What You'll Learn
- The Contradictory Messages Around Fatherhood
- How Gender Norms Reinforce Traditional Fatherhood Roles
- How Dads Can Find a New Path in Fatherhood
- The Pushback Dads Receive When They Challenge Gender Norms
- The Value of Flexibility in the Concept of Masculinity
- The Invisible Load of Fatherhood
We talk a lot about the invisible load of motherhood—but dads carry a mental load too. Just like moms, dads face contradictory expectations, gender norms, and societal pressures. When we understand the invisible load we each are carrying, we can start to challenge norms and work together to share the labor in the home.
Today, I’m joined by psychologist Dr. Dan Singley director of The Center for Men’s Excellence, to unpack masculinity, fatherhood, and the invisible load for dads.
Breaking Gender Norms in My Home
My husband and I have worked very hard to challenge gender norms in the home. Not only has this helped free me from the invisible load, but it’s also empowered him to be the dad he truly wants to be—and it’s been beautiful to watch.
I wouldn’t trade the relationship he has built with our children for anything. Freeing ourselves from traditional gender roles has given both of us so much power and autonomy to live life as parents and individuals.
But I know that we both still carry an invisible load—it just might look different for each of us. In fact, fatherhood looks different for everyone—based on gender norms, family structure, culture, and so many other factors.
I’ve long wanted to understand what the invisible load of fatherhood means. And I couldn’t wait to sit with Dr. Dan and unpack the invisible load and the meaning of fatherhood in the modern world.
(I also want to point out that much of this post references dads and moms. I am committed to inclusion and diversity, and I understand and value all families, partnerships, and sexual orientations.
This conversation centers on gender norms and roles—and while all partners can fall into traditional roles, research has shown that these roles take a stronger hold for different-sex couples. But I also know that all people who identify as dads can benefit from unpacking the meaning of modern fatherhood—regardless of what their family looks like.)
The Contradictory Messages Around Fatherhood
Dr. Dan pointed out that, particularly in different-sex partnerships, dads often face contradictory expectations. In his experience, dads report feeling invisible during pregnancy and a baby’s birth. They are often pushed to the sideline to focus on the birthing parent.
He said that we live in a culture where dads are told to take a step back. But there is no research that says that gender dictates parenting ability. We’re socialized to believe that early parenthood is the purview of gestational parents.
There is no research that says that gender dictates parenting ability.
And yet, we have also come to expect dads to be more involved with their children. It can feel like they are receiving mixed messages about the role, leaving dads uncertain about where they fit in.
Social expectations can pave the way for maternal gatekeeping, leaving moms feeling like they are the ones best equipped to take on caregiving roles. Sometimes in response, dads withdraw or begin underfunctioning.
Dr. Dan believes that this often leads to tension and distance between partners, fueling anxiety on both sides. When dads respond to gatekeeping by withdrawing, they might build resentment and lack hands-on opportunities to build their capability and confidence as parents.
He pointed out that when dads find themselves in that situation, it’s important for them to approach it with the right mindset, problem-solving in a way where both partners get time and involvement and feel respected.
How Gender Norms Reinforce Traditional Fatherhood Roles
So much of what Dr. Dan said reminds me of my own work on gender roles and norms. I have written about the role of intensive mothering ideology and social expectations in the division of household labor and the invisible load of motherhood before.
But dads receive social messaging as well—and that can leave them feeling like their hands are tied. The ideals of what moms and dads “should” do—or even the expectation of a nuclear family in general—reinforce our patterns and behavior as parents.
When dads feel that they are unwelcome in certain roles or that nurturing tasks “should” belong to moms, they might feel lost in how to become more involved with their children.
Dads receive social messaging that can leave them feeling like their hands are tied.
My husband and I have had many conversations about the role of emotional management in the home. While I have happily let go of many traditional gender roles, it is particularly hard for me to take a step back when it comes to managing behavior or emotions.
This has sometimes left my husband feeling like he can’t win—he’s expected to be involved, but I have stepped in and intervened when I am not needed. It’s something that we are actively working on recognizing and changing.
It also requires ongoing communication and conversation—something that Dr. Dan said is key when it comes to redefining modern fatherhood.
How Dads Can Find a New Path in Fatherhood
Dr. Dan pointed out that when it comes to parenting, we often become narrowly focused on the one “right” way or method. But if we want to change gender norms and dynamics, it’s important to stay flexible.
His goal is to see dads be involved—but that involvement might look different for every family. Maybe that looks like breaking away from traditional gender roles completely. Or maybe it looks more in alignment with traditional roles. There are many ways to father, many ways to show up, and many ways to be involved.
Dr. Dan also pointed out that fear around “attacks” on masculinity has existed for centuries. But he doesn’t view masculinity as being under attack—just under construction.
