Why I Put My Wife’s Career First

The well-being of children, the status of women, and the happiness of men will depend on whether more fathers are willing to take on primary parenting roles.

Thomas Allen

Three years ago, my wife, Anne-Marie Slaughter, wrote in these pages about how difficult it remains for women to “have it all”—a family and a career. She’d recently left a high-powered job in Washington, D.C., to return to our home in Princeton, New Jersey, where I had been acting as lead parent to our children. Somewhat ironically, her article on work-life balance led her to increased prominence on the national stage, which reinforced my role as the lead parent of our two sons—a role I continue to fill today.

Here is the other half of our family’s story.

Anne-Marie and I went to college just as female graduates were beginning to outnumber their male counterparts, and, in many cases, to outperform them as well. Accordingly, my attitude toward my wife differed from my father’s stance toward my mother. I never doubted for a moment that her prospects were at least equal to my own. Neither did she.

We assumed from the start that we would approach child-rearing as “co-parents,” either equitably sharing duties or taking turns being the lead parent. At first, this worked out. Family-friendly terms of employment benefited us from the start. The universities where we have spent most of our careers—when our sons were born, we both taught at Harvard; later we moved to Princeton—resemble little Scandinavias in the United States, with policies most Americans can only dream of: maternity and paternity leave, flexible work schedules, generous vacation time, and long-term job security. We were also wealthy enough to afford high-quality day care and, once our children were in school, a housekeeper.

After taking leave following the birth of each of our two sons, I returned to work assuming my career trajectory would not really change. I planned to make extra time for the kids by being more efficient at the office. If Anne-Marie and I functioned as equal co-parents, in the short term helping each other to cope with work deadlines and travel, and in the longer term trading off periods of being the primary parent, everything would surely turn out fine. Our children would thrive, and we would still be able to grab professional brass rings as they passed by. We had bought into the prevailing wisdom among other dual-career families we knew: 50–50 parenting was not just desirable, but doable.

While our boys were young, it was. But then we hit a few obstacles that other two-career couples will likely find familiar. For one thing, taking turns was easier said than done. One spouse’s job responsibilities do not conveniently contract just as the other spouse’s duties expand. Nor are all careers created equal. From the beginning, Anne-Marie’s jobs at Harvard and Princeton imposed greater demands than mine, because she entered the university-administration track early on; she also accepted more outside leadership roles. And, as we learned, intense jobs tend to beget even more intense jobs—a phenomenon that, in Anne-Marie’s case, led to a deanship at Princeton, followed by one of the highest positions at the State Department, followed by the leadership of a major nonprofit.

We also discovered that as our children grew, parenting posed new challenges. Caring for a baby or a toddler was physically demanding, but we often found it a welcome change of pace from our day jobs. Over time, the picture changed. A teenager’s problems can be uniquely overwhelming, to both child and parent. The demands of school and extracurricular activities are relentless. Some children go off the rails. As puberty hit, our older son fell in with a bad crowd and began skipping homework, disrupting classes, and failing math. He alternately fought with me and tuned me out. Within a year, he was suspended from school and picked up by the police. The support and counsel he required were substantial, but he is now on a much more positive track. When, a few years later, our younger son entered adolescence, his challenges were less spectacular, but have also required much parental involvement.

Confronted with such realities, most two-career families sooner or later find that one person falls into the role of lead parent. In our family, I assumed that role. To be sure, Anne-Marie was actively involved with our boys, taking responsibility for specific chunks of their lives, like dealing with teachers and planning college trips. She was—and is—emotionally close to both sons. And, as she described in her article three years ago, she broke off her government service to help our older son through his rocky transition into adolescence.

But none of this is lead parenting. Lead parenting is being on the front lines of everyday life. In my years as lead parent, I have gotten the kids out of the house in the morning; enforced bedtimes at night; monitored computer and TV use; attempted to ensure that homework got done right; encouraged involvement in sports and music; attended the baseball games, piano lessons, plays, and concerts that resulted; and kept tabs on social lives. To this day, I am listed first on emergency forms; I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis. These tasks aren’t intrinsically difficult, and my to-do list is far shorter than that of parents who cannot afford household help. Yet the role has unavoidably taken a toll on my professional productivity.

