Several members of Congress, mostly men, held a news conference outside the Capitol last week — a typical sight in Washington.
But these men were not just any men: They were dads — men who serve in the U.S. House of Representatives while also raising children. (If “father” is a catchall, “dad” seems to connote a father of young children, too busy even to expend an extra syllable.)
The dads were announcing the Congressional Dads Caucus, a group of 20 Democrats aiming to push policies like paid family and medical leave and an expanded child tax credit. Spearheaded by Representative Jimmy Gomez, Democrat of California, who gained attention last month when he voted against Kevin McCarthy for Speaker of the House with his son Hodge, then 4 months, strapped to his chest, the caucus also hopes to speak for a demographic that, in the halls of power, is well represented yet historically has not cast itself as an identity bloc.
But times are changing. Fathers in heterosexual partnerships in the United States increasingly wish to split child rearing equitably. (Or, at least, to talk about splitting it: The data shows women still do significantly more. And there is evidence that fathers do more than they used to, but less than they say they do.) Some men, being men, have even managed to turn the dirty work of parenting into an implicit competition: Witness the peacocking dad — catch him in his natural habitat, his own Instagram grid — with a kid on his shoulders and a Boogie Wipes packet in his rear pocket, claiming the duty of caretaking but also its glory.
This trend, perhaps most visible in the upscale and progressive milieu that dominates blue states, has flowed into politics. Democrats have pushed to make family leave available to all genders. Pete Buttigieg, a rising star, took several weeks’ parental leave in 2021 from his job as U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Politicians wear their fatherhood on their sleeves and their babies on their chests.
“Family leave and affordable child care until very recently were considered women’s issues — ‘the moms are mad about this,’” said Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a parenting columnist for The Cut who wrote her doctoral dissertation on mom influencers. “It’s becoming a family issue, a dad issue. It feels significant.”
But a curious lag has opened between societal hopes for dads and baseline expectations. Dads who assume their proper share of parenting and homemaking, according to this emerging worldview, should not accrue psychic bonus points anymore. However, they still do. In 2023, a father feeding his child in the park or touring a prospective school is admired and complimented to a degree a mother is not.
“When the dads do or say something, they get the kind of attention I wish we would,” said Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, the only woman who is a member of the Dads Caucus — and a mother of two boys, 17 and 11.
Ms. Tlaib credited Mr. Gomez for pointing out this double standard at last week’s news conference. “He acknowledged that people were like, ‘Wow, this is so great,’” Ms. Tlaib said. “And it’s like, ‘What are you talking about? A lot of us moms have done this.’”
For dads, the present state of affairs can be pretty sweet. Who doesn’t want to do 40 percent of the work for 80 percent of the credit? (Especially when it’s good politics.) But being a good ally may mean flaunting fatherhood and exploiting the ease with which fathers can draw attention to parents’ issues while not making it all about them, as men have occasionally been known to do.
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Because the attention is part of the point. “We know dads exist, but they can bring a spotlight to this issue,” said Gayle Kaufman, a professor of sociology at Davidson College and the author of “Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century.” “Just being realistic, when men think it’s important, it’s likely to get more attention.”
One caucus member, Andy Kim of New Jersey, said that part of the caucus’s project was to shift the automatic association of family concerns away from being “mom” problems. He recalled someone asking his wife if she wished to be a stay-at-home mother, when it was in fact he who used comp time and then left his job at the State Department in order to care for their first of two sons, who are now 7 and 5. “She said, ‘You should talk to my husband,’” he said.
The Dads Caucus’s inciting incident illustrated how novel it felt to see a dad dadding hard in Washington.
Like many Congressional mothers and fathers, Mr. Gomez brought his family to Washington for his swearing-in ceremony, which typically would have followed a pro forma vote for the House Speaker. But this year, the body required an extraordinary 15 ballots over five days to select Mr. McCarthy. Families stayed in town; babies fussed.
During an early voting round, Mr. Gomez and his wife, Mary Hodge (for whom Hodge Gomez is named — Ms. Hodge rejected a hyphenated last name, Mr. Gomez said), decided in the Democratic cloakroom to strap Hodge into a chest carrier to calm him. Which is how the 48-year-old congressman came to stride the House floor and cast his vote, as he put it then, “on behalf of my son, Hodge, and all the working families,” while Hodge politely squirmed and received a coochie-coo tickle from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ms. Hodge, who is the deputy mayor of city services in Los Angeles, returned to the West Coast before the voting marathon was complete. Hodge stayed with Mr. Gomez, who tweeted myriad baby shots.
Mr. Gomez said in an interview that a mother in the identical situation likely would not have received such glowing coverage, like a “CBS Weekend News” feature with the caption “Congressman Pulls Double Duty.”
“The praise I was getting for doing what any mother would do was out of proportion,” he said, adding, “if a woman did that, people would question her commitment to her job.”
Mr. Gomez said the caucus had been formed with only Democrats in order to get it off the ground, given the disagreements between Democrats and Republicans over many economic family policies (to say nothing of related ones like abortion).
Patrick T. Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center who studies family economics, said some Republicans — he cited Senators Mitt Romney and J.D. Vance, among others — might co-sign some Democratic economic proposals for families.
“There’s a growing recognition that not all the pressures facing families are cultural in nature,” Mr. Brown said. “It’s not all Hollywood elites making family life harder, it’s the pressures of the modern economy. If you’re concerned about people getting married later or not having kids, you need to orient policy in a more pro-family direction.”
The caucus has already called for expanding child care access and universal family medical leave. But its most immediate achievement may be its members’ open reckoning with how prevailing conversations about care-taking shortchange everyone. Mothers are often ignored for what they do and made to feel guilty for what they don’t. Fathers are frustrated by the limited public imagination for what they can do and evince a palpable, wistful anxiety of influence when speaking about motherhood. (“We talk about our kids like any moms do,” said Dan Goldman, a Caucus member and father of five who was elected to Congress from the Brooklyn district that includes the dad stronghold Park Slope.)
Last year, before founding the Dads Caucus, Mr. Gomez went so far as to join the Congressional Mamas Caucus. “I had always advocated for all these issues,” he said.
Because yes, of course, the Mamas Caucus — founded by Ms. Tlaib to push for many of the same policies the Dads Caucus backs — predates the Dads Caucus by several months.
No matter: Ms. Tlaib was equanimous.
“If it took Jimmy Gomez starting a Dads Caucus to get The New York Times to call me to talk about the Mamas Caucus,” she said, “then I’m all in.”