It was 2003. My wife just had the first of our three children as I was finishing up the first month of my OBGYN internship. You hear about men running scared when they are about to become a father. But I guess I was too busy to feel any kind of fatherhood pressure. I mean, I was still learning how to be a husband and a physician. I didn’t even stop to think what the expectations should be of me. Honesty, that was probably for the best. It allowed me to just go with the groove and live in the moment, despite the chaos and long hours inflicted by a demanding medical residency training.
Fast Forward to Today
I’d like to say that 15 years and two more children later, I’ve got the whole work-life balance thing figured out. But while the processes of career advancement and getting older may provide professional rewards and hopefully a little wisdom, they exact a toll, do they not? I can be home, but not present—my mind elsewhere.
Presumably, a large portion of these emotions come from the weight of the pressures as a man who feels the need to “have it all” that I didn’t have back in 2003. I grew up as a typical 1980s Generation X kid with a traditional breadwinner American father as a role model. In my generation, the concept of fatherhood was more or less the same as it had been for multiple generations before me. But the new parents of Generation Z and Millennial generations have flipped the script on fatherhood. And they are right to do so.
Fatherhood is More than Earning Money
The social science of fatherhood is well researched. Providing 40% of the caregiving responsibilities in the family is positively associated with their children’s test scores, cognitive achievement, self-esteem, happiness, mood disorders. Both men and women want fathers to spend more time raising their children. Increasing fathers’ responsibilities at home also improves women’s career advancement, economic equality between men and women, relationship satisfaction, and the risk of postpartum depression. It’s a win-win.
A recent report, The State of America’s Fathers, shows that men are shedding the notion that the father is the “secondary parent.” In fact, this report shows that the current generation of fathers spend 65% more time with their children compared with fathers 30 years ago. And yet, the majority of men in the U.S. still feel that they spend too much time at work. According to data in the 2016 National Study of the Changing Workforce, 60% of fathers report problems with work-life balance compared to only 35% of fathers in 1977.
This is likely due to the changing role of the father as a caregiver and a breadwinner. Thirty years ago, men saw themselves as primarily responsible for only the financial security of the family. In other words, fathers are burning the candle at both ends these days.
Where is the Balance?
There has never been a bigger gap between what Americans want from our fathers and what we can deliver. How do we strike the right balance? Will just trying harder make a difference?
We need national policies that support parenting. The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world that do not require employers to provide paid leave for new parents.
The other two countries? Papua New Guinea and Suriname. Ugh.
The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is our only national policy, and it doesn’t provide for reimbursement. Worse yet, 2/5 of new parents do not even qualify for leave under this plan. And nearly all who do exercise their right for unpaid FMLA are new mothers, not fathers. Men typically shy from paternity leave. Both anecdotal evidence and published research show doing so is associated with professional stigma. It hurts his chances of promotion and lowers his chance of receiving a raise. It is time for a national policy that guarantees at least a modicum of paid parental leave—for both mothers and fathers.