Why “Work Life Balance” Is Too Simplistic for Modern Dads

There’s been a lot of change for dads in a short period of time. Today they work as many hours as previous generations, but do three times the childcare and twice the housework as dads a generation ago. In this interview, Scott Behson, PhD, author of “The Working Dad’s Survival Guide” talks about how working dads can create a more balanced life of family, work, and self, and how employers can help make it happen.

Scott Behson, PhD, is a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the author of “The Working Dad’s Survival Guide.” Behson also founded and runs the blog Fathers, Work, and Family. Parent Co. spoke to Professor Behson about how working dads can establish a more balanced life, and how employers can help make it happen.

Parent Co: As an expert on the topic, can you give me a sense of the currently held general expectation for working dads in our country?

Scott Behson: There has been a lot of change for dads in a relatively short period of time. Dads today work as many hours as previous generations, but do three times the childcare and twice the housework as dads a generation ago.

Dads are still expected to be primary providers in most families, but have really expanded what they do in terms of everything else that’s needed to be done to run a household. This is largely due to the fact that so many families are now dual-earner couples, which means both the mom and dad work outside the home, and spend more evenly than ever before sharing the rest of the work that goes into running a household.

Things aren’t exactly even yet, but things are getting closer and closer. It’s a challenging time for dads because if you think about it, most of our role models did it differently and faced different expectations. To a large degree, this is why I wrote “The Working Dad’s Survival Guide” in order to help dads face these changing circumstances, and provide advice and encouragement, so they can do a good job in both of their incredibly important roles.

When you say that the amount of household work done by dads has increased dramatically over the generation before, would you say that it’s increased from nearly zero to what it is now, or is that not a fair statement?

I don’t think that’s exactly a fair statement. I think dads, for most of history, have cared about providing for their families and being there for their families. I would say it’s true that dads today are changing more diapers and doing more grocery shopping, but I wouldn’t say dads of previous generations didn’t do very, very important things and play important roles in the family besides earn money for them.

I don’t want to slag on my dad’s generation of dads. To use my dad as an example, my father, wonderful father, I hope I’m half the dad he is, but there are a lot of things I do in my daily life that were never expected of him.

I did half the bottles and half the diapers, and I go grocery shopping, and I cook, and I clean the house, and I do half the pick-ups. That’s just normal, and in fact, virtually every dad I know, my peer group, is in the same situation. It’s interesting that society doesn’t seem to acknowledge this very much. Society talks about deadbeat dads, or bumbling dad humor, or they over correct and are calling people “super dads” or we focus on stay-at-home dads. The fact is, there are millions of dads out there, and virtually every dad I know cares a lot about his career, and earning for the family, and being a really good hands-on, involved father.

What do you think it is that caused this relatively large change in such a short time?

It’s a bit of an echo of what working women faced in the past generation or so. If you think about what working moms have faced, they greatly expanded themselves into the workspace, but in many cases, were still very much expected to uphold what they were doing at home. That led to the second shifts and all these really difficult stressors on working women.

I think this is now men facing the fun house mirror version of what working women have faced, where men are greatly expanding what they do in the home and for their families, but in many cases are still expected by employers and by society to maintain everything they’re doing at work as well.

Of course, yeah.

Workplaces are not forgiving for any employee who puts family above working more than full-time hours, but there’s a lot of research that shows that it’s even more of a challenge for men to visibly be seen as accommodating their work lives for their family responsibilities.

As someone who teaches in the school of management, having your head in that world as well as a mind and eye towards a work-life balance, what do you see as the main sources of resistance to supporting this change in the workplace?

To some degree, I’m seeing things from both sides. I’m a business school professor, I work with companies, I work with dads on this specific issue, but I’m also a busy working dad myself trying to juggle it all, and I interviewed dozens of dads for the book. What I’m trying to contribute is being able to see both sides, I feel like I can give some really good, real-life advice that dads can use tomorrow to help them in their work-family juggles, but also be very realistic in terms of what’s possible in the workplace and what people need to be aware of.

