Confessions of a Conflicted Father

Have you ever wanted to spend more time with your children but also wanted a job with greater responsibility? Do you think your family is your top priority but feel susceptible to messages at work that suggest that committed employees are focused and available 24x7? Do you aspire to share caregiving equally with your partner but always feel you come up short in meeting these expectations?

If so, you are likely what might be termed a Conflicted father. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m one too. Let me explain what this means and how being conflicted is likely undermining the joy and meaning you are experiencing at work and at home.

For the past eight years in my work as executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, I have spent much of my time researching fathers. New dads, at home dads, working dads, Millennial dads, dads who take paternity leave and dads who don’t. I have written a lot about these fathers and have appeared in many major media outlets and given talks at conferences to discuss how fathers’ roles are changing. I’m occasionally asked for fathering advice in one of these forums, but there I always hesitate, reminded of my wonderful wife who once lovingly exclaimed, “An expert on fatherhood everywhere but at home.” Touché.

Since we began publishing The New Dad studies, we have uncovered many interesting findings. One that has frequently recurred is the gap between fathers’ aspirations to be equal partners in caregiving and their inability to actualize this. Following the publication of our first report in 2010, one journalist titled her article on our work “Why do men lie on surveys about fatherhood?” Her intention wasn’t to be cynical. She described the concept of aspirational lying which she defined as “the unconscious shading of the truth to make us appear smarter, more generous, and closer to the person we want to be.” The point she was making is that fathers today at least aspire to be hands-on caregivers, even if they often fall short of that goal.

Through more extensive research over the years that followed, we concluded that men likely weren’t lying about their aspirations – they sincerely wanted to be equal caregivers. But when we asked whether their actions fell in line with their aspirations, more than one out of three fathers admitted they did not. We labeled these fathers Conflicted dads to distinguish them from Traditional dads (those who say their partner should do more caregiving, and their partners do) and Egalitarian dads (those who strive for equality in caregiving and feel they achieve it). By every measure in our studies, Conflicted fathers reported having the lowest levels of work and life satisfaction among these three fatherhood types. They were the most likely to feel they weren’t spending enough time with their kids, the most likely to be susceptible to organizational cues about being an ideal worker, the least satisfied with state of their lives, the most likely to be considering quitting their jobs.

So, given I know, perhaps better than anyone, that being a conflicted father doesn’t yield good outcomes, how did I get to that place and why don’t I address the error of my ways? It’s a long story. After graduate school I secured a good, high paying job, I married after a decade of being work-centric, I travelled a lot on business and actually commuted 3000 miles to work when we had two young children, etc. At some point my wife decided to stay home with the kids to accommodate this and we fell into typically gendered roles. Eventually, I changed careers and my wife returned to work. But even as our work schedules and income levels became more equivalent, I was slower than I should have been to change. We had established roles and patterns that were hard to unravel. Much like the fathers in our study, I felt the cost of being conflicted. But we struggled to establish a “new normal,” at home and to redefine our roles in light of the ongoing career and family shifts we had made.

Redefining oneself is never an easy endeavor. Adult identities are extremely sticky. They’ve been built up over many years and reinforced in hundreds of ways. But if you are a conflicted dad and are committed to getting the balance right, there are a few things I might suggest:

§ Start by fessing up. Look at your goals when it comes to fatherhood and ask yourself (and your partner), how you are doing. Are you egalitarian or traditional in your approach? If so, and your partner is fine with this, it’s all good. If not, and you frequently (always?) feel conflicted, it’s time to alter things. Rather than think of work and family as competing priorities, consider the right balance for your family. There will always be more demands for your time than you have available.

§ Go through an in-depth self-assessment process. Explore your values, your career and life goals, how your relationship is going with your partner. You may be able to do this through using a career-life self-help book or with the aid of a career counselor or life coach. Work with your partner. Know what each of you needs and work together to minimize the conflicts around work and family.

§ Start a father’s group. Start a group with work colleagues or with fathers in your neighborhood or social circle. Meet with your fellow dads to discuss your common struggles and successes in balancing work and family. You will find you are not alone and also support in achieving the balance you are looking for. I’ve been part of a father’s group in my neighborhood for 15 years and have learned a lot from my fellow dads.

§ Take your leave. If you are one of the fortunate few fathers that are offered paid paternity leave by your employer, take advantage of it. Nothing will help you understand the value of parenting better than taking time to “fly solo” caring for your new child.

Psychologists would agree that being conflicted in general does not enhance one’s quality of life (”I did A but probably should have done B”). But when it comes to domains as central to our lives as career and family, being conflicted is a major obstacle to life satisfaction. And trust me (and 1000 other fathers), that’s not where you want to be.

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