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Balancing Work and Family

Early last year, a mid-level manager for a large microelectronics company faced a dilemma. He had long before promised his wife and children that he'd go to a special evening church service that his spouse had helped organize. Then, a few weeks before the event, his boss told him that a major client had scheduled a meeting halfway across the country for that same night. Torn between the two choices, the man agonized over what to do.

After much deliberation, he decided to go out on a limb. He told his boss he wouldn't be available on that night and asked if the client meeting could be rescheduled. His boss said no. "After that, I wasn't called upon to give input into matters involving that customer," he says. "I was able to be with my family that night, but I believe it hurt me careerwise."

Dilemmas like this are the everyday stuff of fatherhood today -- and they tear men up inside, though their struggle often doesn't show. Should you work late to meet a deadline or get home in time to see your kids? Accept a late-night business call or continue helping your son with homework? Network with colleagues at a weekend conference or go to your daughter's soccer game? Whatever choice a man makes threatens to leave someone -- his boss, his child, his wife -- unhappy. "I feel like I'm constantly disappointing my family and people at work," the mid-level manager says, "because I'm not doing justice to either."

Mothers, of course, have been saying the same thing for years. But increasingly, men are admitting to angst about the competing demands of work and family. According to a recent study by the Families and Work Institute (FWI), a New York City research organization, 70 percent of men say strains on family life are an issue for them -- compared to 60 percent five years earlier. But because the "daddy dilemma" is so rarely acknowledged, men who make decisions favoring their family over their job make a louder statement than women who do, and potentially suffer more harm to their career. "When companies -- and even employees -- talk about the family-friendly workplace, it's often assumed that the beneficiaries are working mothers," says James Levine, Ph.D., director of FWI's Fatherhood Project and author of Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family (Harcourt Brace, 1998). "People are just beginning to understand that dads want flexibility from their employers too."

As things stand, "a lot of fathers feel they are in an almost impossible situation," says Michael Connor, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, who studies the ways fathers balance professional and personal commitments. "There just aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done, so very few men today feel in control of their lives."

One root of the problem for today's dad is that most men have wives who work. So for purely pragmatic reasons, they have had to help out more with the kids and around the house. Indeed, studies find that in recent decades, men's average chore time has gone up by about an hour while women's has dropped by 36 minutes (though overall, women still do most of the housework). But today's father not only has to be more involved -- he wants to be. "Even though fathers often seem to put a higher priority on career than family, men today say they want to be very involved with their children," says Ted Cohen, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University, in Delaware, Ohio.

Their involvement is clearly good for children: Studies find that caring fathers have a number of positive effects on kids' development, including boosted confidence and self-control. But as men have taken on more at home, workplace demands have soared as well. Far more workers today say they must toil "very hard" or "very fast" than was the case 20 years ago, and 60 percent say they don't have time to finish all their tasks. As a result, men work an average of three and a half more hours a week than they did two decades ago, and about a third of them bring work home at least once a week.

On paper, companies boast that they're family-friendly: The Family and Medical Leave Act requires firms with more than 50 employees to offer unpaid leave to eligible workers for personal or medical reasons, and many companies have begun offering programs to help parents juggle competing demands. Some businesses help employees find day care. At other companies, managers are encouraged to be flexible with hours. Yet few men take advantage of these benefits. The U.S. Department of Labor confirms that men with young children are far less likely than women to take time off under FMLA. Though about a third of fathers with young children take some time off, significant numbers of men never ask for their entitled paternity leave.

Economics is part of the reason: Men are more likely than women to have full-time jobs and serve as the main breadwinner in the family. But just as important, according to government surveys, workers fear that putting a priority on family will hurt their prospects for advancement or make them lose seniority.

Matt Tomley*, a marketing manager at a Dallas firm, thinks those fears are justified. Seven weeks before his wife was due to deliver their second child, the company asked him to take on a six-week assignment in Boston. When he declined because he feared he would miss the birth, his boss chillingly replied, "This could hurt your career." Three weeks later, he was laid off in a company-wide cutback. "I can't prove it wouldn't have happened anyway," he concedes. "But when an organization is trying to be lean and mean and there's a guy who's not adapting to conventional expectations, it makes sense to cut that one."

Are the pressures any different for fathers than they are for mothers? Men say yes. "For the sake of diversity, companies need to be perceived as woman-friendly and need to have examples of 'mommy track' executives who have made it," says a mid-level manager at one Fortune 500 company. "But no one in his right mind is going to hold up that kind of standard for men -- and they don't have to, because there are lots of young bucks who will make the necessary sacrifices if I don't."

Men often have trouble fighting these harsh realities because, deep down, they accept them as reasonable -- even good. Experts say that cutthroat competition is part of a male code that works against caring fathers because it does not allow men to appear weak, especially to each other. "You're pushed from boyhood to win," says Dr. Connor, who often sees male clients passing these values along to their sons in competitive youth sports. "At work, that means guarding information, jockeying for influence, practicing one-upmanship, and not appearing vulnerable by making your conflicts about family obvious." In not sharing concerns, men pretend they don't exist, and even fathers who experience significant work-family tension don't feel justified in asking for flexibility. "Men expect other men to keep contributing, and if you take off time from work, there's a feeling that you owe something," one dad says.

Furthermore, many men have a deeply rooted commitment to being the breadwinner -- even when they have a wife whose earning power equals or surpasses their own. Psychologists say that many men still feel it's ultimately their responsibility to provide for their families. Perhaps that explains why researchers at the University of Washington, in Seattle, recently discovered that instead of working less after the birth of a child, the average man works about 58 hours a year more.

In order to work longer hours and also spend more time with their kids, men cut back on social and leisure activities. And they often sacrifice sleep. Sam Krasnow*, a night-shift supervisor at a New Jersey manufacturer, goes to bed at 6 a.m. and gets up after less than three hours to take his son to school. "It's the only time I see him all day," says Krasnow, who has a two-hour daily commute. "Sometimes I'm so worn out that I kind of stumble through it, but my son needs a father around."

The larger fight for balance continues to be fought every day, often by fathers still nursing their wounds. Tomley, who landed a job at a public-relations firm after being fired from his Dallas marketing job, recently refused to attend a hastily called weekend meeting that conflicted with a Girl Scout camping weekend that he had long promised to attend with his 7-year-old daughter. This time, his boss -- a man with a daughter the same age -- understood. "The meeting turned out to be pretty uneventful, so it didn't matter that I missed it," he says. "I made a choice, and things turned out fine. It was definitely the right decision."

*Names have been changed.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the February 2002 issue of Parents magazine.