Old Dads, New Dads and Super Dads: Which Are You?

Sociologist Gayle Kaufman recently wrote a great book examining the lives of men balancing work and family, and describes three general categories of dads- Old Dads, New Dads and Super Dads. Here’s a discussion of each. Which are you?

"Superdads" by Gayle Kaufman
“Superdads” by Gayle Kaufman

Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century,” by Gayle Kaufman, is an excellent sociological study of the changing nature of fatherhood. The book is based on extensive interviews with a wide range of fathers–about their lives, relationships, parenting styles and work-family concerns. Kaufman finds that today’s generation of dads is more involved and more conscious of work-family demands and tradeoffs. In her analysis, Kaufman sees today’s dad as falling into one of three broad categories:

  1. Old Dads– see their most important role as providing for their families through paid work. In many cases, men increase their work commitments after their children are born so that their wives can stay home with their kids, feeling that this is the best arrangement for their families. Old Dads behave in general accordance to traditional family structures and expectations for fathers/employees.
  2. New Dads– see their roles as both providers and involved dads. They are committed to their careers, but will make adjustments at work (ranging from working more flexibly or slight downshifting) to be more actively involved in family lives. New Dads work within the general confines of workplace and societal culture, but carve out ways to expand their roles. New Dads experience the highest levels of work-family stress. I suspect most of us following the blog would fall into this category.
  3. Super Dads– see themselves as dads first, everything else second. They downscale or completely re-invent their careers to maximize childcare and parenting, even if this means making significant financial sacrifices. Super Dads reject traditional roles and workplace norms, finding their own idiosyncratic paths, including staying at home while their spouses work. Kaufman believes the rise of Super Dads has the potential to fundamentally change gender expectations and our society (and she may be right).

All classification schemes lack in nuance. In this case, a wide constellation of dads, each with different priorities, constraints and strategies, is reduced to one of three archetypes. I am leery of “over-categorization” (After all, there are two types of people in the world, those that put people into categories and those who don’t…), but I’m picking a nit here; Kaufman’s underlying concepts and research are solid.

However, the category names in Kaufman’s typology embeds an unfortunate value judgment. While she is careful to avoid explicitly stating it (and in fact, does state that virtually all the dads she talked to are loving fathers), the book implies that Super Dads > New Dads > Old Dads. I think it is unfair to rank those who make different choices (often in the face of different demands and constraints) as better dads than others. To me, there is no one best path.

I firmly believe that any dad who:

… is a Great Dad.

Kaufman’s notable contribution is the expert way in which she elicits the stories of the varied lives of today’s dads. I think all dads benefit when they know that alternative roles are available, and that other dads have been successful with different approaches. Perhaps, thanks to Kaufman’s book, some Old Dads can imagine how they could become more like Super Dads, or vice-versa. Kaufman also makes solid recommendations about what men, women, workplaces and government policy can do to more properly value the role of fatherhood in society. And these contributions make hers a very important book.

I believe we all can be Great Dads–all it takes is loving our families and doing what is best for them–regardless of the path (Old, New, Super) we take to get there.

What do you think about “Super Dads”? Your role as a father? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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14 thoughts on “Old Dads, New Dads and Super Dads: Which Are You?

  1. Thanks for the article Scott. I’d be curious to read the book. As you point out, the terms she uses have great value judgment in them as I would have to label myself a “Super Dad” even though I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so. I realize that she’s likely simplifying in order to sell books and coin a new phrase. And I’d be curious to understand how she addresses “new” moms in her book, since I can only be a “Super Dad” because of the sacrifices my wife makes to be a “new mom” or “lean-in mom” and nothing about that feels super even if it was our own choice.

    • Hey Neil- You would definitely fall in the SuperDad category. The author was trying to mirror the 1980s/90s “Supermom” language, but I agree one can’t help but see those categories and see “super” as implicitly better than “new” which is better than “old”. Better labels would have avoided this trouble, but, as you say, it’s a catchy title for a book! (BTW, the book is good, but it is an academic sociologist’s take on the issues).
      Good point about your wife’s contribution! The author touches on this, but it is not a focus.

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