Nichole Smaglick has gone through what you might describe as a career pivot.
Today, she is the Minnesota-based CEO of Cooper & Kid, a quarterly subscription-based box that helps fathers bond with their kids. But for nearly 20 years, she ran a safari business in which she developed cultural tourism programs in Africa. While these two companies seem worlds apart, there’s one thing that connects them: In both, Smaglick has been fascinated by the relationships between fathers and their children. In Africa, Smaglick spent her days with warrior-based cultures, which have a long tradition of initiating boys into manhood with established rituals.
“What I noticed, bouncing back and forth between suburban midwestern America and rural, warrior-based Africa, was the difference in male development when you have this fatherhood-based initiation,” Smaglick says, pointing out that American culture has historically relegated fathers to the role of breadwinner and hasn’t created spaces or rituals for fathers to connect with their children. While African tribesmen have a script about how they should shepherd their children through their formative years, American dads are left to figure out what role to play in their kid’s lives. “In the U.S., it seemed to me that fathers are among the most ignored groups,” she says.
Smaglick’s observation is supported by research. Studies show that fathers are unsatisfied with their role in the family. Pew found that 46% of dads believe they are spending too little time with their children, even though the vast majority of fathers spend more time with their families than their own fathers did.
As gender dynamics have shifted and women have joined the workforce in droves, fathers have, by necessity, become more involved with childcare. The problem, though, is many dads are new to the role as a primary caregiver to their children, and most did not have a role model in their own fathers for how to be involved in their kid’s lives. Moreover, 50% of fathers say that they are struggling to balance their responsibilities at home and at work. While there is a national conversation about how hard it is for women to achieve work-life balance, that’s less common for men.
Since launching Cooper & Kid, which specifically targets dads who want to be involved with their children, Smaglick has observed the balancing act that American men experience. “What we tend to see most is the stress around the juggle,” she says. “They’re pulled between a definition of male success as defined by career, and their newfound commitment to have a great relationship with their kids.”
So what’s a dad to do?
“First and foremost, they need to start talking to their coworkers who are parents,” Smaglick says. “It doesn’t have to be in a support group; it can just be at the water cooler.” While millennial dads have been more vocal about their challenges as parents than generations before them, most men still feel uncomfortable talking about how hard it is to balance demanding jobs with responsibilities like taking their children to the doctor or picking them up from daycare.
But given how many dads are facing the very same challenges, Smaglick believes that change can come quickly when men speak up and acknowledge that what they are facing is now the norm. And perhaps more importantly, the more men are able to talk about their parenting responsibilities, the more they will be able to shape workplace policies that affect them. For instance, they might be able to lobby for things like paternity leave or the ability to work remotely when they need to keep an eye on a sick child.
While you don’t often get to choose your boss, Smaglick says that it is valuable for men to find workplaces that are family-friendly. There are many progressive companies that already think about the needs of employees who have parenting responsibilities. And even if this is not a possibility, men—like women—might find it valuable to seek out mentors and senior team members who are involved parents and can help them navigate some of the trickier parts of being a working dad.
Dads who try to be totally available to their children and their workplaces are setting themselves up for failure. While both men and women struggle with this, men are particularly prone to feeling like failures at work when home gets in the way, while women tend to feel more like failures when work gets in the way of parenting. Smaglick recommends trying, instead, to set clear boundaries at home and work about what they can do. “You can’t be taking every phone call from your kid at work, and every phone call from your boss at home,” she says.
Rather than constantly checking their email while they are at home and checking in with their babysitter while they are at work, she recommends staying laser focused on the task at hand— except, obviously, during emergencies. In fact, both families and employers are more likely to be understanding when a man has to leave during a crisis if his modus operandi is to be attentive the rest of the time.
Rather than spending time planning perfect trips to the zoo or the museum, Smaglick thinks it is better to opt for quicker, easier experiences. The point of her company is to provide dads with a quarterly box that gives them six hours of activities they can do with their kids. But she says that there are many other ways to simplify the process of spending quality time with kids. Go to a local playground rather than the botanical garden a long drive away. Have a stash of puzzles or games that you can do together so that you are not stuck trying to figure out what to do. Kids don’t need fancy, complicated activities: They just want to know they have their dad’s attention for a few hours.
Perhaps most importantly, men should have clear discussions with their partners about the role they want to play in the family. As gender roles are changing and becoming more fluid, it isn’t obvious what anyone’s responsibilities are at home anymore. It might not be totally clear to a mother, for instance, that her husband would like to be involved with feeding their infant at night, and would prefer not to be in charge of grocery shopping. A dad might not realize that his wife misses cooking and would prefer if he looked after the kids after work to give her the chance to spend time in the kitchen.
“In a relationship, each person is going to come to the table with different values about money, love, and parenting,” Smaglick says. “Just being able to express their values is very helpful.” These kinds of conversations can be very productive; They can avoid a situation where both parents feel disappointed or like they are letting the other person down.