The scene is repeated over and over in 1950s sitcoms.

A father comes home from work and is greeted at the front door by his wife.

She takes his briefcase and fixes him a drink. The father then resorts to his favorite recliner, briefly acknowledges his children and reads the newspaper.

No diaper changes. No homework help. Nothing.

“This was how gender roles in the family were portrayed back then,” said Brenda Volling, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. “But the stay-at-home mom with the breadwinner dad model just does not apply to the vast majority of families anymore.”

Volling heads up U-M’s Center for Human Growth and Development, an interdisciplinary research center that has fostered several new research projects highlighting the role of fathers and how their increased involvement impacts their families. And figures from the National Fatherhood Initiative seem to back her research (see breakout box).

“The common portrayal of TV fathers in the 1950s no longer applies to today’s society,” said Volling, who has studied fatherhood for nearly 30 years. “Fathers have taken on a much more substantial role over the years when it comes to caregiving. Much of what we know about parenting focuses solely on mothers, yet fathers are often the forgotten or silent contributors to children’s development.”

Magic moment

A man anxiously looks on as a sonographer applies a clear jelly to his girlfriend’s skin.

The sonographer then grabs a medical instrument and slowly guides it across the pregnant women’s abdomen.

After a few seconds, the man turns toward a small monitor and catches the first glimpse of his unborn baby.

“It was one of the most amazing things, if not the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life ... the baby’s foot, the baby’s hand, the baby’s heart, the baby’s face,” he said. “Finding out that it’s going to be a girl … it’s a lot of thoughts and emotions to go through in a 15-minute timespan.”

Rich Tolman and his colleagues Dr. Vijay Singh and Toya Walsh interviewed 22 men after they sat through a prenatal ultrasound to determine whether the appointment motivated them to change their behavior.

“The ultrasound sort of serves as a wakeup call for a lot of guys,” said Tolman, a social work professor at U-M whose research focuses on fatherhood and intimate partner violence. “One of the things we often hear from men is that they live their lives according to their own needs. After the ultrasound, they start to think about the sacrifices they must make to be a good dad.”

One of those sacrifices includes employment.

“I need to make sure I have a steady job because my child eating depends on me,” a man told the research team soon after he learned he would have a son. “If I don’t work, he don’t eat. And I’d rather my child eat before I do … I’m gonna do whatever it takes right now, no matter what it takes, to make sure that when it comes to that time, money’s saved up so they can go to school even if they can’t get a scholarship.”

Sixty years ago, Tolman would have struggled with this particular research topic. In the 1950s, fathers hardly played an active role during pregnancy. Today, studies show that about 90 percent of fathers attend ultrasounds.

“An ultrasound is sort of that first magic moment for a lot of men, so we should use this opportunity to engage men, ask them what they need and arrange for them to get those resources,” Tolman said. “For years, there weren’t always a lot of resources available for expectant fathers. But that’s changed over the years and it really highlights the increased involvement between fathers and their children.”

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