Why Don’t More Men Walk The Talk on Work-Family?

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.

I was lucky that my  career, "paternity leave" experience and family dynamics were conducive to my being a very involved dad.
I was lucky that my career, employer flexibility and family dynamics were conducive to my being a very involved dad.

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 (future posts will dive more deeply into each topic).

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.

Some of the barriers faced by working dads (from the USDOL, click the picture for more)
Some of the barriers faced by working dads (from the USDOL, click the picture for more)

2. The Family

While it is true that women are increasing their share of household earnings, over 85% of dual-parent 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 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 so many signals degrading the value of fatherhood.
Society sends so many signals degrading the value of fatherhood.

3. Society

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”?

Sometimes I allow 24/7 connectivity to work get in the way of family time
Sometimes I allow 24/7 connectivity to work get in the way of family time

5. How Do 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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11 thoughts on “Why Don’t More Men Walk The Talk on Work-Family?

  1. Scott, this is a really interesting post. For me, I’m now a SAHD and a tech entrepreneur. I originally was embarrassed to no longer be 100% focused on my biz and viewed myself as a failure (the biz ran out of cash and our investors walked away).

    But now I’m super thankful I get to spend so much time with my kids. And things with the biz are slowly improving.

    I wrote an article about how I became a SAHD-you can find it here, if interested: http://www.treplifedad.com/startup/how-i-became-an-accidental-stay-at-home-dad-er-entrepreneur/

    Thanks for sharing. Gonna share this on my blog page and personal page. I’ll tag you.

    Ciao!

    • Thanks, James! There is absolutely a stigma for men to be seen as something other than the breadwinner- for many this is hard to overcome and leads some dads to choose paths that don’t lead to family fulfillment. Thanks for the comment and your support!

  2. Scott– Great article. One of the biggest challenges I see in the workplace, and that I have observed from speaking to others who work for F500 companies that there remains a fairly large “implementation gap” between espoused work-life values that companies have, and how they actually play out in the workplace. If a manager is not walking the walk, it can become nearly impossible for a dad (or mom, for that matter) to prioritize their families without risking career stagnation. As difficult as it may be, the challenge for the many mid-career dads is to “lead from the middle.” That is, set a better example to their bosses by drawing lines in the sand and being vocal about prioritizing family.

    • Absolutely, and thanks for this comment. There is a big disconnect between what companies say they value and what they really value.
      I like your term “leading from the middle!” and I agree that we need to be proactive in making changes happen so we can live more closely to our priorities.

  3. Fear, conflicting signals, and yes that stigma – I have posed these questions to many men I’ve known; in my ‘non-representative sample’ these are consistently the answers. And dare I say for some – contentment with aspects of the status quo.

    But the rewards to be reaped (in richer relationships all round) are many. And the potential rewards for employers (more stable families make for more dependable staff) ought to encourage policies and practice that facilitates flexibility.

    Thanks for keeping this discussion on the forefront.

  4. Millennials seem to have embraced parenthood and a genuine desire to lead a full life (work-life balance if you will) – more so than any other generation before them (and I applaud them). Therefore, as millennials become parents, I believe more men will insist on flexibility and management will have to take notice – if they don’t want this generation to give their notice!

    • This is indeed true, and has led more than a few big companies to respond with more workflex and more realistic time demands. But, I don’t want to wait for the millenials. We Gen-Xers have to step up too!

      Thanks for reading and your comment!

  5. What an interesting concept for a blog. I like it.

    My husband took leave for both of our children. I am not sure if he felt any pressure, or if he felt that his masculinity was being questioned by those who would never do such a thing – but he wanted to be there, and I was happy to have those moments as a family.

    • Thank you DJ. It is becoming increasingly common for men like your husband to stand up for their priorities. But not everyone is in a situation in which they feel comfortable and supported enough to do so. Thanks for your optimistic note.

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