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A New Kind of Father’s Day

June 19, 2006

Yesterday was Father’s Day, and I am hopeful that I am part of a trend that will lead to much needed changes in family and work life. I took parental leave when each of my children was born. I’ve also adjusted my work schedule to spend a morning every other month at my children’s nursery school. My fatherly commitment to my children is not extraordinary. Like mothers, we fathers also care deeply about our children. But we still live in a culture where workplaces frown on, discourage, or don’t even allow fathers to take leave or rearrange their work schedules to spend time with their children.

Like many working mothers, I came back from parental leave energized and excited, thrilled about my new child, and also ready to go back to work. Had I followed the unspoken rule that men should return to work a week or two after their child is born, I would have missed a rare and magical opportunity.

Caring for children or ill family members shouldn’t be the exclusive terrain of either men or women. And parental leave shouldn’t be the domain of only those who could afford it. Rigid gender roles, class schisms, and narrow laws and policies aren’t serving families. We need a better balance.

We need to hear from men who want to be more involved with their families. Our voices—along with the perspectives, and sometimes pleas, of the many women who speak out—need to be heard by employers. We need involvement across the board, from professionals and low-wage workers, employers and unions, and legislators. Lawmakers and corporate executives should know what families already know: society and businesses are better off when caregiving is a shared and valued responsibility.

Companies fear that allowing employees more flexibility will lead to constant accommodation and lower productivity. This is not the case. Employers with policies encouraging a balance between work and family find it easier to attract and retain employees, and the employees are more satisfied and productive, as shown in reports from the Boston College Center for Work & Family, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the MIT Workplace Center, and others. According to the Center for Work & Family, 75 percent of managers who offered flexible schedules reported no change in their own workload.

Moving to a new work-family model will not only strengthen our families, it will also help to close the class gap. Many low-income workers simply cannot afford to take leave.  To be a truly democratic society that supports families, we need to ensure that parents, regardless of what they earn or where they work, can be fully involved in caring for their families.

Men, regardless of whether they drive a truck or analyze stock portfolios, should not have to give up on family life to succeed at work. Men who ask for schedule changes to provide needed family care should not have to fear retaliation or feel shame or guilt. Many women still contend with these very same issues. Is this how we want to treat our families or the parents working so hard to raise our children? We need leadership that starts at the top. Lewis E. Platt, then head of Hewlett-Packard, told author Suzanne Levine (Father Courage) that his experience trying to care for his two young daughters after his wife died convinced him to incorporate family demands into corporate policy. When senior male executives take some time off to care for their family members, it will quiet the stigma and the perils for men, and for women.

There are a range of proven solutions that can lead to a better balance—telecommuting, job sharing, temporarily moving from full-time to part-time, paid sick leave for one’s own health or the health needs of a family member, and time off for parent-teacher conferences among others. If we start talking to our employers and if employers start talking with each other, we can find ways to ensure that more Americans who work to put food on the table can also be home to enjoy it with their families. Now that truly would be an amazing Father’s Day for all.

Tags: Parenting