Still, there was never really any question that the role would fall to me. Anne-Marie’s job duties are incompatible with being a lead parent: When a TV network seeks an interview, a CEO calls a board meeting, the secretary of state seeks your advice, or a donor wants you to travel to a fund-raising meeting, showing up is nonnegotiable. For years, Anne-Marie has rarely been home for more than a couple of dinners a week, except during holidays.

Our decision to designate me lead parent was unusual. In the overwhelming majority of two-career households, women pick up any slack. According to a Pew Research Center study, 50 percent of married or cohabiting women report doing more child care than their male partners, whereas just 4 percent of men do more than their female partners. This disparity has a devastating effect on women’s careers. Researchers refer to the gap between male and female wages and seniority as the “motherhood penalty,” because it is almost entirely explained by the lower earnings and status of women with children. Despite their superior performance in college, surprisingly few women reach the pinnacles of professional success: They account for only 21 percent of surgeons, 20 percent of law-firm partners, and 9 percent of equity-fund managers.

The nearly impossible expectations facing professional women pose a stark dilemma for ambitious young people planning two-career marriages. One option is to try to tough it out, which some couples manage, but others do not. A recent study of Harvard Business School graduates reveals that the vast majority of alumnae initially expect their career and their spouse’s career to rank equally. However, among those who have kids, more than two-thirds end up doing most of the child care. Another option is not to have children. Wharton School research shows that an increasing number of young professional couples are opting to forgo child-rearing altogether.

More than a quarter century has passed since Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift powerfully made the case that women cannot compete fairly with men when they are doing two jobs and men are doing only one. The classic response has been to ask men to help more at home. But “help” is not what is needed. Men must also take the lead.

Among those mothers who are beating the grim odds and succeeding in the most-demanding jobs, a startling number have a lead dad in the wings. As Anne-Marie puts it in her new book, Unfinished Business, “This is the dirty little secret that women leaders who come together in places like Fortune magazine’s annual Most Powerful Women Summit don’t talk about: the necessity of a primary caregiver spouse.” A female business executive willing to do what it takes to get to the top—go on every trip, meet every client, accept every promotion, even pick up and move to a new location when asked—needs what male CEOs have always had: a spouse who bears most of the burden at home.

Stepping into this role will not be easy for most men. Workplace rules and expectations must change, or else lead fathers will pay an unacceptable professional penalty. Over the past decade, the quantity and quality of my research has suffered, yet I remain a productive political scientist at a top university. In most careers outside of academia, however, my role as a lead dad would have been impossible. Recent sociological studies suggest that although Millennial men desire marriages with egalitarian gender roles, the lack of family-friendly workplace rules is forcing them into relatively traditional gender roles once they have children.

And even when family-friendly policies are in place, dads face subtler psychological, cultural, and social obstacles. In many cases, studies show, they are stigmatized for taking advantage of such policies. The very idea of men as lead parents still makes many people uncomfortable at a deep and often subconscious level. Nothing quiets a dinner-party conversation more quickly than a chance mention of the fact that my wife outearns me. Pew polls show that 42 percent of Americans now view the “ideal” family for child-rearing as one in which Dad works full-time and Mom works part-time; about half prefer that she not work at all. Only 8 percent believe children are better off with Dad at home. About two-thirds of Americans believe that a married man should be able to support his family financially, yet only a third say the same about a woman.

The cultural barriers to male lead parenting only grow stronger as children—and parents—age. A dad in his 20s or 30s who takes some time off to care for an infant is adorable. (Think of those Samsung commercials with Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell.) But a dad in his 40s or 50s who limits his work schedule or professional ambition to attend to a teenager is suspect—not least to some women, ironically. When Anne-Marie was interviewed by Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival about how work and family are balanced in our household, a woman in the audience asked me—without apparent irony—to stand up so she could make sure “he really still is an alpha male.”

