When Dads Lean Back, the Benefits Pile Up

Lean back, dads. You might be surprised by how comfortable it feels. When a dad spends more time involved with his children, virtually everyone in his life feels better.
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Lean back, dads. You might be surprised by how comfortable it feels.

A new study finds quite a few benefits accrue to men, their families, and their work organizations, when breadwinning fathers increase the amount of time they spend with their children. "Updating the Organization Man: An Examination of Involved Fathering in the Workplace," to be published this month in Academy of Management Perspectives, surveys close to 1,000 working fathers and finds that "the more time fathers spend with their children on a typical day, the more satisfied they are with their jobs and the less likely they want to leave their organizations." Every boss wants happy, committed employees because they fuel productivity. These dads -- who spent on average 2.65 hours each day with their children -- also exhibited significantly less work-family conflict: that feeling of being pulled in two different, competing directions at the same time. Focus enhances work results and allows people to feel less stressed and overwhelmed.

The fathers who spent relatively more time with their kids also experienced significantly more work-to-family enrichment. That means they felt that work improved their home lives; for example, being better able to listen and understand different viewpoints to become a better family member. Also, they did not view caring for children as a source of stress, so families benefitted even more from the dads' availability and attitude.

According to Jamie Ladge, the lead author of the study, there's yet another way men benefit from being more involved parents: personally. Whether taking a paternity leave or flexing work hours to spend more time with their kids, the men reaped a "self-discovery" benefit. They learned something about themselves through the process of spending more time parenting. One dad felt appreciated by co-workers who slapped him high-fives for his hands-on fathering. Another enjoyed feeling competent by acing his newborn's visit to the pediatrician -- answering the doctor's questions and not deferring to his wife. A third remarked that it just felt good to spend time with the baby and be good at it, while another said he felt like a better person than he might be otherwise.

This intra-psychic benefit to digging deeper into the role of father was on full display the same day Ladge and her co-authors' study was announced, in a first-person narrative at The Atlantic. The author, Ryan Park, confesses that he missed most of the first year of his new baby daughter's life, because his job as a clerk to "the boss," Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, required "long hours and late nights at the Court." When his clerkship ended he vowed to compensate for the year's extreme work-life imbalance by taking a break to be a stay-at-home dad temporarily. Park reveals his doubts and thought process, reviewing how gender roles are sticky, despite decades of progress. He discovers that full-time caregiving is real work, fundamentally different from the "glorified babysitting" he had contributed previously to his family unit. He recounts how, before, he would sit with his baby while she ate, and considered that "work." Now he sees it as often a parent's only time to rest. The experience left him with little doubt about the value of time spent at home, parenting exclusively, as many women he respects have done, including evidently Ginsburg herself: "I feel similarly blessed to have been born at a time when I could, without apology, fully immerse myself in the joys and exertions of life as a stay-at-home dad." He later returns to a new job in a law firm, but assesses the benefits of his career pause worth any career costs, for "After a day away from Caitlyn, I come home engaged and enthusiastic, eager to pack a day's worth of play, learning and bonding into a few scarce hours."

If the personal payoff from "leaning back" in a career, plus the benefits to a father's family and employer, are not convincing enough, there's more! As Gary Barker and Michael Kaufman argue in "How Good Dads Can Change the World":

Indeed, study after study affirms the benefits of involved fatherhood for women and children. Children in households with more equitable participation of men show better health and development. Girls raised in households with more equitable fathers show lower rates of unwanted sex. Men who report stronger connections to their children tend to contribute more of their income to their households, so their children are less likely to grow up poor. Women are more likely to recover sooner from birth and less likely to experience post-partum depression.

In short, when a dad spends more time involved with his children, virtually everyone in his life feels better.

To be sure, there are risks for men to leaning back too far. The Academy of Management Perspectives study found that the more hours men devoted to their children, the less central their careers were to their identities. A loosening of the connection to a professional identity is perhaps inevitable when time is re-distributed toward home. But this and other studies show that a supportive supervisor mitigates this propensity and makes combining caregiving and breadwinning possible. As I describe in another article, supervisors are a key part of workplace best practices to support workers with family responsibilities, dads included. Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave that to Ryan Park, and some bosses in the Academy study did too.

But don't worry, dads, if you take time to be involved with your children and find yourself in a comfy work-family spot. Since men tend not to see their work and family identities in stark opposition to one another, but rather as facilitative, research shows you're unlikely to activate your parent identity exclusively in response life's vicissitudes, even setbacks or failures at work, let alone because you play more with your kids. So go ahead: lean back a little.

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