At a conference in Austin, Texas, this spring the discussions sounded more than a little familiar.
The 200 parenting bloggers shared their fears: that ratcheting down their work aspirations while their children were young would hurt their careers in the long run; that employers preached balance but did not really allow for it; that they were looked down upon by those who had chosen more ambitious paths.
It was a time-worn, and predictable, conversation about work and parenting. Except for the fact that all 200 of these bloggers were fathers, and they were attending a conference called "Dad 2.0."
"Fathers today are where mothers were 20 years ago," says Brad Harrington, the executive director of the Center for Work & Family at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. Women, he says, "have always had legitimacy in the home, and in the 80s they began to struggle for legitimacy in the workplace. Now men, who have always had legitimacy in the workplace, are struggling for legitimacy in the home."
Or, as Charles E., a political science professor, father of four, and "trailing spouse" to his wife's new political career put it: "My job is the 'second' one, so if I work less we have less money, but if I work more then the kids get less parenting. What I am feeling is Mommy Guilt."
Yes, it is. And the data show that other men are discovering the many versions of it, too:
n In 1977, 41 percent of women reported feeling torn between home and work, a number that inched up five percentage points over the next 30 years. Men, on the other hand, were at 31 percent back in the 70s, and at 59 percent today. In other words, men are more stressed about balancing life and work right now than women.
The number of conflicted men is growing. Depending on how you define "stay-at-home-dad," there are 157,000 fathers at home full time according to the last census, but up to two million who are primary caregivers and whose work is purposefully flexible. And these figures do not include the millions of men who lost jobs during the worst of the recession and are home involuntarily.
Increasingly women are out-earning men. Almost 40 percent of women are the bigger breadwinners, according to Liza Mundy's new book, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family, compared to 25 percent in the 90s and five percent in the 70s. Meaning if one parent is to become the primary caregiver, it is no longer, de facto, the mother.
n At the same time, men are more willing to entertain the thought of themselves as primary parents. One survey found that 53 percent of men would like to be stay-at-home-dads if their wives could earn enough to make that possible and two-thirds of fathers agreed with the statement "To me, my work is only a small part of who I am."
So, problem solved, right? After all, women have always vaguely assumed that if men just "got" it -- if they felt the helplessness of wanting to be at home and at work at the same time -- then that would "fix" it, or, at least, make it a badge of honor. As Gloria Steinem famously jabbed, "if men could menstruate (they) would brag about how long and how much."
But while there is some reason to believe empathy from men will bring attention to women's problems (gender pay gaps tend to close at companies where the CEO has a daughter, for instance) it's not looking like this new yearning by men will topple the old paradigm any time soon. In fact, rather than being able to bring balance where women could not, it's looking like men might paradoxically have less success.
To wit, take Charles and his wife, Sonia. The couple married two weeks after her college graduation and the first of their four children was born less than a year later. That's when Sonia shelved a full scholarship to law school in order to spend the next seven years either pregnant or nursing while Charles got his PhD and entered academia. This year they decided it was her turn. She nabbed a prestigious, demanding fellowship at a Midwestern statehouse while he works as a visiting professor, which provides needed income but no real possibility of advancement.
Their patchwork of teachers and caregivers all know "to call ME," Charles says, on the theory that his wife "can't be getting kid calls at work. She is really setting her reputation right now and you don't want that reputation to be someone who drops the ball because of children."
But what about his reputation? Data suggest that a man who admits his attention is not 100 percent at work pays a higher penalty than the one women have complained about all these years. The reason, explains Harrington, is that a woman is assumed to give less of herself at work once she has children, so if she ratchets down or seeks flexibility she's simply doing what everyone expects. (Insulting, yes, but I'm just the messenger here.) A man, on the other hand, is expected to work even harder, because "he is now the breadwinner." So as men become increasingly likely to put "breadwinner" well down on the list of ways they see themselves, it creates a circular tension between what they want and what society wants them to be.
And that, in turn, leads to much of the musing, philosophizing and longing that so many researchers are hearing lately from men -- conversations that sound like echoes of yesteryear, but with a baritone twist.
It also leads Charles to ask that I tweak his name a bit in this article, so that a future employer doesn't Google him and question his work ethic.
"It all boils down to having to conceptualize trade-offs," Charles says, "and realizing that all my hopes and wants were not going to be met at the same time. If two things are mutually incompatible it comes down to 'if this, then not this.'"
Quite a few frazzled working mothers could have told him that a long time ago -- though it is nice, if sobering, to have him onboard.