To be sure, there is fun to be had scoring brief triumphs over the stereotypes. On a trip to China, I once stunned a busload of corporate leaders and their wives into silence by holding my own on the euro with the executives—all male, all seated in front—then turning to the back to discuss with the women which Web site had the best selection and prices for bedsheets. Yet maybe to buck gender roles in this way, you need the type of secure professional reputation that an Ivy League professorship offers. When I shared this story with a full-time stay-at-home dad, the insightful Huffington Post commentator Liam Robb O’Hagan (who is married to Sarah Robb O’Hagan, the president of the fitness company Equinox), he rightly observed that few men could get away with tweaking stereotypes as I did.

For men, lead parenting can also be lonely. Parent networks are essential for raising children. They transmit crucial information—about good and bad teachers, carpooling, extracurricular activities, summer camps, and much else. These networks tend to be dominated by moms who understandably invest a lot in them socially. At school events, the moms gossip with each other and make plans; I get out my laptop and try to catch up on work. As a fully employed dad with a professorial personality, I find the scene impenetrable. A lawyer I know in San Francisco who managed much of his daughter’s education is more scathing: “At best, the moms tolerate you; at worst, they shun you.” The result is that, except around organized sports, most fathers have difficulty finding buddies from whom to seek support. If you are a man contemplating lead parenting, one of your first imperatives should be to find other lead dads. You will need them.

Finally, lead fatherhood can feed a pervasive sense of inadequacy. Juggling caring and career leaves me feeling that I am doing a bad job as both a parent and a professional. This should not have surprised me. Had I read decades of writing by working mothers, I would have known that “I am not doing anything well” is a mantra. Still, I suspect that this brew of frustration and inadequacy may be tougher on men than it is on women, because men are taught early on that we are—or should be—in control. Losing control is emasculating. But if you don’t have the sense that things are out of control much of the time, you’re not really a lead parent. You’re just helping out.

Promoting gender equality is laudable. Yet if taking the lead at home is so tough, many men may wonder what is in it for them. The answer is a lot.

First, being a lead dad can be good for your marriage. I am passionately committed to academic research and teaching, and I value professional success. But Anne-Marie is more competitive and driven than I am. Her achievements make me proud, and the balance we have struck leaves us happier as a couple.

Second, lead dads have something special to offer their children. I believe my sons have benefited from having me at home, and not simply because they needed someone to care for them while Anne-Marie was away. A former senior colleague of mine at Harvard argues that men are biologically unsuited to care for children, but the opposite may be true. In my experience, dads tend to take a practical, project-oriented, and disciplined yet fun-loving approach to parenting—an approach that is in many cases precisely what is called for, particularly with boys.

The third and most fundamental reason for men to embrace a more egalitarian and open-ended distribution of family work is that doing so can foster a more diverse and fulfilling life. Polls suggest that men feel as great a conflict between work and family as women do (and in some polls, a greater conflict). Both sexes are trapped in the same system, which has defined a one-dimensional role for each. By being a lead parent, men can get what many moms have long had—a very close relationship with their kids.

Despite many days of weariness, I would never give up my years of being what the journalist Katrin Bennhold has called “The One”—the parent my child trusted to help master his first stage role, the parent who shared my child’s wonder at his first musical composition, the parent my boys called for when they needed comfort in the night. When my sons turn to me in this way, I feel a pride that is in many respects deeper than any pride I have experienced professionally.

Lead parenting is not merely its own reward; it also unlocks a capacity for caring and closeness that can last a lifetime. We know that support networks of friends and family help people tolerate adversity and live longer. Perhaps female advantages in these areas could help explain why women typically outlive men. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper speculates that women’s “nesting and family-protecting roles” and “social planning and networking behaviors” could contribute to their sex’s resilience and relative longevity.

At the end of life, we know that a top regret of most men is that they did not lead the caring and connected life they wanted, but rather the career-oriented life that was expected of them. I will not have that regret.

Related Video

Anne Marie Slaughter discusses her blockbuster cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" with Hanna Rosin in 2012