Gen X Dads: Many young fathers more involved than baby boomers before them

"Real Parents" is an occasional series looking at the lives of ordinary families

Chris Yeargin figured he'd have kids but never thought much about it when he was younger. Even when his wife, Kim, was pregnant, "I made the baby a priority in my mind because I knew I was supposed to," he admits.

Then came his son, Ethan. "After he was born, it wasn't even a conscious decision," Yeargin said. "He's the whole reason I get up in the morning. I geared the whole rest of my life to being more involved."

Like many Generation X dads, Yeargin, 34, is taking the baby boomers' level of father involvement to the next stage, putting his family before his career and negotiating new roles with his wife.

It's more than changing a few diapers or playing catch with his son, now 2. Yeargin took two months' paternity leave when Ethan was an infant and cares for him most weekday evenings while Kim works as an emergency-room doctor.

It started as a way to avoid child care, but "now I'm really protective of my time with him," Yeargin said. "This is No. 1 for me."

A significant shift

When Bernie Dorsey started teaching Conscious Fathering classes for new dads in 1999, "guys attended very begrudgingly," he said. Now the popular classes, offered at eight Puget Sound sites, fill up months in advance. "Men show up not needing a lot of encouragement," he said. "They want to be involved, and they're trying to get the tools to achieve it."

With most class participants in their 30s, Dorsey has noticed a "very significant" shift in attitude. "It's definitely dads as partners as opposed to dads as assistants," he said. "They do it because they want to."

Give or take a few years on either side, Generation X is usually considered the post-baby boom group born between 1965 and 1980, folks now falling in the prime child-raising ages of 26 to 41.

Three-fourths of high-schoolers have baby-boomer parents; three-fourths of elementary-school children live with Gen X parents, said James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a Massachusetts-based marketing strategy firm.

When Reach Advisors surveyed 3,000 parents, Gen X dads spent twice as much time with children as baby-boomer dads, Chung said. Part of that can be attributed to GenXers having younger kids, but even when boomers had the same age children, Gen X dads spent "significantly" more time.

Even so, younger dads are still frustrated with that amount, wishing they could be around more. "The concept of 'quality time' has disappeared with Generation X," Chung noted. "It's not what they can do for kids, but what they can do with them.

"What we've seen in our research is that Gen X dads identify much more tightly to family activities than work," he said.

Yeargin, a civil engineer for a Seattle consulting firm, switched to a more family-friendly company where he works fewer hours and can afford a sick day to take care of Ethan. His family focus "definitely had an impact on my career," he said.

"When I look at other fathers my age, they go straight home after work because they want to see their kids," he said. "They choose careers that allow them time with their family and refuse to take jobs that involve travel."

Afternoon routine

At first, the Yeargins considered day care but weren't happy with the options. They arranged their schedules so Chris goes in early and is home by 4 p.m.; Kim leaves for her emergency-room night shift at 5 p.m. She catches up on sleep by napping with Ethan.

Their routine: When Yeargin gets home, they hang out in his car, pushing buttons and opening up the sunroof. They go for a walk to collect rocks for Ethan's rock drawer. Yeargin makes dinner while Ethan sits in his seat at the counter. Ethan loves to take a long bath, playing in the water. Then they have a bedtime snuggle.

Yeargin credits his paternity leave for his strong bond with Ethan. "I became a completely different dad when I did that," he explained. If they have another baby, "there's no question I'll take time off, regardless of [Kim's] schedule."

It wasn't always easy: The first time Kim left for a work meeting, Chris called her in a panic because Ethan wouldn't take a bottle. By the time she got home, Chris' mom had come over to help. "For new dads on their own, the most important thing is to have a support system: Someone to call if you need backup," he said.

His own dad was the traditional provider and disciplinarian who went out with his buddies after work rather than spend time with his kids. "There wasn't much bonding," Yeargin said. "We were never really close when I was a child."

A self-starter

But the lack of a role model hasn't been a problem. "There are certain basic skills you have to learn — changing a diaper, burping — but once you've got that, everything after is very personal," Yeargin said. "Even if I had an example from my dad, I think I'd be wildly different anyway."

Involved dads say cultural perceptions still haven't got up to the GenX reality, with sitcoms and commercials still portraying dads as incompetent.

"When I take Ethan to the park or go grocery shopping, I see dads with kids all over the place," Yeargin said. "But when I get to the checkout stand, I still get the 'Oh, you're baby-sitting today' comments. No, I'm not baby-sitting, and neither are all of these other dads."

Dads will find fewer organized resources, with most parenting support groups geared to moms. Yeargin plans to teach a Conscious Fathering class for dads of toddlers later this summer offering tips on potty training and discipline.

"We're the first generation of dads caught between two worlds," said Christopher Healy, 33, author of "Pop Culture: The Sane Man's Guide to the Insane World of New Fatherhood." Dads now fall somewhere between "being terrified of changing diapers — or drilling their child with flashcards."

Even involved dads have an easier time than moms in avoiding the "hyper-parenting" trend that requires involvement "in every aspect of a child's life," said Healy, father of a 4-year-old. "Dads aren't pressured by society so directly so they don't get sucked into it as much."

Team effort

When the Yeargin family is together, the couple trade off diaper changes. "But other than that, it's a team effort on weekends," Yeargin said.

As much as Kim appreciates Chris' connection with Ethan, she had to consciously decide to give up some mom control.

"As a mom, you always want to be there," Kim Yeargin said. "Initially, it took a while for me to let go. Chris said to me, 'When are you going to trust me with him?' It wasn't that I didn't trust Chris; it's just hard as a mom to give up feeling like you're the only one responsible for your child."

Now, "by the time he gets home, I'm ready to let him take over," she said. "I love Ethan, but it takes a lot of energy. He's go, go, go all day."

Chris has seen other dads discouraged, often unintentionally, by their partners.

"My wife never made me do it her way," he said. As a doctor, Kim relies more on parenting books, while "I navigate by feel," he explained. "I try to get cues from Ethan. That's where our parenting methods differ."

In the end, he says, "sometimes what she says works, sometimes my way works and sometimes neither does."

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Chris Yeargin and son Ethan, 2, explore the yard. Yeargin made both job and lifestyle changes so that he could be more involved in his Ethan's life on a day-to-day basis. (THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES)