The Daddy Trap

Men face greater expectations at home. But work isn't giving them the slack they need

Jeffrey Welch thought he had the work-life thing figured out. Five years ago, newly married, he quit the 14-hour-a-day partner track at an upper-drawer law firm for a staff job at a large New York bank, seduced by the promise of saner hours and time for a family. The family arrived soon enough--a baby, a move to the suburbs, then another child. Time, though, proved a mirage: As his department took on more work without adding attorneys, his job intensified.

Tonight, as has become the norm, Welch won't make it home before his daughters, ages 4 and 1, fall asleep. His wife Carroll, a part-time lawyer, will put them to bed. And tomorrow morning, he'll head to the office again soon after they wake up. "I'd like to participate more in school or camp stuff, but I can't manage my schedule in a way to allow that," he says. "I'm letting go of everything for myself, except for exercise on weekends. And I've given up any attempt to manage our finances."

Welch pauses. He has brooded over this for months now, with no satisfying answers. Yes, he's making good money, providing nicely for his family. But "I want to be a parent who's involved," he says. "I want to be a dad who, 30 years down the road, my kids say, `Yeah, he was a big part of our life.' And right now, I'm not that."

If you're a working father, you probably feel Welch's pain. Your own dad, king of his castle, didn't quite prepare you for the rigors of the two-income family. He kicked back with a beer and the paper at day's end, while mom whipped up a meat loaf and you played at a respectful distance. Today, you're on the hook for that dinner and some of the housework, too--but your job seems more demanding than dad's ever was.

Across the country, men are battling just such angst. "Right now, my entire life is work," says Darrell Shelton, a 42-year-old paint repair specialist at Ford Motor Co.'s assembly plant in Chicago Heights, Ill., who cares for his daughter while his wife works nights. After a 10- or 12-hour shift, "I've got to get Rebecca, get everything straightened out at home, maybe sit down for a minute, get something to eat, get the baby's plate, then go play with the baby. You just don't ever stop." Says Gary Dunn, an inspector for the Lucas County (Ohio) Sanitary Engineering Dept. and father of three: "I'm trying to serve all these masters--between the kids, my wife, my job, the union, athletics. I'm doing the best I can."

These men--and you, perhaps--are caught in the Daddy Trap. In the last two decades, expectations of men at home have intensified dramatically. Dads are more involved with their families, and in general they enjoy that heightened role. Yet their jobs haven't adjusted. Faced with pressure to take on more child-rearing and household chores, fathers still find themselves locked into rigid full-time jobs.

Some of the tension is workplace-inflicted. A lot is self-imposed. The result, in either case, is conflict, guilt, and stress. It turns out that dads are no more satisfied than moms with their work-family balance, according to a sample of 6,328 working parents derived from BUSINESS WEEK's 1997 survey of corporate work and family programs, conducted with the Center for Work & Family at Boston College. Surprisingly, dads are more likely than moms to say work spills over into home life, the data show--and quicker to complain that employers demand too much at the expense of family (charts, page 58).

It is a phenomenon that only recently has drawn serious scrutiny from employers and human resources researchers. As women have poured into the labor force, many companies have tried to address the urgent needs of working mothers--particularly, child care and job flexibility. But dads? They mostly have been overlooked. "Even work-life champions don't think about that," says Ellen Bankert, director of the Center for Work & Family.

"UNWITTING COLLUSION." Such neglect, of course, has made a certain sense. Employers have been loath to lose female workers who, faced with work-life conflict, historically have been quicker to seek out new jobs or leave the labor force entirely. Men, true to stereotype, have tended to react more stoically. "The thing I'm always struck by is how much men keep this to themselves," says James A. Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project, a New York research group, and author of "Working Fathers." "There's this unwitting collusion between men and women and employers. No one wants to put this on the table, so the assumption is perpetuated that it's a woman's issue."

The silence is lifting, though. Listen to guys talking in health-club locker rooms, at business lunches, or on factory floors. Their conversations turn persistently to fathering and work-life balance. In dozens of interviews with dads across the demographic and occupational spectrum, the tensions sparked by job and fatherhood surface quickly. Men's attitudes and actions, slowly and sometimes painfully, are changing. And employers are starting to notice. "Obviously, there's a need out there" for more support, says Betty K. Purkey, work-life programs manager at Texas Instruments Inc.

Dads' evolution in the workplace follows a revolution at home. In surveys for the Families & Work Institute, a New York research group, married men last year said they spent 2.1 hours per workday on household chores, up from 1.2 hours in 1977. Men also said they spent 2.3 hours per work- day on child care, half an hour more than two decades earlier. In both areas, women reported spending less time.

