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Work+Life Fit: First, Moms. Now, Dads…Then, Everyone

You can’t change unless you’re ready.  Ready to recognize the need to change, and ready to make that change happen. The good news is that it looks like we might be ready as a culture to recognize something that’s been true for quite some time—managing work and life is not just an issue for moms.  It’s also important for fathers.   BUT… Unfortunately, from my experience:

You can’t change unless you’re ready.  Ready to recognize the need to change, and ready to make that change happen.

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The good news is that it looks like we might be ready as a culture to recognize something that’s been true for quite some time—managing work and life is not just an issue for moms.  It’s also important for fathers.   BUT…

Unfortunately, from my experience:

  • Men aren’t currently included as equal participants in the work+life conversation culturally and within organizations, and
  • Recognizing that dads are active care givers who need and want flexibility gets us much closer to where we need to be.  However, we don’t seem ready to go all the way and acknowledge that work+life fit is really an issue for all of us.  Only then will we—government, employers and individuals—do the hard work necessary to fundamentally rethink how, when and where we flexibly work and manage our lives through our careers.

So, since we aren’t ready to go there (yet!), let’s celebrate the step we’ve made by recognizing that…

Dads need and want to flexibly manage their work+life fit too!

Boston College’s Center for Work and Family recently released The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood Within a Career Context, a qualitative study of more than 30 middle-income first-time fathers.  All of the fathers surveyed had five or more years of professional experience, and all of them were college graduates.

According to BCCWF Executive Director, Dr. Brad Harrington, they targeted this group because most of the research to date had focused on low income fathers.   And, most middle-income families today increasingly rely on the income of both mothers and fathers to survive, yet as Kathleen Gerson noted in her book “The Unfinished Revolution:”

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Regardless of their own family experiences, today’s young women and men have grown up in revolutionary times.  For better or worse, they have inherited new options and questions about women’s and men’s proper places.  Now making the transition to adulthood, they have no well-worn paths to follow…Most women not longer assume they can or will want to stay at home with young children, but there is no clear model of how children show be raised.  Most men no longer assume they can or will want to support a family on their own, but there is no clear path to manhood.  Work and family shifts have created an ambiguous mix of new options and new insecurities with growing conflicts between work and parenting.  Amid these conflicts and contradictions young women and men must search for new answers and develop innovative responses.”

Highlights of the study’s findings were presented by Dr. Harrington in a recent conference call and include (Click here for details):

  • Most felt becoming a father had changed the way others viewed them in the workplace and that the change was not negative.  They were seen “as a whole person, more approachable,” “maturity, more responsible,” a “member of the club.”  About half said the change was minor and half said the change was more significant.
  • Most fathers assumed having a child would impact their career, but most agreed that they underestimated the degree of impact in both their work and life.
  • While most didn’t lower their career aspirations, becoming a father had changed how they defined success.
  • Most fathers used day-to-day informal flexibility to manage their work+life fit, versus formal flexibility.  And many said their managers were supportive of the work+life issues.
  • Most fathers wanted to achieve a 50/50 split in the responsibilities of care giving and if they weren’t achieving it they were trying to do better.
  • When asked what it meant to be a good father, the fathers felt it was just as important to provide financial as well as emotional support, which to them meant being present, spending time, being accessible, just “showing up.”

Looks pretty good for new fathers, but dig a little deeper…

On the surface, the findings paint a relatively positive work+life fit picture for new fathers but if you dig deeper you can see why fathers are reporting higher levels of conflict than mothers.  As Harrington pointed out in his presentation:

  • No career barriers from fatherhood, but no expectation of concessions either.  There may be no negative reactions to becoming a father which means there aren’t the same career barriers as the “motherhood penalty;” however, the other side is the workplace perception that fatherhood isn’t a meaningful role.  Therefore, fathers won’t make any concessions in terms of commitment to the organization.  This conflicts with the goal of new fathers to provide 50/50 care giving and provide emotional support for children.
  • Dads aren’t given time to dive into care giving.  When compared to the amount of leave mothers took when the child was born (2-6 months), most of the fathers only took 5-10 days off.  Therefore, fathers don’t have the same amount of time to immerse themselves in care giving as new mothers do before they go back to work.
  • Fathers are not an equal part of the broader work+life fit conversation.  These fathers are clearly searching for new definitions of what it means to be a good father and a good man; however, they have no outlets to explore these questions.  In fact, many of the participants thanked the researchers for asking them about their experiences of becoming a father, because it was the first time anyone had asked them to reflect on it.
  • The way men are portrayed in the media as incompetent, absent caregivers needs to change.  The stereotype is that dads can’t even change a diaper.  Harrington often presents on the topic of fatherhood with Dan Mulhern, who is the First Gentleman of Michigan (married to Governor Granholm).  And as Dr. Harrington noted, Mulhern will point out that it’s time for these negative stereotypes of fathers as incompetent caregivers to go away.  If we talked about women’s competency in the workplaces the way we talked about men’s competency as caregivers people would think it was outrageous.  This is about competency, not gender.

When asked what he hoped this study achieves, Dr. Harrington said, “We move beyond the perceived role of fathers.  It’s a conversation that needs to start.”  Hopefully, the time has come and we are ready.

For a great example of this dads movement in action, check out my post on “Rebeldad’s Pampers Protest—One Dad Says “Enough” and Many Others Follow.”

Ultimate goal: the need to flexibly manage your work+life fit is an issue for everyone

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After acknowledging that flexibly managing work and life is important to mothers and fathers, the next step in our level of readiness is to include the:

  • 49 million people in the U.S. who served as unpaid family caregivers to an aging adult in the last 12 months, of which 13 million cared for both a child and an adult at the same time.  (AARP/Met Life Foundation)
  • The “tens of millions of people between the ages of 44 and 70 (who) say they want encore careers,” as an alternative to retirement (Civic Ventures)
  • The people who work for the 79% of U.S. employers that said recent cost-cutting has impacted employee workloads; the 64% of employers that said cuts had an adverse impact on employee work-life balance, and the 69% that felt there had been an adverse affect on stress. (Towers Watson), and
  • Those who work while going to school, who volunteer, who pursue an avocation, etc. 

In other words, include everyone.  Unless we do, I fear that it will still be too easy to dismiss the need for fundamental, foundational change because, “Oh, it’s just an issue for parents.”  No, it’s an issue for all of us, including mothers and fathers.   I’m curious when we will be ready to take that final step.  What do you think?

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