What Kind of Dad Are You?

Author James Levine argues that men can change a corporation's culture without jeopardizing their careers.

James Levine calls it a 'conspiracy of silence — fathers pretend that they don't have family commitments because they fear the job consequences, so managers act as if only women struggle with the work-versus-family dilemma. Levine, founder of the Fatherhood Project, acknowledges corporate resistance to making the workplace more "father-friendly." But in his latest book, coauthored with Todd L. Pittinsky, "Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family" (Addison Wesley Longman), he argues that men can change a corporation's culture without jeopardizing their careers. In an interview, he explained how.

What can a man do to make a corporation recognize his family responsibilities?

I know of men who say they have a meeting across town when they're really going to pick up their child from day care. Some guys actually park in the back lot so their supervisor won't see them leave. These guys are trapped by an old-fashioned corporate culture, and they blame that culture. But they're a part of it. And unless they're willing to make clear that they have family needs, they perpetuate the cycle. Is there a risk to speaking up? Sure there is. But you can minimize it, even eliminate it, if you make clear your commitment to the company and how you're going to deliver.

How, exactly, can you negotiate a flexible schedule? Never turn it into a sob story about what you need. Say, "I'll do my work better if I can leave at 5:30 to pick up my son up from day care. I'm working a couple of hours at night to finish the reports." The goal is to show how taking care of your family responsibilities will enable you to continue contributing to the bottom line.

The Family and Medical Leave Act gives men the right to take a 12-week unpaid paternity leave. Can a guy really take that much time off without committing career suicide?

Part of the problem is thinking of paternity leave as maternity leave, where the mother takes all three months in one chunk. Men can stretch it out by working four days a week over six months. It's a matter of giving everyone as much advance warning as possible. Plan ahead with your supervisor, colleagues, and clients, so you can decide on the assignments to delegate and those to defer. You have a right to keep your intentions secret until the end of the pregnancy. But if you do, you're not a team player.

You've said that fathers need to spend more time getting to know the people who take care of their children. Why and how should they do that?

The amount of time your child spends in your care is minuscule compared with the amount of time your child is going to spend in somebody else's care — whether it's in preschool, day care, or elementary school. So having a relationship with the people who influence your child during the day is another way to stay connected.

It's often moms, as opposed to dads, who establish the relationship with the teacher. But if your children know you're coming to volunteer at school or that when you drop them off, you go in and see what's going on in the classroom, they develop a sense that this is a place that Dad cares about. Even when you're not physically present, they have a sense of your emotional presence in the places where they spend their time.

How can you create this "emotional presence" when you're on a business trip?

First, arrange in advance a predictable time when you're going to call home. Otherwise, be prepared that you might call when the children are in the middle of watching their favorite TV show, and they won't want to speak to you.

When you do talk to them, don't ask, "How was your day?" You'll just get a one-word response like "fine" or "okay." Ask specific questions like, "What happened when the lady from the science museum came in today to show everybody the snake?" If you're connected with your kids before you leave, you can use that knowledge to stay connected when you're traveling on business.

Coordinates: James Levine, levineja@aol.com

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