Work-Life Balance: No Longer Only a Mother’s Concern

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Modern dads are waking up to the joy and sense of fulfillment that can live at home.
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“The New Better Off,” by Courtney E. Martin, paints a vivid picture of a new America, where being better off is more about the community and creativity then the dollars and cents.

Reality hits after having a baby, forcing parents to make difficult decisions when it comes to meaning and finances. More and more fathers are taking time off to take care for their children, and in the process, shining a light on how much the work world needs to be re-designed for 21st century values. In The New Better Off (Seal Press, 2016) Courtney E. Martin shows how modern families are rejecting traditional status symbols and pursuing interdependent, unorthodox lives. The following excerpt is from chapter 5 “Beyond Bringing Home the Bacon.”

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Thirty-three-year-old Chris Wallace lives in super-ambitious Washington, DC, where the first question people ask when you meet them is usually: “What do you do for a living?”

Chris’s answer throws people off: “I change diapers.”

“I use it as a hook to open a conversation,” he explains. “Some people are shocked that a younger guy would put his career on pause and work at home with a kid.”

Chris has noticed that he gets pretty predictable reactions from people depending on their age. If it’s younger people, they usually express how awesome they think it is, and talk about how jealous they are if they aren’t able to spend as much time with their own little ones. If it’s older people, again, regardless of gender, they are mystified, and often have stories of regret about the choices they made around their own children’s early years.

Either way, it leaves Chris feeling affirmed in his decision. Over a year ago, he was sitting in his cubicle day after day, feeling uninspired and missing his family. He was back to the daily grind at his job as a real estate tax analyst with Navy Federal Credit Union after the birth of his son a few months earlier. If he’d been unsure about his job before Gavin arrived, it became crystal clear after he came on the scene. “I was constantly texting, asking for pictures of my son,” Chris remembers. “My heart just wasn’t in the job.”

Let’s do a thought experiment: read that last paragraph again, and this time, imagine it is the story of a new mother rather than a new father. It feels both more familiar and like grounds for a go-girl pep talk, right? Come on, sweetie, give it a little time. You’re just feeling the postpartumblues. It will get easier. Lean in! Ever since women have entered the workforce (historically structured for men with no domestic or caretaking responsibilities), they’ve been made to feel like their incapacity to “have it all” is a personal failure rather than a collective delusion.

When a woman leaves or scales back at her job, it’s rarely acknowledged that it’s not just because she “can’t cut it”; it’s often because the policies and culture of her workplace make it impossible for her to do anything but leave. Despite the fact that studies show that flexibility (things like telecommuting, part-time work, and job sharing) improves the bottom line, far too few companies embrace it. And thus, the quarter of women who supposedly “opt out” (that reductive, evil little phrase) after having kids actually struggle mightily between a rock and a hard place until they just can’t do it anymore.

Pamela Stone, a sociologist at Hunter College, studied how women made decisions at moments like these and found “that their decisions to quit were reluctant and conflicted … For these women, most of whom never envisioned having to choose between careers and children, the costs of workplace inflexibility are up close and personal — diverted dreams and foregone earnings and independence.”

Part of the unfinished revolution here is a fairly straightforward one — we need to remake workplaces for the twenty-first century, where both women and men have the responsibility and privilege of being workers and caregivers. That means a long list of innovations, starting with more flexibility and paid family leave. But part of the unfinished revolution is less straightforward; we need to reimagine what leadership looks like in the twenty-first century.

Max Schireson was hailed all over the Internet for his heartfelt resignation as CEO of MongoDB, a database vendor. In a nutshell, he said that he wanted a less demanding job because he wanted to be more present with his wife and three kids. He writes:

“I recognize that by writing this I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role. Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday? Maybe. Life is about choices. Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have an [sic] meaning ful and rewarding work life while doing so. At first, it seemed like a hard choice, but the more I have sat with the choice the more certain I am that it is the right choice.”

While I, too, love his candor and boldness, it got me thinking: why isn’t anyone talking about the fact that being a leader, as we’ve conceived of it in so many sectors, practically requires neglecting everything outside of work? Is it possible to be a CEO (or school principal or nonprofit director or any other overworked, highly visible leader of an organization) and prioritize caretaking? And if the answer is no, what does that say about the kinds of leaders we’re cultivating?

Public policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter caused a firestorm of conversation about work/life balance (a term I despise) after her 2012 cover story in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” But it was actually her husband’s take, which appeared three years later, that I found the most riveting. Andrew Moravcsik talked about the highs and lows of being a male caregiver in terms so explicit as to be almost shocking. This sentence knocked the wind out of me: “For years, Anne-Marie has rarely been home for more than a couple of dinners a week, except during holidays.”

