Skip to main content

Men are finally realizing, like women, that they can't have it all. The bar has risen for fathers – through the expectations of others, as well as their own – and the disconnect between what is and what might be in their lives is graphically expressed in a chart on caregiving displayed in a recent series of studies by Boston College's Center for Work and Family.

Fathers were asked how caregiving should be divided in their family, and a strong majority – 65 per cent – said it should be divided equally between spouses. But less than half that number of fathers – 30 per cent – said that's how caregiving is actually divided in their home. Sixty-four per cent of the fathers admit their spouse does more than them.

The bar chart depicting those expectations and reality – expectations dwarfing reality – shows the distance that must be travelled by men to fulfill themselves as fathers and also hints at the angst that many men are facing in an era when – for the first time – they are grappling with being active to a full dimension at both work and family.

"Men are in flux right now, and they are not clear of the rules," says Brad Harrington, director of the centre for the past 12 years, who carried out the studies with various colleagues.

The centre's work had been traditionally focused on women, but as a father of three children he began to consider the possibility of researching fatherhood, spurred on by a National Study of the Changing Work Force report in 2008 indicating fathers in dual-earner couples feel significantly greater work-life conflict than mothers. So far he has completed three studies, one involving in-depth interviews with a small sample of men; another surveying 963 working fathers in four Fortune 500 companies; and the third looking at stay-at-home fathers.

The crucial finding is that men feel more stress and work-life conflict than is normally assumed. Men work more hours at the office than women, but now they are also attuned to the full scope of what fatherhood asks of them and opens up to them. In the past they didn't want to have it all – most didn't even consider that as a possibility – but now it's on the agenda.

Prof. Harrington's survey found 77 per cent of the fathers wanted to spend more time with their children. At the same time, 76 per cent wanted to advance to a position with greater responsibility at work and 58 per cent had a strong desire to be in senior management. The companies in the study were huge, with annual revenues of $30-billion (U.S.) to $60-billion, so Prof. Harrington asks: "If you want to get to senior management, what are the odds you can spend more time with your children? They are not bringing this conflict in their aspirations together."

When the babies come, men don't take much time off – usually, he says, a negligible amount, about one day for every month a mother takes off. But whereas two decades ago a man might boast at work that he has never changed a diaper – and Prof. Harrington notes some of those men are now running our large corporations – these days young fathers feel a need to pull their weight on the home front.

Indeed, the study revealed a significant majority of men in the study considered their responsibilities for their children as not just being a breadwinner but also caring for them. On balance, it was younger fathers who sought this caregiving role, with men over the age of 40 viewing themselves more as a breadwinner.

To understand how fathers defined being a good father, the men were asked to rate various attributes on a scale from one to six, with six being high. Top ranked, at an average of 4.6, was to provide love and emotional support to their children. Just behind it were to be involved and present in your child's life and be a teacher, guide, and coach. Providing discipline averaged 4.0, with providing financial security just behind it.

That's impressive, and shows signs of change in fathers' views, however, at the same time handling their part in the day-to-day child care tasks trailed the other attributes at 3.9. For the researchers, this highlights some of the tensions at play, suggesting that fathers' desires to be present for their children may not carry through to their day-to-day involvement in caregiving tasks.

Few men wanted to work part time – indeed, only one of nearly 1,000 men in the quantitative study – while by comparison one in four women go part-time after having a child. "A lot of men probably figure it's a dangerous thing to signal in terms of their career," notes Prof. Harrington.

Interestingly, the men find their bosses willing to give them flexibility to handle their child care responsibilities. He contrasts this informal flexibility, carried out quietly, with the more formal flexibility women must seek because they are usually playing the larger caregiving role with their children. He urges employers to fully embrace flexible working arrangements, noting that while the companies in the study all have such policies, the request for more he heard from men indicates that obstacles exist.

He also believes men must acknowledge the new role they are seeking on the home front, so they can more fully understand and accept the tradeoffs they must make to be the type of fathers they want to be.

"They need to be more vocal, indicating this is everyone's problem not just women's, and make it clear they shouldn't be in the penalty box in their career while they look after their children," he says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct