Subscribe to blog via RSS

Search Blog

Does work-life balance begin at work?

Categories: Career, Hacking Life, Parenting, The Juggle, Uncategorized


A newly released Boston College study called “The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood Within a Career Context” indicates that the times are a-changing, at least in the workplace: Modern fathers may be dealing with a problem similar to that which working mothers know all too well.

“Men are facing the same clash of social ideals that women have faced since the 1970s — how do you be a good parent and a good worker?” Joan C. Williams, the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California, told the New York Times in a piece published on Sunday (which was Father’s Day, natch). “This is a pretty sensitive indicator of the rise of the new ideal of the good father as a nurturing father, not just a provider father.”

That ideal, however, doesn’t necessarily extend into the office. For the most part, it’s still assumed that if a sick child needs to be picked up, the mother’s going to be the one to do it, and if the dad has to work late, mom’s there to pick up the slack at home. Which makes me think that maybe we need to stop talking about work-life balance and start thinking up ways employers can make things more equitable for all working parents, male and female.

The fact that fathers want to spend less time at the office and more time being good dads isn’t new: A 2007 survey by and reported by CNN found that 37 percent of working dads say they’d leave their jobs if their spouse made enough money to support the family, and another 38 percent say they would take a pay cut to spend more time with their kids. Their ability to do so has been affected by the economy’s current downward spiral, of course — but, then again, the economy is affecting working moms as well.

But according to “The New Dad” study, the women’s movement brought legitimacy to both stay-at-home moms and moms who work outside of the home, whereas men are still struggling to be accepted as something other than the main breadwinner. From the study:

In many ways, the struggle to legitimize being a family-focused worker is more difficult for men. While organizations may have policies in place to assist parents of both genders, a true family friendly culture that supports their use, especially by fathers, often lags behind. The new fatherhood imperative, that requires greater work flexibility for dads to take charge or at least equally share in childrearing and household responsibilities, faces challenges with the reward systems and organizational cultures that have not changed to reflect these new ideals. Ideal work norms still reward on the basis of competition and loyalty where long work hours show commitment to an organization (Williams, 2001). Men who challenge such norms may be even more open to critique than their female counterparts.

I asked Amy and Marc Vachon, authors of Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents, to weigh in on the Boston College study. “We think this is true primarily because while men may be expanding their definition of fatherhood beyond simply “provider,” but they are still holding onto their primary breadwinner role,” they told me. “As long as this is still true, they will have a hard time entertaining the idea of scaling back their hours or their earning potential in order to make room for time at home on par with their wives’.”

“It isn’t easy, even with rapidly changing fatherhood expectations, to circumvent cultural and workplace norms and hold onto your dreams,” they added. “But it is fully possible, and equally rewarding for both partners.”

Other countries have proven that it’s possible to have the best of both worlds — or, at least, a little more of each. Take Sweden, for example. Fathers there get two full months of paternity leave plus other flexible work opportunities that make the US look like they’re in the bottom of the heap when it comes to appreciating what parents need. And the US actually is in the bottom of the heap: According to a 2004 Harvard University study 163 out of 168 nations studied had some form of paid maternity leave, and the United States wasn’t among them. In fact, the US and Australia are the only two industrialized countries without a paid maternity leave — and moms get a better deal Down Under, where their jobs are protected for a year (US moms get 12 weeks).

What do you think companies can do to make is easier for men and women to achieve their goals at work and at home — or at least juggle more efficiently?

Subscribe to blog via RSS
Share this on:

12 comments so far...

  • I go back to individual parents knowing what they want and negotiating for it.

    Think about the way this question is asked. We don’t even know what we really want here, yet we complain that US businesses don’t give it. Ask and ye shall receive.

    Parents have to take the responsibility up front by choosing a job / career that is potentially flexible. If they give no thought to this when they take a job, that is their fault. There are plenty of people who neither need nor want the flexibility that some parents prefer. For those people, it is only fair that they should be able to work longer, tougher hours and make more money. The fact that an employer offers this kind of opportunity doesn’t make the employer family-unfriendly.

    I always find it sad that many Americans overlook the great opportunities we have to make a difference in the broader world, and instead whine that we don’t have more opportunities to sit on the public dole. Ugh.

    And as usual, the statistics you cite are misleading. Americans are probably more likely to get maternity leave with meaningful pay than parents in most of those 163 countries you are talking about.

    SKL  |  June 24th, 2010 at 1:42 am

  • SKL: I think it’s great that you, as a manager, are willing to work with people as individuals. The reason I framed the question so broadly is precisely for that reason: I know what I’d like from my company, I know what I’ve been able to negotiate, and those things are very particular to my industry and my needs — they wouldn’t be the same for someone working in a very small company or someone in management, for example.

