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How Dads are Finding New Roles at Dinner

Posted on: May 31st, 2022 by Bri DeRosa

There’s no doubt that culturally, we tend to think of moms as the keepers of the family dinner. It may not be accurate, equitable, or even realistic in many households – but long-held gender stereotypes die hard, and even in the 21st century, research shows that women do more cooking and grocery shopping than men. Yet despite those statistics, a subtle shift is happening in many families. Fathers are starting to take on a more active role in domestic life, and to carve out a space for themselves at family meals that may be different from the one their own dads occupied.

We’ve increasingly heard about dads taking on dinner duties from involved fathers like our friend Art Eddy, who deliberately owns part of the responsibility for nurturing family dinners in his household. It’s also been clear that the COVID pandemic has caused a change in the negotiation of all household labor, especially for families with younger children, and pitching in with dinner preparations or cleanup is one area where dads may have been able to step up.

Are dads really taking on dinnertime? What does it mean for the family dinner to have fathers more intimately involved? We decided to talk to Dr. Anthony Chambers, Chief Academic Officer and Clinical Psychologist, Director of the Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies at Northwestern University, and Family and Couples Therapist at the Family Institute, to get his take on the evolving role of dads at the dinner table.

It’s fair to say that you work with a lot of families and couples. What do you hear about family dinners, in general? Are they still important to the families you work with?

For a lot of families, they look at mealtime as a luxury. The idea that we’re all going to be there at the same time to eat a meal feels antiquated. With this generation, because of technology, people are outsourcing meal prep in a very different way – Uber Eats, Grubhub, etc. Everyone can order what they want and eat when they can. The schedules are different and people are working all hours. Kids have different activities. Mealtime might be in the minivan just before soccer practice, so there’s all these different ways of just getting people fed. And as we’ve increased the expectations on kids, and what it means to be a successful kid who goes on to college, some kids aren’t getting home until 10 PM, and still have to do homework.

Given how busy everyone is, with dual-income families the norm, to be able to become middle class or even just survive…It really requires couples to work together even more and to have much more clarity and communication about their roles. Time is no longer people’s friend. You’re always on with work and there’s not as much emotional energy for the kids and the household work. It’s so much more important now to have alignment on this. Family life is difficult in managing all the competing things that are taking people’s time.

“Time is no longer people’s friend.” That feels like a very truthful statement! Everything you’ve said about the difficulties of working and raising kids is painfully accurate. And you’re a busy father with children of your own, so you understand this from a personal standpoint, as well. But you’re still an advocate of family dinners. Why?

It’s about connection and cohesion. Those are the two pieces that really help in family meals. It’s an opportunity for everyone in the family to connect, to have accurate temperature readings as to how everyone in the family is doing, which allows for family identity. Family identity and cohesion are important and meals can be the conduit for that. That’s at the heart for me in why family meals are important.

So that connection and cohesion…as a father, and as a clinician who works with fathers, is there anything particularly special about the role of fathers in family meals?

Not necessarily specific to meals, per se, but there has been research that shows that father involvement is critically important to the long term outcomes of children. I would say clinically, I definitely see that the more there is role flexibility, it makes it easier to come to those conversations about cohesion and family identity. The more rigid the expectations are, there’s less flexibility when a couple has to negotiate and figure out how to contribute. It’s helpful when people have a more flexible view of what fathers can and should do.

Let’s talk about that. There seems to be a shift happening in the way we view fathers’ roles, but there’s a lot that goes into our image of fatherhood. What’s changed, say, in comparison to the previous generations of men?

I think that the role of father involvement has increased. It’s more normative for fathers to be able to be part of the family routine and pitching in at mealtime. In some ways the antiquated way of thinking was the mother did the cooking and fathers showed up to eat. I think now fathers are expected to be involved more.

On the flip side, technology has made things more complicated in terms of what it means to have family connections at mealtime. People are distracted with their phones, and so technology has constrained to some degree the ability to put the technology down and simply focus on the meal and connecting about everyone’s day. I’ve seen couples come in where the father has complained about his wife being too much on the phone and not really present, and also the opposite, where the mother has complained about the father spending too much time focused on work. This is one area that impacts both parents equally.

