Beyond the Bad Boys

A quiet revolution in male behavior.

Infidelity is one thing between a man and his maker, declared the English author Samuel Johnson, but between a man and his wife it means nothing: “Wise married women don’t trouble themselves about infidelity in their husbands.” Ha! Those were the days before women discovered YouTube and golf clubs. When Johnson was writing, in the late 18th century, cheating was not just rife, it was acceptable. Husbands who slept with other women were barely considered to have strayed; they even bragged about bedding lovely strumpets in memoirs and letters to their wives’ families.

Today we clearly think poorly of those who cheat. Ninety percent of Americans who responded to a 2006 Pew survey thought that adultery was morally wrong. Historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage: A History, says disapproval of infidelity has risen markedly in the past century—and believes there is strong evidence that the incidence of male infidelity has actually decreased. She cites the high ratio of female prostitutes to men in the late 1800s, and the corresponding prevalence of venereal disease among respectable middle-class women. Can this be true? Are more men actually keeping their pants on? Or have women just caught up? Fidelity is notoriously difficult to document—the data are slippery, and most people lie. One study found that people are having fewer affairs than they did in the ’70s, others that they are having more—especially women. But my point is this: the bountiful stories about unfaithful, creepy guys who have been embroiled in scandal recently seem to be continually reinforcing the stereotype that men don’t change. In recent months we have been saturated with stories of husbands who lie, pathologically, to their wives; absent fathers who fumble furtively with tattooed strippers and send obscene texts to hard-faced porn stars, who bonk waitresses in parking lots and impregnate mistresses while their wives wrestle with cancer, work, or care for their children. When discussing the behavior of guys like Woods, Edwards, and James, we use the words “typical”: men are bastards, men don’t change, men always put their own desires before their families.

But a survey of recent family research, called Unconventional Wisdom, prepared by the Council on Contemporary Families for its annual conference in Illinois, contains fascinating new data that show how subtly and surprisingly male behavior has shifted. First, men are spending more time with their kids. Millennial fathers—those under 29—spend an average of 4.3 hours per workday with their kids, which is almost double that of their counterparts in 1977. A Families and Work Institute report found that these young dads are actually now spending more time each day with children under 13 than mothers between the ages of 29 and 42 are with their own. Which is staggering. Second, while women still do most of the housework, men are becoming far more familiar with the sponge and vacuum cleaner, particularly less educated men. Between 1965 and 2003, college-educated men did 33 percent more housework than they did before, and men who never completed high school did 100 percent more, according to research from Oxford University. Brilliant news. Maybe this is why divorce rates have been falling for 25 years. Sociologists tell us that the best way for a married man to have more sex is to do more housework—and it’s scandal-free.

Unfortunately, sharing the load can mean sharing the misery, too. Astonishingly, married men are now feeling more torn over balancing work and family than their wives are. Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, found that in 2008, 59 percent of employed fathers in dual-earner families said they suffered work-family conflict, up from 35 percent in 1977. The number of women in two-income families who reported feeling conflicted increased by 5 percent over the same period, to 45 percent. (Williams says women who feel conflicted change their schedules, despite damage to their careers; men try to avoid this, and hence feel worse.) Men who stay home are in the minority, but overall, Williams says, “norms have shifted. Taking care of a child is now part of what it means to be a father.”
Cue the “Hallelujah Chorus.” In the midst of the tabloid hysteria about bad boys and dirty dads, it’s important to remember that some things are going right. It is such a simple and important change that we have almost missed it: more and more men are starting to care for their children. The consequences of this are enormous.