This line was positioned as insignificant in the context of the piece — just a detail to support his larger point that “Anne-Marie’s job duties are incompatible with being a lead parent.” And yet, it struck me as central to the larger conversation we need to be having. Slaughter’s accomplishments are admirable and varied. I consider her a role model in many ways. But she shouldn’t have had to sacrifice that much time with her loved ones in order to do what she’s done.

Many people  —  women and men — are rejecting that paradigm of leadership because they refuse to believe that doing great things in the big, wide world should require missing out on so much great time with children, partners, neighbors, and friends. And there’s yet another layer here. When people don’t love their jobs, it’s much easier to quit them. If you don’t have other commitments, like a kid or a sick parent, it can be tolerable to simply collect a paycheck. But when you need to give more of your time to someone — or, why not be perfectly honest — when you just want to spend more time with someone, it’s excruciating to tolerate hours spent in a dull cubicle wondering if the bulk of your day invests in something that actually matters. Having a baby, among other profound personal transformations, forces you to get real about your energy, your time, and the ways in which you most want to make your life count. It’s no wonder that women have been leaving uninspiring workplaces for years; what’s surprising is that it’s taken men this long to start leaving too.

To return to Chris Wallace, the self-named diaper-changer in DC: Chris’s wife, Latoya, an editor at ESPN, is a journalist and blogger with a substantial following. Around the time when her maternity leave (at a previous employer) was ending, Chris was growing increasingly disillusioned with his job. They needed to decide what to do about childcare. After weighing all their options, they decided it made the most sense for Chris to quit his job and stay home, liberating him from a job he didn’t love in order to spend time with a son he was falling madly in love with. And while this sounds like a no-brainer, Chris surprised even himself with the decision to become a full-time caregiver. Back when he and Latoya were first dating, he remembers a moment when she said, “If we ever have a kid, you should stay home with him for a little bit.”

“I was like, naw,” said Chris. “But when he actually arrived, it was a completely different feeling.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of stay-at-home dads has nearly doubled in the last fifteen years, and not, as is often assumed, because of the rise in unemployment, but because men like Chris choose to stay at home. As the definition of the ideal man continues to widen and deepen, “bringing home the bacon” just isn’t as satisfying as it once was; men are waking up to the joy and sense of deep fulfillment that can live at home.

“I’m the first face he sees in the morning every day,” Chris told me, the pride and pleasure audible in his voice. “He wakes up and we get ready and have some breakfast, or a little fruit or something. We watch our Sesame Street. Then we take the dog out, maybe go to the playground.”

When they first developed that routine, Chris quickly noticed two distinct cliques at the neighborhood playground: the moms and the nannies, neither of which he fits in with, of course. He also noticed that people’s reaction to his presence was dependent not just on what he was wearing but on whether Gavin was in a carrier on his chest or in a stroller. He breaks it down: “When I push Gavin in a stroller, especially if I’m not as dressed up, people assume I’m a baby daddy. If I’ve got him in the carrier, it’s suddenly more legit to people.”

Part of this, he assumes, is a result of people’s stereotypes about black men as absent fathers — yes, he’s African American. And yet, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2013, 70 percent of black dads who lived with young children bathed, diapered, or dressed them every day, compared with 60 percent of white dads and 45 percent of Hispanic dads.

When people find out that Chris is a primary caregiver, many say, “I’ve never seen that. Wow, how did you work it out? You must have saved a lot of money in order to stay home with your child.”  

Chris responds to this by saying, “Actually, I’m married. I’m in a partnership. This is something that we figured out would work for us.” As Chris noted to me: “It’s like some people just assume that black parents aren’t together.”

In fact, Chris comes from an incredibly tight-knit family. His grandmother is the youngest of twelve siblings, and many of his great-aunts and -uncles live in the DC area. He and Latoya often pitch in to help them out. When Chris and I spoke, he was at his grandmother’s house, caring for her after a recent knee surgery.

“Do you think of yourself as an extraordinarily caring guy?” I asked him, struck by how many people he was supporting in his extended family — in addition to taking care of little Gavin.

“Not particularly,” he replied. “I think I just ask different questions. I mean, what does it mean for you to be a man who thinks the only way you can contribute to your family is financial? I want to lend my presence. I want to put in the time and the care. I want to be there physically and emotionally.”

Reprinted with permission from The New Better Off ,by Courtney E. Martin and published by Seal Press, 2016.

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