    As for the statistics: “Meaningful pay” is extremely subjective. I was able to use my vacation time and sick time in order to draw a paycheck while I was on maternity leave. Not everyone has that option. Friends of mine have gone back at 8 weeks because they couldn’t afford not to. Others leave their jobs when they get pregnant. In the Harvard Study, the point is the principle of paid parental leave, and how so many countries think it’s important enough to legislate it.

    Lylah  |  June 24th, 2010 at 6:43 am

  • But in many of those countries, legislation has no real meaning, except maybe for government employees. So it is still misleading.

    They legislate the “rights of the child,” too, yet you see kids scavenging on the streets and being abused all the time. The USA has not signed the piece of paper; does that mean the average US kid is more desolate than the average kid in the average country that has signed the paper?

    I feel that you have to look at the reality and not what’s written on paper, if you’re going to do an international study. There are only a handful of countries that give laws the level of respect they typically receive in the US.

    SKL  |  June 24th, 2010 at 12:11 pm

  • Lylah, I’m not sure what the answer is. I think part of the problem is much more on parental expectations than on work expectations. We have defined “perfect parenting” to be SO ridiculously intense that its no wonder moms and dads are really stressed out about balance. Most people couldn’t do everything a perfect parent is supposed to if both parents stayed home with their kids all day, much less having to work outside the home.

    The part that lies on the shoulders of employers is sick time/family leave policies. While some of those countries in the 163 that do offer family leave are mostly giving lip service to the idea, we can look at Western Europe to see a whole host of more functional family leave policies than we have in the US. The US is so fiercely focused on the individual rather than the group that I’m not sure anything will ever work here. We need to change our culture’s attitude from “I made it work, why can’t you” or “only lazy people are poor or unfortunate” to “There, but for the grace of God, go I” and I don’t know how to do that except to raise my kids to be aware of their good fortune and concerned to help those who are not as fortunate.

    LMJN  |  June 25th, 2010 at 7:31 am

  • I am all for compassion, but I feel we too easily play the “blame game” instead of troubleshooting what we can do to better our situation. I am a very “there but for the grace of God go I” person, actually. However, I don’t have a victim mentality, and that makes the difference. It’s not so much “why are you such a lazy slob” as “honestly, what can you do to pull yourself out of this?” The usual response to what historically have been reasonable suggestions - such as cut back on this or that, research a more economical alternative - are met with “I can’t, why should I, I deserve it.” Oh well, then, you’ve made your choice. Be happy you have the choice to make.

    SKL  |  June 25th, 2010 at 9:47 am

  • I do think that the US has a long way to go in terms of instituting minimum standards for family friendly employment policies. Throughout my life, I have lived both in the US and in another place considered by many a third world country. I prefer not to say where so as to avoid any preconceptions, but I want to note that it’s not “progressive minded” Europe. I consider myself fortunate that my three children were born while I was living there. This is because I’ve always had to work outside the home. That has not been a choice for me. The law over there mandates a three month, paid maternity leave for all employees, regardless of employer. In addition, I was fortunate to be a government employee and this meant that I was subject to generous sick leave and vacation policies. By combining both my paid maternity and my vacation balances, I was able to take up to 5 months of paid maternity leave. My employer never made me feel guilty because as a culture everyone accepts that a person’s role as a parent is ultimately more important than what they do to earn a living. In addition, I was able at one point to reduce my hours so that I could leave work at the same time that my children left school. It required sacrifice on my part because I also took a pay cut and I was still expected to keep up with my work, but the convenience of being home after school with my children was well worth it.

    Now, I’m in the states again. I still work for a public entity, but there’s no paid maternity leave here. People take their vacation and sick leave to draw a paycheck, go without pay, or come back way too early because they can’t afford to be without their income. I feel for the mom’s who are robbed of the opportunity to be with her child those precious first months. I also flirted with the idea here of adjusting my work schedule, not working fewer hours, just different hours, and was met with great resistance, so it has not happened, and most likely won’t. Employers like to pay lip service to work-life balance, but it’s still very difficult to achieve. The employee is always at a disadvantage.

    I am just very grateful that when I was in most need of flexibility, when my children were born, I was given the opportunity.

    D.  |  June 25th, 2010 at 11:41 am

  • SKL: Meaningful pay? My company’s policy when I was pregnant was to, if you had short-term disability coverage, allow the employee to take that (at 60% of the normal pay). Otherwise, it was whatever time you’d accrued and the leave without pay. The FMLA only protects your position - it doesn’t require pay.

    A 40% paycut was pretty difficult, I’ll admit.

    As to your assertion that parents need to take only jobs that match their direct needs, that’s wishful thinking through and through. Take my husband: He turned down two job offers because they wouldn’t offer the flexibility he needed - one company turned him down because he asked. He finally got hired back to his old place of employment with certain understandings in place about his schedule and needs. His boss has since re-negged on all of those and counseled him when he had to take two days off to tend to a sick child while I was TDY.

