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In addition to the necktie or macaroni-decorated card that many working fathers can expect on Father's Day this Sunday, they could also benefit from the knowledge that working mothers feel their pain.

Just as women struggle to assert their worth in the workplace after having children – most recently against the charges that it kills their ambition, according to one billionaire hedge fund manager – men need to justify their role in society when they follow a non-traditional route. Our cultural definition of "mom" and "dad" is evolving so rapidly, it's leading to an identity crisis for men and women alike.

That realization came to a head in the aftermath of a recent Pew Research study, which showed mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners in four out of 10 households in the United States, a record number.

While the data illustrate the economic advancement of women as well as the evolving family structure, since a good number of those breadwinners are single moms, the public appears to be struggling to make sense of these changes.

About three-quarters of adults believe the proportion of women working has made it harder to raise children and half say it has an impact on the success of marriage, endorsing the view that mothers bear the bulk of these responsibilities.

Then The New York Times provocatively ran a series of opinion pieces asking, "What are fathers for?" The underlying assumption here remains that if women make money, and are naturally the caregivers, do we still need dads?

Not surprisingly, fathers trying to navigate this new social structure – as professionals and loving dads – find themselves tripping over contradictory expectations. We can't ask fathers to decide between the moneymaker or caregiver role. We need to let them do both.

"Working fathers are stuck between paradigms. They crave involvement with their kids more than ever before, but they still feel trapped by the traditional breadwinning role," said Cameron Phillips, president of Bettermen Solutions, a Vancouver-based consultancy that aims to help companies with recruitment, retention and gender equity by addressing the changing realities of working fathers.

To bolster his point, a new study from the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management showed that middle-class men who take on non-traditional caregiving roles at home are treated disrespectfully at work.

The problem with features like the one in The New York Times, according to Mr. Phillips, is that it perpetuates the idea that men's usefulness disappears when the money dries up. He speaks from experience. After losing his job in 2007, when his son was less than a year old, Mr. Phillips sank into depression and realized it was fuelled by the notion that he failed his family. Even as a doting father, without a job, he wasn't living up to social expectations and felt emasculated. That epiphany lead to countless interviews, his consultancy and a book slated for next year called The Daddy Hammer: How Promoting Fatherhood in the Workplace is the Key to Smashing the Glass Ceiling.

"On the one hand, we are finding little to no value in men as fathers," lamented Mr. Phillips. "And with the other hand, we scratch our heads wondering why men aren't turning their work lives upside down to raise the kids so women can climb the corporate ladder.

"Until a man feels valued for being a father by his employers and peers, and until he can stand up and say, 'Sure I'll look after the kids and work part-time while my spouse climbs the corporate ladder' without being emasculated or made to feel he is a complete failure, the glass ceiling will remain stubbornly in place," he added.

Kelly Milroy, associate vice-president of investor relations at Toronto-Dominion Bank, recognizes that the challenges facing working fathers can be self-imposed and decided to lead by example. The father of three works flexible hours to accommodate caring for his children and his wife's career and eagerly speaks of the benefits.

"I am so happy whenever a male colleague at TD approaches me to ask about my [flex-time] experience. That single action says to me that he is considering doing this fantastic thing, a real life changer, and that I can help him see how positive an experience it was for me – and can be for him and others like him," Mr. Milroy said.

Mr. Milroy sees some promising changes. He notices more men leaving work early to get to school events and recitals and sees workplaces like TD accommodating fathers by allowing for flex-time and focusing on results rather than time spent in office.

In addition to flex-time, Mr. Milroy took six months off to care for his now 12-year-old son while he was an infant. He describes the adjustment of going back to work as challenging as it would be for any mother.

"When you are at home alone with an infant, you become almost co-dependent. While no one would debate that a child needs an adult, not everyone understands how much the adult needs the child."

Spoken like a true dad.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.

E-mail: Twitter: @femmeonomics

Follow Leah Eichler on Twitter: @LeahEichlerOpens in a new window

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