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Why American men say being a father is their most important role

Even the most accomplished of American men say their most cherished role is "dad." Why does being a father matter most in personal identity, even in an age of shifting gender roles?

SALT LAKE CITY — Barack Obama was an accomplished attorney before he became president; Jared Ward is an Olympian from Utah. But when describing their accomplishments on Twitter, both men begin with a simple word: Dad.

In this, these two famous fathers are much like other American men who derive more satisfaction and pride from being a parent than their other, more celebrated roles.

This is apparent not only on Twitter, but in research, including to the most recent American Family Survey, commissioned by the Deseret News, in which a majority of respondents said being a parent is more important to their identity than their religion, race or career.

Jared and Erica Ward with their four children, ages 7, 5, 2 and 5 months.
Jared and Erica Ward with their four children, ages 7, 5, 2 and 5 months.
Photo courtesy of Jared Ward

While mothers derive slightly more of their identity from parenthood than fathers do, about 70 percent of men with children say that being a father is either an “extremely important” or “very important” part of their identity, said Christopher Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and a principal investigator of the survey.

That's significantly higher than those whose identity derives from a political party or ethnicity, or a Stanley-Cup-winning hockey team.

The outward expression of that identity could be a "Proud parent of" bumper sticker on a car, or the car itself, such as a minivan or large-capacity SUV.

It could be an action, like coaching a Little League team or taking time off from work to volunteer at a school.

And the traditional means of expressing pride in fatherhood, the family picture whipped out of a wallet, now has a social-media counterpart, the cover photo on a Facebook or Twitter profile.

Within a few days of the birth of his first child two months ago, Adam Bress of Salt Lake City had inserted the word "Dad" at the beginning of his Twitter profile, even though he has many more accomplishments as an assistant professor of population health sciences at the University of Utah and an investigator for the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System.

The reason: “It’s clear to me that it’s the most important job I’ll ever have in my life," Bress said.

Although personal pride is part of the reason children figure into fathers' identity, being deeply invested in fatherhood has a substantial payoff, both for fathers and their children, sociologists say. "The more important your identity is to you, the more likely it is to govern your behavior," said Kevin Shafer, an associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University.

'Height of contribution'

As accomplishments go, fathering a child doesn’t require as much effort as, say, becoming president or earning a Ph.D. By some estimates, 80 percent of men become biological fathers.

But the men who list fatherhood first on Twitter include former president Bill Clinton, Utah Jazz player Thabo Sefolosha, and Spencer Cox, the lieutenant governor of Utah, who says family is more important than anything else he has accomplished.

Joseph Tolman

“If the only thing people know about me is my family, then I’m OK with that,” Cox said.

And Ward, fresh off a 10K win in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said, "I'm an Olympic runner for now, but someday that will change. The title of dad lives on forever. ... I think the title of Olympic athlete lasts about four years."

In addition to listing “dad” second on his Twitter profile (after being a husband), Michael Wear uses a profile photo of him holding his 7-month-old daughter, Saoirse.

That’s partly because of “silly pride,” said Wear, a former member of the Obama administration and the author of “Reclaiming Hope," a memoir of his time working in the White House. But it’s also the intentional expression of Wear's belief that, although there is dignity in work, “our dignity does not derive from our work.”

“It is holding Saoirse that feels like the height of my contribution to the world,” Wear, who lives in Reston, Virginia, has written.

The emphasis that Wear and other men place on their role as fathers is a change from just a few decades ago, when men were more likely to tout their credentials as breadwinners than as dads, said Bruce Linton, a marriage and family therapist in California, who has conducted discussion groups for new fathers for more than 30 years and is the author of three books on fatherhood.

Linton, who is 69, said that 40 years ago, even women were inclined to see men who were "overly" involved with their children as having too much time on their hands. He remembers being at the park with his then-4-year-old son (now 38), and enthusiastically talking about fatherhood with a woman who was there, and as they parted, she said, "Young man, I did like talking to you, but I do hope you get some more work soon."

“When I was starting out, men would describe themselves as an attorney or engineer. That has changed,” Linton said.

Dr. Adam Bress holds his 8-week-old son, Devan, at their home in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.
Dr. Adam Bress holds his 8-week-old son, Devan, at their home in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Part of it is that the world of work has changed to dramatically. Men are finding more satisfaction in the interpersonal world of parenting and relationships than they are in the world of work,” Linton said, adding, “I do think it was the women’s movement that made it possible for me to be the father I wanted to be.”

Unlike Linton, Matthew Orlando of Jamesburg, New Jersey, came of age as a parent in a time when it’s normal for men to push strollers and take children to the park.

Orlando is a 39-year-old IT professional with three sons — ages 6, 4 and almost 2 — who also has a blog called “The Runner Dad,” which is illustrated by a father pushing a jogging stroller.

