Fathers matter. We know the positive impact of fathers as caregivers in terms of emotional support, interactive caring, and day-to-day raising of their children. But does it matter if they regularly work non-standard hours, such as evenings, nights, or weekends, that may challenge their ability to carry out their parenting activities? Given that more than half of employed U.K. fathers work such non-standard hours during the first decade of their children’s lives, it is imperative to understand how this affects fathers’ parenting and whether the effects vary by context. (Non-standard work schedules are also common among U.S. fathers.)
New quantitative evidence from the United Kingdom offers a nuanced answer. My colleague, Anne McMunn, and I used data from the Millennium Cohort Study – a nationally representative sample of children born in the United Kingdom between 2000 and 2002. We analyzed 11,412 fathers when their children were nine months old and 7,791 fathers when their children were nearly seven years old. We focused on two measures of parenting – basic care (in both age groups) and play and recreation (for seven-year-olds).
Fathers of nine-month-olds were asked how often they looked after their babies on their own, changed diapers, fed their children, or got up in the night to attend to them. Fathers of seven-year-olds were asked if they helped their children get ready for bed or cared for them alone. They were also asked how often they read with or to their children, told stories, did musical activities, drew, played physically active games, took the children to the park, or played with toys or games indoors.
We found that fathers who worked in the evenings, between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., spent less time on basic parenting activities both when their children were infants and when they were seven than did fathers who worked standard hours. For example, they spent less time looking after a child alone, getting a child ready for bed, changing diapers, or getting up in the night to soothe a baby. In contrast, fathers who worked night schedules, such as from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., spent more time on these basic care activities.
Initially we found that fathers who regularly worked evenings spent more time and those who worked weekends spent less time in play and recreation than did fathers who worked standard hours. However, these differences may stem more from work characteristics, such as long working hours, than from work schedules. Lastly, we found no evidence that the relation between fathers’ work schedules and parenting differed by the intensity of fathers’ work hours, families’ poverty status, or fathers’ educational attainment.
While fathers who work evenings may decrease the amount of parenting they do, fathers who work nights have opportunities to be more actively involved in parenting
These findings support a more nuanced view of the integration of non-standard work schedules with parenting. Not all non-standard work schedules negatively affect fathers’ involvement. While fathers who work evenings may decrease the amount of parenting they do, fathers who work nights have opportunities to be more actively involved in parenting.
Previous research on working specific times of the day helps interpret these results. Night schedules could create openings for dads to be involved in parenting routines during the day, or in the early morning or evening, depending on when work starts and ends. In contrast, evening work may occur during children’s bedtimes, giving fathers who work at this time fewer opportunities to be involved in parenting. In addition to the basic parenting activities we examined, other studies have also found that fathers who work evening schedules miss out on family activities, such as helping with homework and eating meals together.
The story is incomplete if we fail to consider the role of mothers’ employment. We examined whether parents’ available time in the household also mattered for fathers’ parenting time. We found that fathers’ night work facilitated more basic parenting activities when mothers worked than they did when mothers did not work. However, fathers participated in even more basic parenting activities when both parents worked non-standard schedules than when both worked at standard times.
Perhaps this indicates a preference for parental child care. Some couples engage in tag-team parenting, which involves decreasing the overlap between their work schedules and maximizing time with their children. For example, if one parent works nights or weekends, the other parent stays at home and engages in parenting instead of paying for child care.
Alternatively, our findings may indicate not that parents choose to work non-standard schedules but the financial constraints of finding child care at non-standard times. Despite the greater provision of publicly funded child care in the United Kingdom for three- to five-year-olds, relative to the U.S. context, child care is expensive and harder to find outside regular daytime hours.
How can fathers make it work so they can make important contributions in their children’s lives? The challenge for workplace policies and government programs is to reduce the potential difficulties for fathers of working non-standard schedules. Employers need to acknowledge a lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic: that many jobs can be worked flexibly.
Working non-standard hours may compromise supportive parenting – but it also has the potential to lead to more time parenting under the right circumstances.
Some parents view non-standard work schedules as an opportunity to fulfill their goals to integrate family time, parenting, and paid work. Employers can advertise job vacancies as flexible and in the United Kingdom, reduce the qualifying period before employees can request flexible work schedules. Such a policy promotes inclusivity as the demand for non-standard employment is met and matched with workers who are available and willing to work such hours.
However, not all parents have control over their work schedules. For those parents, government policies can provide incentives for child care facilities to remain open evenings and weekends, and employers can offer pay premiums for working outside standard hours. Such programs can relieve the constraints on families who need affordable child care.
Parents working nonstandard work schedules may very well want to minimize the potential negative impacts of their work times on their parenting. As parents reflect on the integration of their work schedules with family time, they should consider the context of their home life –for example, the age of their children, whether both parents work and at what times of the day, and the types of parenting activities which they engage in during the course of a day (e.g., play or basic care).
In our research, we were unable to consider whether a parent chooses to work at a non-standard time, but such choice in work schedules is unquestionably a factor in how parents integrate work and family time. Amid the daily challenges of balancing work and parenting time, working non-standard hours may compromise supportive parenting – but it also has the potential to lead to more time parenting under the right circumstances.
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