We’ve seen some evidence that suggests the pandemic also encouraged more dads to take on additional responsibilities for mealtimes. How have you seen the pandemic impact family meals in the families you work with?

During the pandemic, people have been very tired. Worn out. There are work obligations, now with technology they’re always accessible and always on. When it gets to the end of the day, they’re tired in a different way, and meal prep is exhausting. To add that to the end of a long day of Zoom fatigue is quite a bit, so couples have to work out who’s going to take care of what, and that can be a big issue.

The biggest piece during the pandemic was that everyone was at home more, and so just being at home provided more opportunities for connection, but also sometimes more opportunities for tension or conflict. The role clarity might have needed to be renegotiated – who’s going to do what? Mealtime is not just sitting down together, it’s all the preparation work that goes into that ritual. Who’s going to plan and pick what we’re eating, who’s going to cook and meal prep, who’s going to clear the table and wash the dishes. There are all these components that complicate the mealtime perspective that couples have to be clear about.

It’s interesting that you should bring that up – the dynamics of negotiating household labor between couples. The concept of the “mental load” has become a huge topic recently. It seems like even in couples who think of themselves as more egalitarian, distributing the workload more evenly, there’s still a sense of imbalance. And it does seem like more often than not, it’s split along gender lines. What’s going on there?

This is such a big piece, and part of that mental load is what we were talking about, but also when you have children, who’s going to watch the kids and make sure they’re engaged and entertained and safe? Someone’s having to take on that role while the other is dealing with the meal prep.

It’s become more normative for fathers to become more involved in that sequence. Now there’s the opportunity to have that conversation and ask, does one person do something better? Maybe the father is a better cook and wants to take that on, or maybe he’d rather be with the kids and take charge of their homework and entertainment. The flipside is that most people can have an understandable expectation for the other person to be able to do something, and they might both have legitimate points.

People have different tolerance levels for things like how do we clean the kitchen, is it okay for dishes to sit after mealtime, do we need to cook for the entire week and be planful with that, or are we going to go grocery shopping a few times a week and be more spontaneous? There’s no right or wrong with that. It’s not a universal one size fits all approach, but people grow up and bring their own family norms into adult relationships. It’s really important for couples to not think there’s mind reading that can happen, but we have to be explicit and sit down and have a conversation.

You mentioned people growing up and bringing their own family norms into their relationships. This is something we point to a lot – the idea that the expectations we have about dinnertime are often really rooted in the family dinners we had (or didn’t have) as kids. But when we’re talking about roles within the family, I’d imagine that the modeling fathers had growing up contributes to the way they think of their responsibilities.

There are some fathers where if they didn’t have that model growing up, that can impact their expectations for who’s supposed to do what. I will also say, though, that because we’re seeing in the media and in different movies and TV – I’m a big fan of using those for interventions – as we’re exposed to seeing fathers do more, it does help to confound expectations. I didn’t see that growing up, but now it’s more the norm, and fathers are talking to each other in a different way.

But part of that, again, is dependent upon how strong those gender stereotypes are. For some, the father might think “You haven’t cooked for me more than twice this whole year, I feel like I’m the only one who’s doing that. I need to feel you care and love me, and for me that’s partly about meal preparation.” For some people it’s part of their love language.

I’m fascinated that you brought up TV and movies, because to be honest, I think there’s a real trend towards disparaging dads in a lot of popular media. Do you see that? It’s like there’s a trope of the bumbling, stupid dad or husband who can’t be trusted to do anything, while his wife – who is usually depicted as thin and gorgeous with a high-powered career – swoops in to take care of it all.

There are interesting sociological trends to support this. As you have more and more women doing better than men in terms of education and attainment, we’re seeing women enter the workforce and attain education at higher rates than men. What’s resulted is women who feel like “I’m the primary breadwinner, I’m working and making money, so I need you to step up and take care of things at home.”

I work with a couple where he was just laid off and hasn’t worked for almost a year, while her business has really taken off. They’re expecting another child soon and one of the hard parts was talking about what are the roles and expectations when this child arrives? Who’s going to the grocery store and meal prep? The couple got into some heated discussion. In his family of origin, he didn’t see his dad participating in meal prep and those things, so it became a real point of conflict for them.

