Shaping Expectations about Dads as Caregivers: Toward an Ecological Approach

33 Pages Posted: 27 May 2016 Last revised: 1 Dec 2016

See all articles by Holning Lau

Holning Lau

University of North Carolina School of Law

Date Written: May 25, 2016


A growing number of men embrace childcare responsibilities traditionally associated with women. Yet fathers who wish to be caregivers often face impediments. Legal scholars have focused attention on one of these impediments, the lack of workplace paternity leave, by calling on the government to mandate leave for new fathers. In this Essay, I argue that the focus on workplace policies is much too narrow. In light of cultural norms in the United States, there will be difficulty passing national legislation mandating paternity leave. Moreover, men shoulder cultural pressure not to take paternity leave even when it is offered. This Essay contends that we must look beyond the workplace and address a broader set of elements in our cultural environment that perpetuate bias against fathers as caregivers. I call this an “ecological approach” to paternity policies. To jumpstart discussions about ecological reform, this Essay offers three examples of public policies that the government should pursue to modernize cultural expectations about fathers as caregivers: (1) regulation of men’s equal access to diaper changing facilities, (2) reframing government-funded “Mommy and Me” classes to be more inclusive of dads, and (3) recasting the image of men in the federal government’s Fatherhood Initiative. Each of these areas may seem like a very small target for reform, but addressing small targets collectively could profoundly reshape our cultural expectations about fatherhood.

This Essay is based on remarks that I delivered at the 2015 Association of American Law Schools Midyear Meeting, Joint Plenary Session for the Workshop on Shifting Foundations in Family Law and the Workshop on Next Generation Issues of Sex, Gender, and the Law.

Keywords: Parenting, gender, fathers, family policy, parental leave

Suggested Citation

Lau, Holning, Shaping Expectations about Dads as Caregivers: Toward an Ecological Approach (May 25, 2016). Hofstra Law Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, 2016, pp. 181-213; UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2784575. Available at SSRN:

Holning Lau (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States
919-962-8514 (Phone)

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