    It’s great that you have such an innate capability to seize the world by the horns and go, but not everyone is you, nor are they wired like you. Not everyone can BE you. And not everything is so black and white as you make it seem.

    Phe  |  June 25th, 2010 at 12:36 pm

  • I think 60% of full-time pay is “meaningful” when you aren’t on the job. I guess we can agree to disgree on that. I can assure you that 60% of your after-tax pay is more than 100% of the after-tax pay of mothers in most other countries. And I know FMLA doesn’t require pay, but most employers don’t base their benefits on the minimum required by law. Sure, some do. That’s why people who plan to be parents need to think ahead.

    I think people are just too used to wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

    Most humans are going to struggle at some time or another. I have done my share of struggling, too. But where I seem to disagree with most people nowadays is, I don’t think having to struggle is such a bad thing. I think it’s just part of life. I also think it’s a good lesson that bodes well for future success.

    These voices out there keep telling us that there’s some Utopia somewhere where women have it so much better. It ain’t so, on balance. Yes, if you’re in a particular season of your life you might be better off in a particular place. But there is no place that provides womb-to-tomb comfort, especially not at the level of luxury most Americans tend to expect.

    Maybe working moms tend to be in a season of their lives when they feel it would be nice to live in a place where everyone has a little less but nobody has a lot less (or a lot more). But that’s short-sighted, in my opinion. I’d rather have greater lifelong opportunities and freedoms than be carried for a short period of my life. Even if that means (and it has meant) spending a lot less than many Americans for a long period of time.

    I’m not that unique as far as abilities go. I am an extreme introvert and I cringe to ask for a correction of my order at McDonald’s, let alone demand family-friendly job conditions. If I’m good at anything, it’s focusing on the goal. At some point, my goal was to be debt-free and to have enough saving to live off of. I analyzed what I needed to change about myself so I could meet that goal - because no employer or friend or family member was going to help, assuming they even believed the goal was reachable. I could have marched on Washington and argued that employers should care that I be debt-free. But there are lots of people for whom freedom from debt and the daily grind are not priorities, so why should they have to be affected by my choice of goals? I feel the same way about people who want to live “the good life” and still take off a lot of work when they have kids. This is not a goal for every parent, let alone every adult. And no, I don’t think the government should decide whether or not that’s a goal I should pursue.

    SKL  |  June 25th, 2010 at 1:32 pm

  • SKL, most employers most certainly do offer only the minimum required by law. The number who are shrinking benefits, including family leave, is growing rapidly. Be thankful that you apparently haven’t run into them.

    Most of us don’t mind a bit of a struggle, or even a lot of a struggle. I do mind that in the US there is almost no true class mobility, and so that “opportunity” you speak of is elusive for most Americans, no matter how hard they work. Most of us are fully aware that there is no “American Dream” unless you come from an upper middle class background or are darned lucky. While it’s nice to believe we live in a meritocracy, we don’t and many people can’t just choose their way out of bad work situations.

    You are completely right that I’d be happier living in a place where no one has a lot less or a lot more. That’s because I don’t think that in the end it’s about what we have, or have the potential to have, but rather about quality of life. I don’t care if I ever have the potential to earn millions-I just want a meaningful career and life.

    LMJN  |  June 25th, 2010 at 2:06 pm

  • Well, I’m not exactly looking to get rich either, but I do want the opportunity to choose a job where I can make a significant impact. I work in community development finance, and I pay far more in taxes than I net, and I work very long hours, 7 days per week. That is my choice. I am glad to have the choice. For the record, I was born rather poor and I have been upwardly mobile (and I really don’t believe in “luck,”) so maybe that is why I have a different perspective than many folks. I took risks (large student loans), earned a good education, and have never in my post-graduate life worked as few as 40 hours per week (save for a few scattered vacations). It does make a difference. If you have different goals, that is fine. Just let me have mine. My business could not exist if it were forced to provide some rigid list of so-called “family-friendly” benefits. By the way, my business is a minority-owned and 100% woman-owned business - and none of us partners was “born into it.”

    SKL  |  June 25th, 2010 at 5:33 pm

  • And your comment that “most employers do offer the minimum required by law” is simply not true. If that were true, the majority of full-time workers would never have a paid day off other than national holidays, and would never have unpaid time off other than FMLA. They would not have health care benefits prior to Obamacare kicking in. And so on. Or did you think all of that was required by legislation?

    SKL  |  June 25th, 2010 at 5:36 pm

  • My hubby is one of those 38 (was it?) percent who would leave work to be a SAHD, if his spouse made enough money. Unfortunately, my husband’s spouse is a lowly public school teacher toward the bottom of the pay scale. But hearing that he’s one of that many guys in his boat will make him happy.

    Meg  |  June 27th, 2010 at 8:23 am