When surveyed, dads overwhelmingly say that they would prefer to share childcare and housework relatively equally with their spouses, and would prefer to use flexibility and parental leave to better balance work and family. However, the data show that while men have made significant progress on both fronts, our actions do not match our intentions -- leaving us more "locked into" work and less involved at home than we'd like.
There are a few reasons for this mismatch. While corporate cultures and lack of societal support are major problems, it is also true that we sometimes get in our own way. Here's a quick rundown of the barriers today's dads face, including some advice on how we may be able to change our situations.
1. The Workplace
It is well-established that many workplaces don't see work-life balance for their employees as a priority. They want employees to be "all in" for work, even at the risk of chronically overworking their employees, risking burnout and turnover. Most companies that have made some progress in work-life still conceive of flexibility and leave policies as interventions to retain working women.
As a result, few men make visible accommodations of their work for families, and for good reason -- men who visibly do so face additional "flexibility stigma." Therefore, even in companies where policies like flextime, telework or paternity leave are offered, few working dads take full advantage of them.
2. The Family
While it is true that women are increasing their share of household earnings, about 85 percent of dual-income households rely on the husband for the sole or primary income. This financial pressure prevents many working dads from accommodating work to family, changing employers or downshifting their careers. In addition, health insurance, retirement plans and other financial considerations create "golden handcuffs" that keep employees locked into their employers.
In addition, the lack of available (or used) paternity leave often sets up a gendered family dynamic -- which constrains both men and women. When a dual-career, egalitarian couple has a baby, it will often fall to the mom to take a long leave -- after all, she is offered a more generous policy and the dad's career prospects will be crushed if he's the one talking a long leave from work. Thus, his career continues, hers takes a pause (and a resultant hit to her career progress). This further reinforces the dynamic that leads women with career ambitions to drop out of the workforce and pushes men (even those who wish to be very involved dads) to support the family by doubling down on work. Both partners find themselves stuck in roles that make it harder to live out their full set of priorities.
Finally, research shows that when men and women experience to transition to parenting in the same way- say if they each have a long parental leave and equally do diapers, etc., they tend to parent more equally in the long-term. Dads who have been able to take long paternity leaves are more involved parents throughout their kids' childhoods and those kids do better in school (among other positive outcomes). In contrast, when the mom stays home and becomes expert in parenting while the dad dives into work, family dynamics drift to where the mom is the "parent" and the dad is just the "occasional helper" (who may or may not be seen as particularly competent). This, obviously creates a vicious cycle and can be exacerbated by maternal gatekeeping.
Society sends odd and conflicting signals about fatherhood. Involved fathers are either ignored or overly-praised as being "superdads." Until very recently, TV, advertising and other media depicted dads almost exclusively as incompetent or as overgrown kids themselves. This lowers the bar for the next generation of dads and implicitly tells women that they need to be responsible for everything.
Dads are often eyed with suspicion if they are with children in public settings, especially during typical work hours. There are lots of "mommy groups" and other supports for mothers (and this is a good thing!), but not as many resources for dads (the City Dads Group movement is a big step in the right direction). One small but telling indicator of society's views: lots of restaurants have changing tables in the women's room, but not in the men's.
Finally, traditional gender roles often encourage men to be "manly" -- prioritizing work and money, being aggressive as opposed to nurturing, etc. This manifests itself in career choices and resultant family dynamics. It is brave to defy traditional gender expectations and become an at-home dad, downshift one's career, choose more "feminized" careers like education, social work or health care (of course feminized professions are undervalued and pay less, but that's a whole other story), or opt-out of demanding career paths.
4. We Do It To Ourselves
Finally, as much as frustrated dads can pin blame on demanding and unsupportive employers, parenting dynamics skewed by access to parental leave and signals from society -- the fact is, we also contribute to our own predicament.
How many of us have really thought through our life priorities while assessing both family and career concerns? How many of us have reassessed the career paths we chose way before spouse and baby made three? How many of us take a very hard look at our finances and simplify our commitments to allow for downshifting or more time for life? How many recognize our uneven family dynamics and struggle for more involvement (as opposed to resigning ourselves to settle for less)? How many push back against employer expectations (or have we bought into "corporate idolatry")? How many of us stay connected 24/7 to work, even during family time? How many of us say, "I'll have more time for family next year... and next year... and next year"?
So, How Can We Improve Our Situations?
This is a daunting list, but I see the beginnings of positive change in all areas. Many workplaces are starting to respond to fathers' work-family concerns through better access to paternity leave, culture change and role-modeling by male leadership. We need to do our part to accelerate these changes. If we don't, who will?
More families are attempting more egalitarian approaches to dual careers and shared care. The road is not easy, but constant communication, realistic expectations and financial prioritization can all help. Finally, remember that you and your spouse chose each other to be partners and teammates. Having some difficult conversations to get things back to parity can get you back to the partnership to which you initially aspired.
We need to push back when the media portrays dads and less-than, and support brands that promote realistic and positive portrayals of fatherhood.
We need to examine our choices -- there is always time for course-correction. We also need to support our fellow working dads, both at the workplace and in our friendship networks (can I interest you in a "beer fire"?). We need to be brave in our life choices -- do what is right for us and our families and forget what others may think.
Finally, we need to embrace the new possibilities that have opened up for fathers. Work-family juggles are hard, but allow us for deeper, more intimate relationships with our kids and more fulfilling lives. The effort is worth it.
What do you think about the challenges fathers face in balancing work and family? Any experiences you'd like to share? Let's discuss in the comments.
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Scott Behson, Ph.D., is a Professor of Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a busy involved dad and an overall grateful guy. As a national expert in work and family issues, Scott was a featured speaker at the recent White House Summit on Working Families. Scott also founded and runs the popular blog Fathers, Work and Family, writes regularly for the Harvard Business Review Online, Huffington Post and Good Men Project, and has written for Time and the Wall Street Journal. Scott has appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, CBS This Morning, NPR Morning Edition and Bloomberg Radio.