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Excelling at the New Work–Life Balance

Shifting dynamics of the American family mean that everyone’s role is changing

by Austin O’Connor

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Author Anne-Marie Slaughter has just told me, in so many words, that dads like me are the Gloria Steinems of my generation of men, and I’m not sure whether to take it as a compliment.

First, the backstory: In our family, I spend more time at home with our four young kids than my wife does. That’s by design, as her job pays more and requires that she be physically present at her office more often than mine does. For us, it makes sense for me to be home more to help with the kids’ homework, carpools, doctors’ appointments, field trips and any other activities that arise. We have a part-time nanny, but we think it’s important for a parent to be around as much as possible.

It sounds like such a simple equation, doesn’t it? Parent A makes more money, and thus, for the good of the family, needs to focus more on his or her job; Parent B may still work, but needs to be able to focus more time and attention on child care—in my case, that means opting to work part-time and, as often as is practical, from home.

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But throw gender into the mix and it’s not so simple at all. It turns out, the changing concept of the American family hasn’t really changed that much. Even though some studies say as many as 40 percent of women are their family’s primary breadwinner, the traditional concept of family gender roles—the man provides, the woman looks after the children—endures, even as this arrangement becomes increasingly rare. It’s ingrained in American culture. It’s in our nature. It’s in the Bible, for goodness sake.

So when traditional gender roles are reversed—when it’s the dad who spends more time at home and the mom who’s working the long hours, everything gets more complex, from the pragmatic, family schedule-keeping side to the emotional, parental guilt-ridden, constantly second-guessing side.

What makes this reversal of traditional roles so complicated? That brings us back to Slaughter, who examined the evolving notion of spouses, families and work in her best-selling 2015 book Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, which was just released in paperback with a new afterword by the author. She eschews euphemisms and calls skepticism about a man spending more time at home with the kids while a woman spends more time at work exactly what she thinks it is.

“These dads are like the women of the early 1970s. Those early women were regarded as freaks.”

—Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family

“It’s just another kind of sexism,” says the author, who also dismisses terms like stay-at-home mom or stay-at-home dad in favor of the gender-neutral “lead parent.” “But people don’t see it that way. It is making a presumption based on deep stereotypes. It’s not OK.”

And this is where I become Gloria Steinem. “These dads are like the women of the early 1970s,” she says. “Those early women were regarded as freaks.”

Of course, what separates me from Gloria Steinem (among many things, in fact) is that she was a pioneer in the women’s rights movement, and I am only one of many, many dads who are collectively re-setting the foundational tenets of modern fatherhood. Many cultural shifts are contributing, including the growing workplace presence of millennials, a generation for whom equal parenting roles are taken more generally as a given, and same-sex couples, particularly gay men who are raising children. In addition, the economic downturn last decade put more men out of work than women, altering, temporarily or otherwise, the landscape of parental responsibility for many families as well.

Slaughter, 58, a foreign policy expert who served in the State Department under Hillary Clinton, stumbled into her side career as a work-family balance expert almost by accident. In 2012, after leaving her prominent State Department post to return home to New Jersey and focus more on raising her two teenage sons, she penned an article for The Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The piece sparked a maelstrom of debate and became one of the most widely read essays ever to appear in the magazine.

The incendiary article, which served as the jumping off point for Unfinished Business, was aimed primarily at working women who hoped to have children, a group who, according to the essay’s premise, still encounter the same hurdles and slam into the same roadblocks that their predecessors did, some forty-plus years after the dawn of the women’s liberation movement. But in expanding her essay into a book, Slaughter realized she needed to address the issue with a wider lens: work-family balance isn’t just a women’s issue, and it isn’t even just a young person’s issue. The shifting dynamics of the American family mean that everyone’s role is changing, and no one is certain just how to act.

Everyone’s behavior and assumptions about family roles needs to change, she says. Companies must be more open to flexible work schedules for their employees who are raising children, a shift she says is already ongoing. More important, the notion of the so-called “mommy track”—there’s that sexism again, as no one ever calls it the “daddy track”—must be abolished. Deciding to work part-time or flex hours when raising kids shouldn’t take a person, female or male, off the track for promotions and upward advancement, Slaughter says. “We are seeing glimmers on the horizon,” particularly in leading-edge industries like tech.

Employers must also realize that the issue extends beyond just the younger members of their work force. With Americans living longer than ever, it’s now increasingly likely that workers in their 50s and 60s will need flexibility to help take care of their parents. Unlike with raising a child, there’s less traditional male/female breakdown to caring for an older parent.

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Care. The word comes up again and again, in my chat with Slaughter and in her book. She thinks the antidote to all the complication may come down to a fundamental shift in what our society cares about: We have always valued those who invest in themselves more than those who invest in others. Traditionally, those who provide care for others hold less stature. Given that all of us—everyone—require care at various times in our lives, the dismissiveness toward those who provide it is a paradox. And of course changing how we think about care, like the math that keeps one parent at work and the other closer to home, isn’t simple at all. It’s complicated, slow moving and often feels unsolvable, but Slaughter says it has to happen.

Just as the switch away from traditional child care gender roles has to happen, too. After speaking to Slaughter, I hang up the phone wondering whether my wife and I are doing the right thing, and wondering why being a dad who’s also a “lead parent” sometimes makes me feel like a freak, to use Slaughter’s word.

It’s a conundrum, and one I’ll need to ponder at a later time. For now, I’m off to pick up my 2-year-old son from his “mommy’s day out” preschool and take him to his “mommy and me” tumbling class. And by the way, about that Steinem comparison—I’ve decided to take it as a compliment.