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The Biggest Difference Between My Kids' Childhoods and Mine

Photograph by Twenty20

When I dropped my daughter off for her first day of first grade, there were five parents already milling in the hallway. Fathers, to be precise. One held a bicycle helmet to his chest, another was pretending not to spy on his daughter who had already disappeared into the classroom. Still another was helping his son wrangle his lunchbox from his backpack.

Ten minutes later I met up with my husband, who was launching my son into his preschool career. There, I saw the same thing: fathers as far as the eye could see—just as many fathers as mothers. And like the mothers, each father fell somewhere on the helping to helicoptering spectrum.

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A week later, at the orientation for room parents, there were two fathers. When I was a kid in the 1980s, room parent meant room mother 100 percent of the time.

This, I think, is the biggest difference between my childhood and those of my children. It's a bigger deal than the difference between their organic food and my Tang-and-Pringles diet. It's bigger than their constant intellectual enrichment to my "Sanford and Son" TV binges.

In 2013, the Center for Disease Control surveyed approximately 4,000 fathers and found that the number of dads who play with, take care of or simply spend with their kids has more than doubled since 1965 and has been increasing since 2002, the last time this study was conducted.

Fathers are absolutely essential for the healthy development of their children, especially when it comes to determining their child's ability to find love.

My daughter's best friend's dad is her primary caregiver. When I arrange their playdates, I text him. This isn't rare anymore. In 2012, up to 2 million fathers were staying home full-time, while mothers were the primary breadwinners. In my entire childhood, I didn't know a single stay-at-home father, and I can't think of a single instance where my father set up a playdate. None of the dads did that kind of stuff. They worked, coached soccer games and sat in the pews next to us at church. My dad was around more than most—as a salesman he was usually home by 5. But he never attended the first days of school nor did he arrange carpools.

To be clear, I think this omnipresence of fathers is way better than the separate spheres that moms and dads occupied when I was a kid. It's better for dads who get to play a bigger role in their kid's domestic and school lives. It's certainly better for kids who get the option of having either or both parents participate in school drop off, volunteering and day-to-day parts of their lives. It's certainly better for moms who now have the option to beg off now and again because their partners can handle it.

Studies confirm that having a strong connection with a father reduces behavioral problems later in life. Carole Lieberman, M.D., a psychiatrist at UCLA, confirmed what most already know: "Fathers are absolutely essential for the healthy development of their children, especially when it comes to determining their child's ability to find love."

Yes, our kids will have to contend with social media and sift through the likes of Kim Davis to find authentic heroes and role models. But they've got all these dads all around them doing hands-on parenting. They've got advantages I never had.

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And while children are reaping the benefits of this trend of hands-on fatherhood, which is a good thing for all of us, there's still room for more growth. Like at home, for instance. According to a Pew Research Center study, mothers still do an average of 18 hours of housework per week, where fathers only do 10. Similarly, mothers do an average of 14 hours of childcare per week compared to fathers who do an average of 7 hours. Not to take away from all that is changing for the better, but if the fathers could work some additional chore time in between their trips to the park and supervision of tummy time, that would be even better.

So, there's a great deal to celebrate as mothers and fathers see their roles converging, but there's more to be done if we are going to achieve true equality in our gender roles.

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