Masculinity isn’t under attack—just under construction.
Gender roles and norms have changed and are continuing to evolve. But while the feminist movement has moved the needle for women, the changes for men have been slower.
This is likely partially due to social conditioning around masculinity being equal to “anti-femininity.” Boys from a young age are taught that there is something shameful about being feminine—they are shaped to avoid taking on feminine roles.
This makes it harder for men to feel comfortable entering pink-collar professions or to take on a role of stay-at-home-parent.
The Pushback Dads Receive When They Challenge Gender Norms
Any time that people break away from traditional gender roles, they are likely to receive some pushback and judgment—and often hear mixed messages in the process. For example, working moms might feel judged for leaving their babies at home. But they also might receive judgment if they miss work to prioritize their family.
Dads also receive these contrasting judgments. A dad who takes his children to the grocery store might hear compliments of “Oh, you’re such a great dad” for simply doing what many moms do every day.
But that same dad might also hear unsolicited advice—something Dr. Dan referred to as “momsplaining.” Some dads might even encounter people believing they are predators for showing up at a park—even when they are there with their children. All of these judgments and gender norms make it even harder for dads to be involved.
But Dr. Dan also pointed out that there is a key difference with men and women breaking out of traditional gender roles. When women take on more traditionally masculine roles, they are gaining power. But when men do the same thing, they are stepping into roles that are viewed as less powerful and less valued.
When men have been raised to believe that masculinity means power, it can be even more difficult to step outside of those roles.
Until we start to view childcare as valued work, it’s harder for all of us to break out of traditional roles.
I often wonder what would happen if more cishet men were forced to stay at home and engage in childcare activities. Perhaps that would lead to higher value of care tasks. Until we start to view childcare as valued work, it’s harder for all of us to break out of traditional roles.
The Value of Flexibility in the Concept of Masculinity
Despite all the challenges, traditional family dynamics are changing. Dr. Dan pointed out that while the percentage of stay-at-home dads is low, it is one of the fastest-growing groups based on gender.
If we want people to have real choices in their roles, it’s important to embrace the changes in masculinity and femininity, in work, and in parenthood. We don’t want to applaud dads for doing the bare minimum, but we do want to support and empower them in being more involved—whatever that looks like for their families.
Dr. Dan pointed out that we often conflate masculinity with being toxic—but there is healthy masculinity as well. He said that the issue isn’t masculinity—it’s rigid, inflexible, traditional masculinity. It’s the rigidity that’s the real problem.
The issue isn’t masculinity—it’s rigid, inflexible, traditional masculinity.
What Dr. Dan really wants for the world of men’s mental health is balance and flexiblity—balance in the roles that we enact, and flexibility in how we do so. The goal isn’t to reverse “men’s” and “women’s” roles—it’s to open up both to new possibilities.
Media has started to embrace this change, bringing in more imagery of involved, nurturing dads. But Dr. Dan pointed out that more needs to change. We need to break away from outdated, rigid roles, and show dads (and moms) that there is more than one way to parent.
The Invisible Load of Fatherhood
Parenting has changed significantly even just since our parent’s generation. And while some changes have been very positive, others have left us all saddled with extra pressures, unrealistic expectations, and invisible labor.
The mental load for mothers often involves the juggling, managing, noticing, and anticipating needs for the family. But I wanted to know what invisible load fathers are carrying around.
Dr. Dan believes that the crux of the invisible load of fatherhood is questioning whether or not they should be intervening—whether that’s about feeding the baby, getting up in the middle of the night, or making parental judgments.
Statistically, when dads become more involved, they spend a greater percentage of their time engaging in play than in hands-on childcare or household management (for moms, it’s the opposite).
So many dads might feel like they have made progress, become more involved, and broken cycles—while their partners might still feel the burden of unbalanced household labor.
Dr. Dan said that the path to equalizing that invisible load is open, inquisitive communication. Rather than keeping the labor invisible, partners can invite each other into ongoing conversations about who should own what tasks and how both of them can contribute.
Dr. Dan pointed out that the conversation about invisible labor often centers around, “Why do I need to ask you to do something—why can’t you just anticipate it and do it?” We want equal partners, not a direct report.
He said that there is nothing wrong with that outlook—but equal partnerships still require ongoing communication, syncs, and discussion. They also require seeing situations from all perspectives.
One of the hardest areas for many moms to let go of is final decision-making when it comes to parenting. In many cases, it might be our only area of power in the home. Letting go of it feels like it comes at a cost.
But if we want to prioritize everyone’s mental health and begin sharing the load, we must actively work against that dynamic. If we want an equal partnership, we have to be willing to relinquish that control as well. When we can do that, we both gain a new form of freedom and power, working as a team in the home.
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