It doesn’t help when you see images on TV where it’s okay for the dad to be a bumbling idiot or not be able to take care of things. There’s a real missed opportunity for Hollywood to take more of a role in terms of what’s diverse and normative for families.

And what’s diverse and normative for families, as we’ve been discussing, is changing pretty rapidly. But it seems like part of what you’re getting at is that our cultural expectations might not be keeping pace with what families need?

What it sparks for me is another complexity to this, which is the intergenerational component. Another couple I’ve seen– the woman is a physician. The husband also works and doesn’t make that level of income. They have young kids, and they took them to his parents’ house, where a whole sequence played out around how to cut up fruit.

The husband’s mother was expecting that her daughter-in-law would be cutting the fruit and prepping the meal, but the woman didn’t know how. The husband’s mother said “Shouldn’t you be doing this? You are the mother.” The wife was tearful and hurt and said she was bringing in money, working these long hours, she wasn’t domestic, but the mother-in-law felt that was what a mother should do. There was a real intergenerational clash and the husband was having to navigate between the wife and his mother. Gender roles have changed over time.

That kind of tension within a family unit is definitely familiar for most of us. And it does feel to me, as I reflect on what you’re saying, that certainly the kinds of things my grandmother or even my mother could have just let go of for the sake of marital harmony, I can’t afford to ignore in the same way, because our household needs a different balance. So these conversations have to be aired out more, or in different ways. How do you encourage couples to navigate those intergenerational conflicts in a way that’s more productive than just, say, cutting off communication, which seems to be an unfortunate default these days?

For the couple, we get to define what is success for us. What do we want for our family, what’s going to work, what’s the vision? That allows for easier conversations and clarity with the conversations with their parents.

I think it’s important for the biological child to talk to their own parents and say “This is how we do things. It’s different, but it’s not good or bad, it’s just what works for us.” This is true on both sides, and you have to set clear expectations about how we define contribution to the family household.

The idea of contribution is a really important one. There’s financial contribution, the time that you put in, the actual chores that need to be done, the parenting piece, picking up from school, being involved. Couples need to be able to realize the multitude of ways one can contribute and figure out how do we play to each other’s strengths so our family can run well? Once you have that clarity and vision, it’s easier to have the hard conversations, where someone challenges you as to what they think the roles should be.

I love that framing – “What does success look like for our family and how can we both contribute?” That’s so clear. How do you see couples working with that concept when it comes to fatherhood and father involvement?

There is no one size fits all for what it means to be a good father. There’s been research on defining father involvement, and people take that in different ways. What’s important is that there’s this other component, which is that we have to look at the role of child development.

You’ll see that there are certain developmental times when fathers can have an easier or more difficult time connecting with their children, or different expectations for when they should be involved or not. It supports the idea of looking at things through a developmental lens – how do you father an 8-year-old vs a newborn vs a teen? Some fathers don’t believe in diaper changes, they think they’ll step in when the kid gets more school age. Others want to change diapers and feel like an involved father and develop that connection. Everyone has, even if it’s not clear in their head, an implicit bias about at what stage does a father get involved, and what does father involvement look like at different stages?

I hear you saying that there’s no set definition of a “good father,” and of course there isn’t. But you’re sort of a fatherhood expert, Dr. Chambers, so I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you the uncomfortable question: If you had to try to define just a few key things that you think dads should focus on if they want to be “good fathers,” what would those things be?

There are domains fathers should be paying attention to. One is just time. Time spent with their children. Two could be financial contributions – how do we think about that provider role that’s there? And three, how do we take care of the family household, and the day-to-day tasks that have to get done at home, including everything from homework to taking care of the division of labor and making sure you’re contributing in a meaningful way to the division of labor at home?

Those are all important to father involvement. How you decide to operationalize that…This is where couples need to sit down and talk about things. The conversation should involve those different areas, including meal preparation and family dinners. I’m biased and say that family meals offer a lot for family cohesion but in this day and age, there are people with different ideas about the role of family meals today.

We share your bias, and we encourage families to build shared meals into their definition of “success!” Even just one meal a week, as a routine, can do so much for connection. Thanks for your time, Dr. Chambers, and for your excellent insights on fatherhood and couplehood at this very challenging time for parents!