As I listened in to Boston College’s Center for Work & Family’s virtual “Fathers in the Workplace Forum” on Tuesday afternoon, I was immediately struck by two things:
One, an outpouring of more than 350 fathers had signed up for the lunch-time forum to hear about the center’s research on what father’s really want and whether they can “have it all.”
And two, how absolutely, unequivocally critical those first few weeks and months after a child is born are for setting patterns of behavior that will shape the future for both the mother and the father, as well as the child.
Even the most egalitarian-minded men and women, surveys and time studies have found, slide unconsciously, helplessly almost, into traditional gender roles once the baby arrives. Before long, the couples who promised to be equal partners find the mothers scaling back or reducing hours at work or dropping out of the workforce and fathers working as much as or more than ever to make up the earnings. But unlike in past generations, dads are feeling more stressed because they’re also doing more at home.
But is that what fathers really want?
Not according to the center’s fascinating series of studies in recent years involving nearly 1,000 fathers, most of them white-collar professionals with big jobs at Fortune 500 companies.
Yes, they want to do good work and they are ambitious: Nearly 80 percent told BC researchers that they wanted to advance to positions with greater responsibilities.
But that’s not all they want.
When asked why they valued their jobs, the ability to advance and earn more money came in fifth and sixth on their list. Job security – perhaps an artifact of asking the question on the heels of the Great Recession — came in No. 1, following by a sense of accomplishment, the fact that work is interesting and, most notably, they valued flexible work arrangements.
When asked to rank what equates with being a good father, these men put being physically and emotionally present for their children at the top of the list, and their role as a breadwinner number four out of six choices.
In fact, 77 percent of the fathers said, as other surveys have found, that they wished they had more time to spend with their kids.
As center director Brad Harrington explained to me in a recent interview, this is all part of a slow evolution leading to fairly massive social change. A generation ago, men were forced to step in at home when women began to work in the marketplace. Now, he said, more men are reaping “significant emotional rewards” from that more intimate family involvement.
Fully 86 percent said that being a good father is their number one priority. And more than half in one survey said that if money wasn’t an issue, they’d be willing to quit work to take care of children. (Harrington said that, by the U.S. Census Bureau’s strict definition, a scant 4 percent of fathers in married couples are stay-at-home dads. But other surveys, using more generous measures, have found that fathers are the primary caregivers for as many as 20 percent of all children under age five.)
“As men put their foot in the water and get more immersed with their kids, they start to realize what they’ve been missing,” he said.
In an admittedly unscientific quick poll during Tuesday’s virtual forum, fully 70 percent of the fathers online said they’d consider being an at-home parent.
“That shows a huge attitudinal shift about the legitimacy of at-home fathers,” Harrington said. “We didn’t expect the numbers to be that big.”
So that’s what fathers want. What have they got?
Work. When men become fathers, managers expect the same amount of work from them, Harrington’s research has found. And social science has shown that men tend to get a “fatherhood bonus,” because employers think they’ll be even more committed and hard working now they have a family to provide for. At the same time, mothers who return to work are in a “Catch-22,” Harrington said, with research showing that employers begin to think they’re less committed, less promotable and even less competent.
Fathers described their ideal: About two-thirds of the fathers surveyed said that the best arrangement would be to share equally in work, household chores and caring for children. Then confessed their reality: that same two-thirds said that their spouses did more work at home and with the children than they did.
“This is the source of the conflict and dissonance that men feel,” Harrington said during the virtual forum. “They feel they should be doing more, but they’re not living up to those aspirations.”
And that’s where workplace cultures and those first few days and weeks after the baby is born come in.
The Center found that professional women, on average, take between two and six months off after a child is born. But in their surveys, 96 percent of the men took less than two weeks off. And 16 percent took no time off at all.
So guess who is becoming used to the baby and his or her needs? Which parent has the time to learn that this kind of cry means the baby is hungry, and that kind of fussiness means its naptime? Mom.
Dad comes home from work, tired but eager to help, but often doesn’t quite know what to do. That’s why so many time-use research finds that fathers tend to be the “helper parent” and that their child care is typically done in the presence of the mother – which doesn’t give mothers much of a break nor does it build a father’s sense of confidence and competence.
“From the moment the train leaves the tracks, the mother is the primary caregiver and the father is the supporting actor,” Harrington said. “And nothing subsequent seems to change that trajectory once it gets started.”
I was struck by how different those trajectories are in countries where fathers are encouraged to take parental leave by government policy, workplace culture and even social pressure. Research done by father researchers I spoke to in Sweden and in Denmark have found that ensuring that fathers have solo parental leave, typically after a mother has finished her leave and the baby is six months or more, is the surest way to ensure a more egalitarian division of labor between parents at both work and home.
Denmark is on its way to full parity in the amount of time men and women spend at work and at home within the next few decades. If present trends continue, the United States, where mothers still put in twice the hours doing housework and child care, is 80 to 100 years at least away from that, time use researchers have found.
I spoke with Andreas Ottemo, a young father in Sweden who decided with his spouse from the start that they would equally share parental leave and work and home duties. He had just stayed home with his young daughter, Esther, who’d been sick. When Esther was born, his wife stayed home with her on paid maternal leave for nine months. Then Ottemo took over and stayed home on paid paternal leave for another nine months.
“I know it’s a cliché, but in some ways, quality time is quantity time,” he told me. “And if you don’t get good patterns set, and take responsibility from the start, it’s hard to do later on.”
It wasn’t easy – there were days when the former engineer felt flattened by another set of dishes to do or more laundry to wash rather than his neat check lists of “productive” accomplishments at work. “But I began to think of it as natural,” he said. “I really began to feel, ‘This is my kid, too.’”
For Ottemo, he had friends and colleagues who were active fathers and also taking parental leave. There was a lot of free discussion at work and among friends about the role of fathers and the importance of flexible work for family time.
And that, Brad Harrington said, is part of what motivated him to hold the virtual forum. In the United States, there are few places for fathers to talk openly about work and life issues – both about the conflicts between them, but also about how enriching full participation in both can be.
To that end, Harrington introduced the fathers of Deloitte Dads of Canada, a network of fathers who want to both, explained founder Andrew Hamer, “maintain an accelerated career trajectory, but also have an active co-parent role.”
The group offers education, advocacy, informal sessions for junior and senior dads to share stories about what’s working and what isn’t at the firm and opportunities for family fun. It also is active in charity. And the demand has grown so rapidly that they’re considering expanding beyond their Toronto offices and going nationwide in Canada. They are also talking to their counterparts in the UK, Australia and, yes, even the United States, where a vacuum in government leadership has left setting workplace culture and policy to individual firms and individual managers, whose attitudes and behaviors are all over the map.
“Women have been good having a voice in the feminist movement, saying ‘We have a place in the home, now we need a place in the workplace that is equal to men,’” Harrington said. “Men have been a lot less vocal and a lot less assertive to say, ‘We’ve got a place in the workplace, but we need to legitimize our place in the home.’”