While expectations for fathers to be more involved with their children have risen in recent years, the societal changes needed to make it easier for them have not kept pace.
“The workplace still sees men as men and not as fathers,” Gayle Kaufman, a professor of sociology at Davidson College, notes in her study of emerging new fathers, Superdads.
If managers typically see the men working for them as men, Prof. Kaufman sees them as three distinct types of fathers, all trying to have greater involvement with their children than fathers of previous generations. Those deeper relationships lead to work-life balance issues that each one of them must resolve differently.
Prof. Kaufman interviewed about 70 fathers, with an average age of 40, by seeking them out at day-care centres and then broadening the search to community centres and churches. That’s not a scientifically representative sample, so the percentages falling into each of her three classifications are uncertain. But the profiles are important to recognize:
For them, being a father means being a provider. They focus on earning as much as they can. These fathers tend to be more traditional in their approach but they are still more involved than the breadwinners of the past, trying to make more time for children on the weekend, for example.
They tend to feel moderate amounts of stress related to work-family conflict because they would like to see their children more often. But they know they are providing for the family and usually have stay-at-home wives.
They made few changes to their work after becoming fathers and, indeed, in some cases they increased their work involvement since they now had to provide more for the family to have a good life.
They are less traditional in behaviour and outlook, identifying strongly with their role as a father, trying to be both breadwinner and caregiver. They spend a good deal of time with their children, although weekend time outweighs week time.
“New dads struggle the most. They want to be involved with the children but find difficulty in doing it. They make subtle changes – get off work early and go to [their] children’s event, or bring work home to fit around children’s activities. They are not making big changes so life is very stressful,” Prof. Kaufman says in an interview.
They see the role of caregiver as more important than the role of breadwinner, and they make large, significant changes in their work lives to accommodate their family lives.
“Family drives their work decisions,” Prof. Kaufman emphasizes.
They might adjust their work to a compressed four-day week, or work from home some days, or quit to take a more hospitable job, work part-time, or establish their own business. The changes they choose might involve a loss of income and perhaps esteem, but they gain lower stress levels than the other two types of fathers because they have found a way to balance work and family.
The group in the middle – ‘new’ dads – was the biggest segment Prof. Kaufman interviewed and she estimates it’s by far the biggest group in North American society. She figures the old dads and superdads are about equal in numbers, but she is hoping the superdads will mushroom.
She notes that they probably get undue credit with her prefix of super – they are simply doing what women have been struggling with for decades: Trying to take an equal share or more of child-raising, while usually holding down a job. But Prof. Kaufman says just as we acknowledge women who defy societal expectations to become a CEO or a political leader, men should be applauded when they are doing something (child care) they have previously not paid much attention to.
“I’m really excited about what is going on. I don’t have a problem with having a lot of attention on these superdads,” she says. “The change is good for families.”
She notes that the changes they made in their lives were often difficult, involving significant concessions for their children. But she found them comfortable afterward – at peace. “They are happy, as it made it possible for them to spend more time with their children. That reduces stress for them.”
‘New’ dads are also an improvement from the fathers of the past, sharing more of the burden of child care. But they face a lot of stress because they are trying to add a new role as an involved father to the traditional role of breadwinner.
“They need help,” she says.
And that must come from their employers or government. “I think the problem new dads have is they can’t balance everything as well as they want. It’s not the individual’s fault, but they see it framed as individual choice,” Prof. Kaufman says.
She wants to see paid family leave in the workplace for fathers as well as mothers, more flexible workplaces, and for managers to become more cognizant of the difficulties new dads are facing.
“Fathers are changing and thus work-family balance is important for fathers. They want to be involved with their children. They are trying to be involved. And I think they need help to make it more possible.”
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter