyed by researchers at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in April said they felt closer to their kids during the pandemic; only 4 percent said they felt less close.

The pleasures of this extra family time have made many working dads resistant to eventually giving it up. Several of the ones I spoke with were much more interested in remote and hybrid work than they had been before the pandemic, in large part because of the family time it would afford them. Instead of “driving to work, or spending 15 minutes at the water cooler in the office, or eating lunch by yourself … I’d be able to spend that time with my daughter,” Anil Adhikari, a 32-year-old geneticist in St. Louis who became a dad during the pandemic, told me.

“They really are rethinking work,” Milkie said of the fathers she’s interviewed for a research project on parenting during the pandemic. “They’re not wanting to go back to certain things—the commute, the lack of flexibility.” She thinks that in some households, some of the shift toward an equal division of labor could stick after the pandemic if remote work remains an option, because that’s the structure that enables dads to spend time with their family in the way they want; simultaneously, making work more accommodating of motherhood would also help, because, she says, “equality at home is tightly linked to equality at work.”

Already, some dads’ pandemic habits have lasted an impressively long time. After Matt Erwin, a 38-year-old lobbyist in Falls Church, Virginia, transitioned to remote work last year, he began waking up with his two daughters in the morning and making their breakfast. “When all this started and we thought it was just two weeks,” his wife, Jenny, told me, feeding them was perhaps “seen as a bit of a present to me, a bit of a repayment for all the other mornings I’ve been the one on duty. Poor guy had no idea he was creating a pattern that was going to persist as long as it has.”