To which, of course, many women will mutter, "Yeah, right." In truth, such data probably overstate men's contribution. Studies by University of Maryland time expert John P. Robinson, based on logs of people's activities, indicate a smaller shift. Moreover, despite the hours they put in, dads' roles are often vague and secondary--either because fathers haven't seized the initiative or because their wives haven't let them. "Our expectations are so low, as mothers, wives, and co-workers, that we give a lot of credit for not much and don't expect more," Bankert argues.

Whether or not they actually take on responsibility at home, though, dads say they feel growing pressure to do so. And in many households, especially where both parents work, men's expanded involvement has become indispensable. Darrell Shelton, the Ford worker, cleans house and spends Sundays grilling all the family's dinners for the week. Dunn, the sanitary engineering inspector, does laundry and dishes, takes his kids to doctors appointments, and makes every parent-teacher conference. "I put everything second to the kids," he says.

That's a common, usually heartfelt refrain. The reality, though, is more complex. While men say they attach as much importance as women to their families, they haven't compromised their careers as often. Dads in full-time jobs work between three and five hours a week longer than full-time working moms in comparable occupations. And while, in many companies, men are just as likely as women to arrange for flextime or telecommuting, they're far less willing to seek part-time work, quit the workforce for a few years, or even take a few weeks' paternity leave--more radical options that require giving up pay.

In purely economic terms, this is easily explained. On average, guys still make 35% more than their wives, so cutting back on work makes less financial sense. Many researchers, too, say workplace cultures demand more of men than women. While supervisors mostly understand that their female employees play key family roles, Levine argues, men are more likely to be drafted for overtime or an extra meeting.

There's more to it, though. If dads felt strongly enough, they could challenge such cultural biases. Yet men still tend to feel a stronger attachment than women to their jobs. Women, on the other hand, generally feel more passionately about their children, and so "are more likely to pull back on careers," observes New York University sociologist Kathleen Gerson.

That gap in attitudes is startlingly pervasive. In the Families & Work Institute survey, half of both working fathers and working mothers agreed with the statement: "It is much better for everyone involved if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children." The old breadwinner ethic, in fact, still guides men's behavior, even in the 13% of households where the wives make more. It may be archaic, but "it has been ingrained in us for so many generations," says Graeme D. Roberts, a father of three and a marketing executive at Gradient Lens Corp. in Rochester, N.Y. "You can decry that, but if I didn't feel I could provide, I would think less of myself. I think a lot of men feel that way."

Such men tend to justify long hours and stressful work as a means to a greater end. V.D. Sterling works six days a week as a train engineer for Union Pacific Corp., often responding to a dispatcher's call within minutes and then overnighting in motels. He keeps going because he loves the work and because he can make up to $100,000 a year. "I put it like this," he says, watching his 2-year-old daughter on a rare day at home. "I've taken my family on a cruise every year since I've been working, sometimes twice. We've been to Europe. If you're looking for a nine-to-five job where you're going to be with your family, you've come to the wrong place with the railroad. But I think it's worth it."

HEAD GAMES. Such stolid machismo, reinforced by workplace norms, prevents many fathers from striking the work-family balance they say they want. That's especially true among production and clerical workers, who complain of longer days and far less flexibility than do female peers. Why? Even though blue-collar employees tend to be less career-driven, experts suggest, their work environments are characterized by more traditional views of gender roles.

And men in such jobs are less likely to voice any objections. Jimmy Gellentine, a 31-year-old loading-dock worker at Overnite Transportation Co. in Memphis, struggled to juggle his evening job with the care of his daughter. His wife, Denise, wanted him to move to a day shift, but "I didn't even bother to ask, because I didn't want to be seen [by co-workers] as kissing up to management" by seeking special treatment, he says. Gellentine recently won the job by virtue of seniority--as he wanted--but four years after the fact.

Similar, but more subtle, head games play out in the managerial ranks. Craig G. Byquist, 35, is a manufacturing engineering manager for Hewlett-Packard Co. in Lake Stevens, Wash. He limits his hours to fewer than 10 a day so he can get home in time to help with dinner and tuck his kids, Nathaniel and Sarah, into bed. His job, like many at HP, is fairly flexible. It's no problem if he shows up late at the office when a child is ill. And he missed the company picnic for Nathaniel's fifth birthday party.

Even so, Byquist says, "there's a self-imposed pressure, when you get into an environment like HP's and you're surrounded by overachievers. You want to be successful, and you want the company to be successful." Given that, no man wants to be the first to blink. HP allows employees to take up to a year of unpaid leave after the birth of children or other personal events, but "I didn't take it, and I don't know any [other men] who did," Byquist says. HP's manager of work-life programs, Jerry Cashman, says such "fear of compromise" is rife among men age 35 to 52, who are defining their careers.

