Margeaux Wolberg was sitting with the other 12-year-olds in her class when one of the girls turned to her and asked: “Is your mom dead?”
She never came to school like the other mothers to volunteer in the library or help the teachers. It was always Margeaux’s father who did that. Margeaux reached for her laptop, typed a few words into Google and showed her classmate a list of hits with her mother’s name and job titles, from chief information officer at Salesforce.com to her current role as vice-president of technology business operations at PayPal. “See, my mom’s not dead,” she said. “My mom’s famous.”
Kirsten Wolberg, 45, recounts this story with pride. She doesn’t fall into the guilt trap these days when she has to miss a school play. She is content that her two daughters are growing up with a strong role model: a woman in a high-powered job in Silicon Valley.
Long before either of her children were born, Ms. Wolberg and her future husband Michael had a conversation about how they would divide household and childcare duties. “I said, ‘Listen, one of the things that’s really important to me is to have a parent at home full time,’” she remembers. “‘And it can’t be me.’”
Michael Wolberg, 43, worked for years for a pharmaceutical distributor. But when Margeaux was born, he quit – or retired, as he likes to say – to become a stay-at-home father. And he hasn’t looked back. The relative quiet of spending 12 hours a day alone with a child suits his personality better than an office, he says, and much better than it would ever suit his wife.
“She’s spent many, many years trying to get to the place where she is and even further,” he says, “and this lifestyle of crawling around on the floor and changing diapers and all kinds of other stuff is not for her.”
In Silicon Valley, fathers come in many forms, from stay-at-homes to work-obsessed executives to the increasingly common young men who are striving to “have it all.” Today, 47 per cent of men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 34 say being a good parent is one of the most important things in their lives, up from 39 per cent in 1997, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center.
They are also increasingly feeling the stress of juggling responsibilities. Similar shares of fathers and mothers say they always feel rushed, while fathers are more likely to feel they’re not spending enough time with their kids. “In the old days, balancing work and family seemed to be a challenge only for mothers; now fathers are facing a similar challenge,” says Wendy Wang, a researcher at Pew.
U.S. policy does little to address this social shift. Though 178 countries guarantee paid leave for mothers, and 54 do so for fathers, the United States guarantees neither. Under federal law, employees can take 12 weeks of leave when a child is born, but it is unpaid. Only two states, California and New Jersey, provide partially paid parental leave for both women and men.
For now, tensions over the evolution of fatherhood are being somewhat addressed in the private sector and, overwhelmingly, at home. Silicon Valley is a microcosm of this change. The overall ethos of the technology hub, backed by the enormous wealth it has generated, allows for experimentation with new parenting arrangements. “It’s innovation,” says John Donahoe, chief executive of eBay. “The fact that it hasn’t been done makes it more interesting and challenging.”
In the broader San Francisco Bay Area, where the gay rights and 1960s countercultural movements launched a history of contradicting social convention, there is a cultural permission for men to step outside traditional roles. “Masculine identity has fragmented so much in terms of what men can be, and that is intimately linked with how men interact with children,” says Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift. “There’s not one way to be a good dad any more.”
There is a social push in Silicon Valley for men to have more time to be fathers. A talent war is compelling companies to be creative – at Facebook, men can take four months of paid leave, the same as maternity leave, and all parents get $4,000 (U.S.) “baby cash” to spend on strollers and other gear. For smaller companies, change usually starts once someone near the top has a child. At companies such as Pinterest, whose CEO recently became a father, and Foursquare, where fathers have been multiplying in recent years, there is a thirtysomething and fortysomething culture tempering the twentysomething vibe that dominates most startups.
“Coming in early is the new staying late,” says Alex Rainert, head of product at Foursquare, who has a three-year-old daughter and second child expected in June.
Follow us on Twitter: