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Jamie Manuel and his five-year-old son Charlie go for a walk in the rain in their Peterborough neighbourhood.Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

Before the pandemic, Patrick Penney was frequently on the road for his job in tech sales, often for weeks at a time. He’d be called away to demonstrate products to clients or drum up business at trade shows across North America. Once in a while, he’d squeeze in a round of golf before the plane ride home.

But in the early weeks of the pandemic, Mr. Penney, a father of two who lives in Mississauga, was not living that life. Instead, he had hit the low point of a new one: trying to do his job while his small children were at home amid a lockdown.

He recalls a particularly fraught scene when he was in the upstairs bedroom working: His wife, who has a demanding job in the pharmaceutical industry, was in virtual meetings while their two children were downstairs screaming at each other. “It was just chaos,” Mr. Penney said.

That day, and many others like it since, has given Mr. Penney a new-found understanding of just how difficult it is to rear children and run a household – the bulk of which has typically fallen to women during the pandemic.

But it has also opened the door for fathers to do better. By forcing so many dads to work from home, the pandemic has brought about arguably the biggest social change for families since the Industrial Revolution, when men left the home en masse to work in factories, says Adrienne Burgess, joint chief executive and head of research at the Fatherhood Institute, a U.K.-based think tank. The pandemic has created unprecedented chaos for working families, and it has made many fathers more present for it.

A survey of more than 1,000 fathers conducted last year by the Canadian Men’s Health Foundation found 60 per cent of them said they felt closer to their children as a result of public-health directives to stay at home. About half of them said they planned to be a more engaged father going forward.

“This is the first time since 1850 that most of the fathers will be at home all the time,” Ms. Burgess said.

The effects have been striking. Fathers are spending more time with their children and contributing more around the house (though still nowhere near as much as women). It’s an encouraging start, experts say, but to build on those gains we need to move beyond the stereotype of the hopeless father and establish social policies that encourage fathers to do more at home.

“Can we seize on the restrictions during the pandemic as an opportunity for lasting social change?” says Jessica Ball, a professor at the University of Victoria who has been researching fatherhood for more than 20 years.

From the 1980s to 2015, the gender gap between what mothers and fathers were doing with respect to child care and housework had been narrowing, Ms. Burgess says.

For example, the proportion of fathers who participated in household work increased from 51 per cent in 1986 to 76 per cent in 2015, according to Statistics Canada (for women, the number remained unchanged at 93 per cent).

But around the mid 2010s, progress in closing the gender gap had stopped, and researchers wondered if the gender revolution had stalled, Ms. Burgess says.

Why weren’t fathers continuing to do more? The answer, researchers realized, is that men’s engagement with the workplace hadn’t changed. They were able to shave time from their leisure hours, but were still stuck commuting and spending long days in offices, Ms. Burgess says.

Freed from their commutes and other work-related demands on their time during the pandemic, many fathers have been dedicating more time to child care and housework.

While 53 per cent of men who have worked from home during the pandemic reported that parental tasks are shared equally, only 46 per cent of men who work outside the home reported sharing parental tasks equally, according to Statistics Canada.

When it comes to men who are not employed, 30 per cent of them reported that they mostly performed parental tasks, compared with only 8 per cent of men who are employed.

Mr. Manuel and Charlie prepare their tackle boxes for an upcoming camping trip.Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

Jamie Manuel has been taking care of his five-year-old son full-time since losing his job earlier this year when the software company he was working for was acquired.

Mr. Manuel helps his son with his homework, cleans the house with him, and is using their new-found love of fishing to teach his son math.

The time Mr. Manuel now gets to dedicate to his son and contributing to the housework means his wife, a communications manager for a software company, is able to focus on her work.

The new dynamic has been so successful that Mr. Manuel and his wife plan to extend it for as long as possible.

“We’re thinking I might not go back full-time for the foreseeable future,” says Mr. Manuel, who lives in Peterborough, Ont.

Mr. Penney plans on not travelling for work nearly as much as he did prior to the pandemic, he says. He tried to be as involved as possible prior to the pandemic, doing daycare drop-off and pick-up, washing the laundry and making dinner when he wasn’t on the road. When he was, his mother-in-law, who lives up the street, would help out.

Now that Mr. Penney is home with his children all the time and doing even more around the house, from scrubbing floors to going grocery shopping, he too feels a stronger bond with his children.

“I’m happy to be closer to the kids,” he says.

A raft of studies has shown the benefits enjoyed by children who grow up with a present, engaged dad. Social scientists have dubbed it the “father effect.” Those benefits range from having higher IQ test scores by age 3 and fewer psychological problems throughout life. As well, such children are more likely to be happier throughout life, have more friends and more positive relationships and earn more money in their careers compared with children who were not raised by positively involved fathers.

Engaging fathers more at home will also be a huge benefit to women.

“Conflict in the home about who does what is, second to money, the most common cause of marital dissatisfaction,” Dr. Ball says.

Getting fathers to be more involved at home will also help address the economic hardships imposed on women during the pandemic – but closing the gender gap won’t be quick or easy, Dr. Ball says.

Nearly 100,000 working age women have completely left the work force since the pandemic began, a number 10 times higher than that of men, according to a report from the Royal Bank of Canada released in March.

And while men have been doing more child care and housework during the pandemic, mothers are still more likely to pull even more weight.

“Couples who do want to achieve gender equality in the division of domestic labour are facing a tsunami of social forces against that change,” she says.

One such hurdle is the stereotype of the idiot dad who needs duct tape to change a diaper and can’t make dinner unless it’s cooked on a barbecue.

“The bumbling, incompetent father is part of the narrative that tells men the home is not their place,” Ms. Burgess says.

Lasting change requires social policies targeted at encouraging more fatherhood involvement, Dr. Ball says.

Creating a more robust parental leave benefit that can only be used by fathers after the birth of a child is one example of such a policy, Dr. Ball said.

Quebec’s paternity leave program covers up to 70 per cent of a new father’s income. There, 93 per cent of fathers take paternity leave, parental leave or a combination of both, while in the rest of Canada, where fathers benefits cover only 55 per cent of income, only 24 per cent take parental leave, according to Statistics Canada.

More flexible work arrangements that allow fathers to work more from home is another key social policy needed to narrow the gender gap, Dr. Ball says.

Indeed, as the return to normal looms ever closer, we must ask ourselves how to sustain and accelerate the progress toward gender equality over the course of the pandemic rather than returning to the status quo.

“That’s exactly what we don’t want,” Dr. Ball says. “We don’t want things to go back to normal.”

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