Work-Life Balance as a Men's Issue, Too

What does it mean for working fathers?

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I had dinner recently with a group of Princeton undergraduates. The student who introduced me announced that I would be prepared to talk about anything that was on their minds: the presidential debates, foreign policy, work and family. A number of students asked foreign policy questions, and then a young woman asked me about the responses I have received to my Atlantic cover story from this past summer, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." I answered, and several other young women followed up. After ten minutes or so, I saw that the roughly 50 percent guys in the room had gone completely silent. When I commented on the suddenly one-sided nature of the conversation, one young man volunteered that he "had been raised in a strong feminist household" and considered himself to be fully supportive of male-female equality, but he was reluctant to say anything for fear he would be misunderstood. A number of the other guys around the table nodded in agreement.

That male silence is widespread, at least in public. Roughly 15 to 20 percent of the responses to my article that I have personally received have been from men. Many are from fathers who are very unhappy with the choices their daughters face. Others are from young men who want to be able to spend more time with their children and be fully equal parenting partners with their working wives but feel they don't have those options either. Indeed, a number of men have written to bemoan the strong gender stereotyping that they encounter, whereby a guy who wants to take paternity leave, flex-time, defer a promotion because the job up has too much travel, or simply needs to leave at 6 every night to pick up his kid from daycare, is regarded as insufficiently committed to his work or else just "not one of the guys." As Joan Williams and I wrote in a Labor Day op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, men are beginning to sue over this type of gender discrimination. Another man, a former member of the Special Forces, wrote me asking if my husband would write about his experience over the course of our marriage, to "prove that he is both a caregiver and an alpha male." I am more convinced than ever that the only way to make the kind of change we need to allow workers to build, provide, and care for strong families is to change conditions and cultural mores for men as well as women. But men have to join the conversation—publicly, candidly, and loudly.

A few men have ventured forth to have their say; their contributions have been illuminating. Just last week Ken Gordon wrote a great piece asking why he is not identified as a "working dad," even though he works from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. juggling the responsibilities of parenthood and work in the same way his wife does. He sees the label "working mom" and he says, rightly, that working dads deserve the same recognition. I found his position fascinating because I have been mulling from a different perspective why we don't talk about "working fathers" the way we talk about "working mothers." As I see it, we need the adjective "working" when we talk about mothers because our deep assumption is still that "mothers" are in the home. If they are not in the home we need a special adjective to make that clear. Conversely, as Gordon recognizes, "fathers" are by definition in the workplace, so adding "working" would be superfluous.

This difference is just one example of the many ways our language still reinforces traditional stereotypes and sends negative messages, something I am exploring in the book I am writing. But it never occurred to me that from a working father's perspective, "working mother" now connotes being both a breadwinner and a caregiver. It's a dual status that, in Gordon's words, equals a "master of multi-tasking," a "kind of real-life superhero." Many women would question whether "working mother" is always seen as a badge of honor, but the upshot is that we can both agree that we should all start talking about "working fathers" as well as "working mothers." That shift would at one stroke take a big step toward defining work-family issues as a social and economic issue rather than a "women's issue." As Jena McGregor wrote in the Washington Post last week, 60 percent of fathers reported feeling work-family conflict in 2008, yet politicians seem to notice these issues only when they are trying to woo women voters.

Other men who have weighed in with interesting observations and appeals are Andrew Cohen, who wrote a powerful and moving piece about "having enough"; Gara Lamarche, weighing in from the perspective of a working grandfather helping out his daughter and son-in-law; and Kunal Modi, the co-president of the Harvard Business School students association, who urged his fellow male students to "Man Up" and do their part to ensure that their female counterparts could have the same careers they expect for themselves. The first comment on my original article is from a thoughtful investment banker who wrote he had quit his job and become self-employed because it was the only way his wife was going to be able to achieve her ambitions. But we need to hear from many, many more of you. That is why this new channel is called "The Sexes," it is for both sexes to discuss the many eternal but also ever-new issues between us in ways that permit genuine conversation that can help trigger and shape change. It's also to learn from each other about what is actually working out there re: making the work-family juggle easier to manage.

So. To the guys out there, what are your pet peeves about the way the debate about work-family unfolds? What changes would you like to see? What points of view get overlooked? What are the things you wish you could say but don't dare? (Invent a co-worker or friend and report on his views if that feels safer. It's a time honored technique in therapy.) Do you secretly long for the mythical days when you would come home and have your wife greet you at the door with your slippers and a martini, with a gourmet dinner awaiting and your kids all bathed and in their pajamas, waiting for a rough-house or a bed-time story before drifting sweetly off to sleep? (Many working women would join you in that dream ...) Do you want to be able to stay home, at least for a while? I just found out that the Navy allows a three-year "pause" for all its members, men and women, without hurting their career prospects. Do you wish this whole debate would just go away? (Quite a few men have basically said to me, "Thanks a lot. That was one doozy of a fight my wife/girlfriend and I had after she read your article!")

What are you thinking? Write and tell us. Leave a comment on this page, or if you want to send more private reflections (and then please identify yourself), send them to Better yet, talk to your friends and co-workers and write as a group. Let's broaden this conversation, and above all move it forward.