There are more than 26 million single and married fathers with kids under 18 in the United States, but only around 176,000 choose to stay at home with their children. The rest are either working fathers, unemployed or on social security disability.
I am a working dad. Every day my wife leaves the house early and comes home late. It takes her at least an hour to get to work and often twice as long to get home. This means I have to get both our kids fed, dressed, pottied, brushed (hair and teeth) and packed for their days. I make lunches, distribute a daily dose of medicine to one child, solve crying fits, tie shoes, locate coats and away they go around 7:30 a.m. Then I have a few minutes to get myself ready, packed and out the door to drive to work.
I’m a college professor living about twenty minutes from my campus. I’m lucky to have a lot of flexibility built into my schedule. I work late into every night, but if there’s an emergency, a doctor’s appointment or a therapy visit (my son has Down syndrome), I can be the parent on call. During the day, if I’m not teaching in the late afternoon, I sneak home early to do laundry or dishes, keeping us just ahead of the housework. I expect to lose that time to extracurricular activities such as soccer practices, music lessons and martial arts as my kids get older.
Still, I am hardly alone in needing to find a way to make a lot of moving parts fit together. Working dads are so normal that we don’t even talk about it. A Google search for “working mom” or mother versus “working dad” or father comes out at a 10:1 ratio. Bing turns up a 20:1 ratio. A Google books search for “working mom” shows at least 15 times more results than “working dad,” and “working mother” breaks the chart.
Our silence on issues facing working dads is bad for men. It’s worse for women, because the idea that women are the default parents leads to all kinds of discrimination. In fact, it affects all caregivers, not just parents, but also those caring for spouses, parents, or a sick loved one. It’s even bad for people without children. Fundamentally, the “working-dad problem” is about patriarchy. Men and women get confined to definite gender roles and punished, or at least pushed back, whenever they transgress or transcend those norms. On the one hand, working dads lack the vocabulary to talk about the challenges of work-life fit. There is no neat, culturally accepted, set of norms from which working dads can integrate the various aspects of their lives. Often we’re just workers, not dads.
Yet this can also work to our advantage. Men typically cope with the stresses of work and life by compartmentalizing it. Usually, no one fears dads will be distracted from being good at their jobs because of their parental duties, at least not in the long term. In fact, talking about lack of sleep, diaper disasters and other issues associated with being a dad tends to humanize us in the eyes of our co-workers. Studies suggest that becoming a father generally leads to job advancement.
But what if you actually want to be a good caregiver and have your work respect that? Compartmentalization might have worked in an era when leaving the office meant the true end of the work day, but technology now blurs the lines between work and home for many people. If a working dad is, first and foremost, a worker, what happens when we turn off our phone, refuse to answer email at night and just try to focus on making dinner? Society reinforces the idea that men are supremely competent workers (and mechanics, athletes, carpenters, fighters) and totally incompetent and disinterested caregivers. Last Father’s Day, the most popular selling cards made jokes about paternal inability to do diapers, cook dinner, or go shopping.
Dads can’t shed the worker label. Working mothers, by contrast, face an entirely different, more pernicious, problem. Men have trouble integrating identities, but women can’t dis-entangle them. Working moms are inundated with discussions about “leaning in” and “having it all,” which assumes that their identity as mothers must always be present, an assumption that has long kept women from breaking through glass ceilings. The same studies that show men do better after having kids find a “mommy tax” for women. Women who have children suffer in their careers.
So moms worry about mentioning motherhood issues lest they get stuck on the “mommy track” in their jobs and lose opportunities for advancement. Dads can talk about all the fun stuff of parenting, but not the work involved with being a dad. People without kids cannot really ask for space in their lives. In high-pressure work environments, they are expected to work long hours, take every late or weekend meeting or obligation and as a result often resent parents and their built-in excuses. True, childless folk might get career advancement for doing extra work, but what happens when they get sick, or have to care for a parent or sibling, or when they need a break to maintain their own mental health?
Ultimately, the consequences for ignoring the working dad problem are severe for society as a whole. For example, we are more stressed than ever before. According to Bridgid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed,” men are struggling with their desire to be involved in all aspects of family life even as our culture and laws about work and family are still shaped by the early 20th century “breadwinner-homemaker” model of family organization. Women encounter these same difficulties, usually with even worse consequences for their careers.
Fixing the working dad problem requires changing the way we act, the way we think and the way we speak about how we organize our lives. And there are steps we can take to change the current understanding of fatherhood, parenting and caregiving. We can start by redefining our gender roles in ways that create space, not restrictions.
This Father’s Day, let’s commit to making “working dad” part of our lexicon. Language can’t solve everything but it’ll help expand the conversation about motherhood in the workplace to parenting. Then instead of simply talking about parenting, let’s consider caregiving. And from there, we can commit to respect for all aspects of work-life integration.