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Prof. Kaufman’s New Book “Superdads” Analyzes Changing Roles of Modern Fatherhood

by Robert Abare '13
Gayle Kaufman
Prof. of Sociology Gayle Kaufman

Should he and Lois Lane finally procreate, would the Man of Steel put aside his famous red cape to spend more time with the kids? According to Davidson College Professor of Sociology Gayle Kaufman, this question would determine whether or not Superman is also a "Superdad" - a new variety of modern father who prioritizes family over work.

Kaufman has recently authored the new book Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century. Published in June by the New York University Press, the book analyzes the evolving ways modern men view their roles of father and provider.

To write Superdads Kaufman interviewed 70 fathers from a variety of racial, educational, age and occupational backgrounds. "I was interested in studying men's experiences with work and family because typically that attention is given to women," Kaufman explained.

Previous survey data suggested rising incidences of work and family conflict for men. Surveys can only provide numerical data, and Kaufman believed face-to-face interviews could provide a deeper understanding of men's roles. "I wanted to understand the experiences of fathers-whether they really encounter work and family conflicts, and if they do, how they approach them," said Kaufman.

Her interviews led Kaufman to define three types of fathers based on their work decisions following the birth of their children- "old dads," "new dads" and "Superdads."

Old dads think of themselves as providers and make no changes to their work lives to accommodate their children. They also tend to have stay-at-home wives who take care of their children. "This doesn't mean they don't want to be involved in their children's lives," Kaufman said. "They do, but they see the importance of earning money for their families as the highest priority."

New dads, the largest of the three groups, make minor changes to their work schedule for their children, such as leaving early to attend a soccer practice or ballet recital. Kaufman explained, "This group struggles the most because they really want to be involved with their children's lives, but they have difficulties finding the right balance between work and family."

Superdads completely subordinate their work decisions to their family's needs. "These dads make very large changes to their work life," Kaufman said. "The most extreme case is quitting a job, or changing jobs for another one more fitted to the family's needs. They may try to change positions within their workplace, work from home or become self employed."

Unlike old dads, Superdads value their spouse's careers. "Superdads try to be full partners," Kaufman said. "They view their wives' careers as important as their own. Not only do they manage their work around their children, but they also manage work around their spouse's job."

Kaufman was partly inspired to write Superdads by her own husband, Kevin Bell. Kaufman gave birth to their second child soon after Kevin graduated law school, at which point he decided to stay at home and care for their children while Kaufman continued to teach classes at Davidson. "Though I didn't interview him for my book, my husband is definitely a Superdad!" Kaufman said.

Kaufman took her awareness of family scheduling conflicts and scholarly research to the workplace recently, successfully advocating change in the college's parental leave guidelines for faculty. Female faculty now have a two course reduction for parental leave as opposed to one. That allows professors to take a whole semester off to care for a child. Kaufman would like to see this policy applied to male faculty as well.

Kaufman believes government and institutional allowances like these can help encourage the emergence of more Superdads. In Sweden, for example, parents are entitled to 16 months of paid leave when they have a child. The mother and father individually receive two months of leave each, and if they split the remaining 12 months equally between themselves, they receive a bonus payment.

Kaufman added, "The United States is the only developed country that does not mandate some sort of paid family leave. As I learn more about the intersection of work and family it seems like a lot of attention has focused on women, though I think men also need to be in the conversation in order to make these changes." Her latest research took her to the UK this past year to study their recent Additional Paternity Leave policy as part of a Fulbright Fellowship.

Reaction to Kaufman's book has been widespread and mostly positive. Superdads has been referenced or reviewed in publications including The Wall Street Journal and The Daily Beast, while others have featured blog essays written by Kaufman.

Kaufman has also received feedback from readers who enjoyed her fresh perspective on family, parenting and work. "A lot of fathers have been excited that there's attention on this issue, and that there is a voice for men who are concerned about work and family issues."