As Jeremy Adam Smith tended to his newborn son, it dawned on him that leisure time was now a distant concept, down to the books on his nightstand.
“When I was taking care of my son it was a shock for me that I couldn’t read. It was like a bomb going off in my head all the time,” said Smith, author of The Daddy Shift, which surveys a new cohort of “nurturing” fathers. “People ask parents, ‘what do you do all day?’ The answer is that you’re paying attention constantly, which is exhausting.”
Across bestseller lists and in fitful magazine opuses, leisure-deprived working moms dominate the work-life-balance discussion. But what about dads?
Involved fathers are increasingly getting caught between “the pincers of home and work,” Smith wrote in his recent gauntlet, How to Be a Happy Working Dad, published for the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, an organization that studies well-being. Here, Smith argued that the men are straining under the dual expectations of the modern, nurturing father and the traditional “provider” figure who puts in overtime. Add to that the tether of technology, with work e-mail bleeding into the dinner hour, and it’s little surprise that 46 per cent of modern dads lament they aren’t spending enough time with their brood, according to 2012 findings from the Pew Research Center. It’s a dynamic that’s leaving men fried, but not earning them much sympathy so far.
“Though moms have struggled on both fronts for decades, the juggle is new and shocking to men,” wrote Smith. “We as a culture haven’t given a lot of thought to the happiness of working fathers …When it comes to work-life fit, this is the message we hear as men: Suck it up.”
Brigid Schulte, author of the new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, pored over time-use research and found that new fathers aren’t giving up long hours at the office. This is creating “the very same time insanity for fathers that working mothers began experiencing in the 1970s,” when more women began navigating full-time work and home life.
“Men are trying to do now what women had to do 30 years ago: Try to do good, meaningful work and be full partners at home doing child care and housework,” Schulte said in an interview from Alexandria, Va.
A Health Canada report, Work-Life Conflict in Canada in the New Millennium, found that both men and women felt that time for leisure had declined by 40 per cent from previous decades. A 2009 report from the Families and Work Institute coined the concept of a “new male mystique” among involved dads who are still gunning for the mantle of primary breadwinner for their families – “the pressure to ‘do it all in order to have it all,’” wrote study author Ellen Galinsky.
Ottawa government analyst Chris Read admits he feels overwhelmed once a week. The 35-year-old clocks in 40 hours a week at the office, pulling in more hours at home as a communities manager for several social-media sites. His two kids are highly involved in ballet, karate, soccer, swimming and skating.
“Any free time that I have now involves the kids,” says Read. “I used to be in a band and I don’t do that any more. I don’t play sports any more. I definitely don’t resent anybody for that stuff but you think about it sometimes.”
Read says dads are reluctant to talk about being frazzled for fear of being labelled “whiny.” He says, “For me to sit with my father-in-law and go, ‘Man, I’m really struggling here,’ that is hard for me. Because these guys are working hard too.” When Read reaches his limit, he turns to a Facebook group that numbers 800 daddy bloggers. Online, these fathers discuss layoffs, parental leave and their new-found time crunch.
“When I’m working 60 hours and wanting to spend time with my family as well, where does my hobby fit in? Usually it doesn’t,” says Read.
Of course, highly hands-on fathers who also work full-time remain a relatively new cohort. A study of 4,000 executives published in the March issue of the Harvard Business Review found that male executives did not regret being absent from the home; they viewed sparse time with their children as an acceptable trade-off for providing financially for the family. On the leisure front, a study published in the journal Social Forces found that fathers’ off-time remained significantly less “contaminated” by child care or house cleaning than that of women’s. Schulte reports men still tend to enjoy longer, unbroken stretches of time at work and at play, while women’s leisure time is more “episodic.”
Still, for fathers who do want to be equal partners in parenting while retaining their breadwinner status, workplace flexibility remains elusive. “We expect men to work the way that they’ve always worked and penalize them if they do it any differently. Work hasn’t let up for them at all but they’re doing more at home. They are losing leisure, sleep, personal care and starting to feel really stressed,” says Schulte.
“In a lot of companies, guys will get that guilt. If you’re not doing overtime, you’ll be passed by the guy who is because he doesn’t have family obligations,” says Michael Cusden, a Halifax marketing manager.
Cusden, 39, says he got raised eyebrows for taking a six-month parental leave. “I drew my line in the sand,” said Cusden, who now makes it clear that his weeknights are reserved for family. Even so, his leisure time has dried up to a couple of hours on the weekend and he often combines his own errands with playground trips. Being overwhelmed, he says, is “not a mom thing any more. It’s a parent thing.”
In North America, parents’ leisure time has indeed been largely replaced by overscheduled kids and commutes to extracurricular activities, a dynamic that author Jennifer Senior charted in her recent book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Schulte quotes one researcher who sums up this style of parenting as an exhausting “everydayathon.”
Still, Schulte sees promise in the dual-parent time crunch: As working fathers experience more of the burden of child-rearing and both sexes reach a breaking point, we may be more poised than ever to foment institutional change.
“If you look at what’s going to finally shake things up, fathers being more stressed is actually a hopeful sign,” she says. “Once you get men and women saying we need to redesign work, rethink our relationships and recapture leisure time, then you have a movement.”