Orlando said fatherhood seeps into every aspect of his life, even running, because, “The moment you have a child, everything changes. I don’t know if it’s biological, I don’t know if it’s spiritual, but something clicks, and all of a sudden, your life stops being about you, and starts being about your kids.”

That change involves not just everyday activities, but the motivation for what he does, Orlando said.

“Even my running is now geared toward making sure I’m healthy and here to see my kids grow up, to see them have kids,” he said. "I think (fatherhood) is hugely important and that's why I put that first whenever I talk about what I am and what I do."

In the 2018 American Family Survey — a nationally representative online poll of 3,000 Americans conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University — about 70 percent of respondents said their role as a parent was either important or very important, and figured into their identity more than other parts of their life.

Religious identity came in second (43 percent), followed by career (37 percent), community (30 percent), race (29 percent) or political party (28 percent).

This shows that despite worrisome headlines about political polarization and its effects on the nation, Americans who are parents are predominantly concerned about what goes on in their homes and find satisfaction and pleasure in the rearing of children, despite its stresses.

"This is a really, really positive trend," said Shafer, at Brigham Young University.

Challenges to identity

Even though some parents can be overly involved with their children, as in the recent college admissions scandal, most fathers and children benefit when parenthood becomes central to the father's identity, and this begins even before the child's birth, Shafer said.

“One thing we know is that when fathers develop an identity earlier, maternal health is improved, women are less likely to get unnecessary C-sections, babies are less likely to be low birth weight and more likely to be born on time," Shafer said.

But developing an identity as a father before a child's birth can be difficult because men don’t undergo the physical changes that the mother does during pregnancy. “And at least in the United States, we tie being female to being a mother more than we tie being a male to a father. So even from an early age, girls are socialized more to consider themselves as future mothers than boys are socialized to consider themselves future fathers," Shafer said.

“There’s also much more support to help women craft a maternal identity in ways that don’t exist for men,” he said. As an example, Shafer said that he has four children born in three different states, but at each ultrasound, there was never a chair where he could sit.

“Men are sometimes pushed to the sidelines during pregnancy, and there are good reasons for that, but there are also negative consequences. Men aren’t developing that identity in the same way during pregnancy that women are.” Some countries have taken steps to try to improve this, he added, including Brazil, where families are given financial bonuses if men come to prenatal visits.

Shafer believes that America, too, could benefit from public policies that increase men's sense of identity as fathers.

"As fatherhood is becoming increasingly central to who men and dads are, I think it’s really important that our institutions and policies support that," he said.

"We really need to think about how schools, the medical system and the workplace all think about men who are parents and support their involvement with their children. The research suggests its good for men, women, children and institutions when we do."'

Importance of conversation

Linton, the family therapist in California, has researched the evolution of men into fathers, and found that giving new fathers an opportunity to talk with other men about the experience helps them with the transition and helps to shape their new identity.

Women have traditionally discussed motherhood among family and friends, but this opportunity does not always happen for fathers, Linton said. “My experience has been that when a group of new dads get together and they start to talk, to bring the group to a close takes great effort because men don’t want to stop talking,” he said.

The importance of being able to talk about the experience of being a father is highlighted by new research from Emory University in Atlanta, where researchers found that the mood of new fathers improved when given the chance to talk about what they were experiencing.

Anthropologists James Rilling and Craig Hadley conducted interviews with 120 new fathers and observed a significant improvement in mood after the men were given the chance to talk about their parenting experience. They believe that one reason may be that men aren't often encouraged to talk about their feelings and experiences as a dad.

“Most of them experienced an increase in how enthusiastic, proud and inspired they felt after talking about their experience as a father,” Rilling saidin a news release.

Dr. Adam Bress holds his 8-week-old son, Devan, at their home in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.
Dr. Adam Bress holds his 8-week-old son, Devan, at their home in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“They seemed to find it therapeutic to talk about their feelings, particularly if they were struggling with some things. The challenges of being a mother are often much greater. So fathers may think that nobody really wants to hear about the things they are dealing with as a new parent.”

It’s important that men have the opportunity to talk about what they are experiencing, because fatherhood is a huge identity shift for men, Shafer says, and one that is lasting.

For most men, becoming a father changes them from someone who is primarily concerned about themselves to someone is more concerned about others, Linton said. “Something starts to change. They start to care about that little baby like nothing else they’ve loved in their lives."

That is true for Wear, the Virginia dad who said being a father is one of the most important things about him.

“I’m blessed to be able to do important work that has impacted a lot of people, but there’s something about being a dad, that you understand as a dad, that raising your daughter is likely going to have the most lasting and profound impact you can have as a human being.”