Some employers have started to address the tangle of male emotion, tradition, and frustration--recognizing that fathers have somewhat different needs and attitudes than moms. HP saw that far fewer men than women were using a telephone-based resource service that helps employees with dependent care and other problems. In focus groups, it found that men didn't like the idea of engaging in conversation about such matters; they simply wanted information. Now, HP is testing an Internet-based supplement to the service.

Marriott International Inc., similarly, is rolling out a series of seminars on fatherhood geared specifically to its hourly male hotel workers. "We have tons and tons of programs that address work-life balance," says Vice-President Donna Klein. "But we designed this fatherhood piece specifically because fathers weren't coming to the parent training." Indeed, companies that have sponsored Levine's "DaddyStress" seminars, lunchtime programs that explore fatherhood issues, report unusually heavy attendance. At Texas Instruments, a session last year was oversubscribed 24 hours after it was advertised by E-mail.

Such companies are exploring father-specific initiatives because they realize that men, too, can become more productive workers if their families needs are better fulfilled. Some dads, moreover, will quit if they're unhappy enough. In fact, more men appear to be opting out of the labor force altogether to stay with their children full-time. Elan Krueger, 33, took over the care of his 2-year-old daughter, Madeleine, when his wife, Karin, won a high-paying job as a Washington lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America. Together, father and daughter explore the parks and pools around Bethesda, Md., where they live; dad does the laundry and cooks dinner every night.

"A BIT SCARY." Sure, he suffers self-doubt. Krueger remembers when he used to consider job applications as manager of a mountaineering store; then, he viewed with suspicion a five-year gap in a man's resume. "That's a little bit scary," he says, and it's why he's scouting out real estate deals on the side. Even if business arrives, though, he expects to keep working part-time from home. "My dad worked like crazy until I was 10," he says. "I wanted to be there from the beginning."

Krueger represents a tiny minority, of course. But there's evidence that more men are finding paths out of their traditional, career-driven molds. At companies such as NationsBank and IBM's Lotus Development, the number of men taking paid paternity leave has edged up in recent years. And Spencer Stuart, the executive recruiting firm, notes that more top-level male executives are refusing jobs that involve relocation. Bruce L. Entin, marketing vice-president at chipmaker LSI Logic Corp., turned down a promotion to head LSI's European operations five years ago so his three school-age kids could stay in California. That difficult decision, he says, "was where I came up with the philosophy that I'm going to be a father longer than I'll be a working man."

More working dads, too, are devising informal, cooperative solutions to ease the work-family strains. At the Ford plant in Chicago Heights, Kevin Pinckney and other production supervisors, many of them dads, share the load when one or another has to leave for a family emergency. Similarly, William L. Robinson and Tony Sinurdiak, maintenance engineers for the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, cover for each other two or three times a month--notably, when Robinson's son, Jay, then 5, injured his eye at school four years ago.

FITFUL CHANGE. A younger generation of dads probably will push well beyond such solutions. The Families & Work Institute found that Generation X men--those age 18 to 32--were far less likely to endorse the traditional breadwinner ethic than those of comparable ages 20 years ago. New York University's Gerson has found similar generational shifts in interviews with dozens of young men. A sign of blue-collar progress: Unions such as the United Auto Workers are raising work-family issues in contract talks.

The change, certainly, will come fitfully. Cultural barriers in the workplace remain powerful, as do dads' own conflicting instincts. "For men there's still this sense of: `What am I giving up?' They agonize much more over it," says Chuck Seiloff, a high-ranking Hewlett-Packard information systems manager who, at age 54, took a demotion and pay cut to devote more time to his grandchildren and other personal interests. Fathers may feel torn because the increasing openness of employers to flexible work options and shorter hours forces them to confront their internal breadwinner mind-set. "Having an easier choice makes them more accountable," as Seiloff observes.

Indeed, older men such as Arthur Brown Jr., an army general now retired in Hilton Head Island, S.C., say they never thought much about their career-centered roles and marvel at the multiple demands facing fathers today. "They have to be under tremendous stress," Brown says. "How they're handling it all must be incredible."

Brown and many of his generation largely applaud such change. Their sons' lives may be unfamiliar and complex, but they seem more rewarding, too. In grappling with old gender roles at work and at home, in confronting the conflict, guilt, and stress, men are beginning to consider anew what fathers should be. As they do, more will redefine their work-life balance--and, perhaps, escape the Daddy Trap.

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