Again, things have changed very rapidly, and I think a lot of companies, it’s finally on the radar that work and family issues aren’t just working mom issues. Many companies have become aware of this. They are worried that they are not able to recruit and hold onto really good employees, both men and women, because of some of the workplace demands and the inability to have a life outside of work, so it’s on their radars.

I don’t think too many companies have quite figured out what to do with it yet, but this was not on the radar of most companies ten years ago, so this is significant progress in a relatively short period of time.

I’ve been booked at several major corporations to lead workshops and seminars based on some of the content of the book, which shows that companies are really eager for information on this topic because they are trying to figure out what to do with it, if that makes sense.

Some companies have been very progressive on this. In fact, there’s only about fourteen percent of private employers offering things like paternity leave, but that number is going to increase pretty rapidly, I think. More importantly than set policy is starting to understand that technology, and the way work is, means that so many more people can get a lot of their work done outside of the workplace and outside of normal business hours.

I think when companies feel a little better about giving employees freedom about how and where and when they get their work done, that  will help both working men and women immeasurably. Companies are not good at evaluating performance, so a boss who doesn’t really know what his people are doing, he tends to evaluate performance based on how long somebody stays at work, or chair time, or face time, which is silly because it’s easily gamed, right?

Oh, yeah.

The productive employees work hard and go home, and the opportunists work slow and stay late until we combat that. There’s been some companies who’ve done incredible work in this area creating flexible workplaces that still are very productive and, in fact, are more profitable than ever now that they have given up some of that control over where and when.

When you’re booked by these employers, do you go to them with these examples as a way to show them how it’s being done right and the positive effects of that?

Yes, absolutely. Getting specifically to the book, there’s a chapter where I advise the reader to think through their ongoing career planning in light of the rest of their lives. One of the things I really wanted to accomplish in this book is that there are a lot of great parenting books out there, but none of them talk about work at all, which is really funny to me.

There are a lot of great career and business self-help books out there, but they hardly ever talk about the rest of your life outside of work. One of the things I really wanted to do in “The Working Dad’s Survival Guide” is to talk about these two important roles together, because they influence each other so much.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying in one chapter of the book I advise people to think about their careers in light of the rest of their lives, because so many of us chose our careers either in college when we’re in our twenties, before we are married with kids, and what might have been a great early career track that suited our lives might not suit our lives ten, fifteen years later.

So many people stay on the track instead of reconsidering what they’re doing. In this chapter I highlight a handful of employers, not to be comprehensive but to be representative of different types of companies, and I give examples of these companies that have done really, really good work in terms of being forward on supporting employees and their work-life challenges. This includes big professional multinational firms, it includes companies that mostly have hourly employees. I try to be very representative.

I think that’s such a good point that you just brought up and I’ve actually never thought about it like that, because I guess from my own perspective, I’ve always known I wanted to write. And that’s such a broad notion, so when I started having a family, I made it work, or I’m still trying to make it work. I’ve never thought about stepping back and reevaluating a career choice to try to find something that’s perhaps a bit more family-friendly.

Luckily there are many different ways to have a good career in writing. There might not be that many ways to have a great career as a law partner or as a corporate executive. People who are on those types of tracks who are traveling out to clients four or five days a week, and are only home and weekends, and they’re road warriors and stuff, those are jobs that are very difficult to make it work.

If that’s what you want, and you’ve arranged your family life, and your spouse is on board with it, and your kids are getting what they need, that’s fine. It’s just, I’d rather people make conscious choices about what they’re doing. In fact, the first section (of the book) is all about thinking through your priorities. What you want out of life. What do you want out of your career? What do you want out of your family life, and what do you want out of your one shot at your kids’ childhoods?

I think it’s easy to feel so busy, because if you care about your career, you’re probably working more than full-time hours. Then, what’s left of your time, you’re probably trying to spend as much of it with your family as possible. I get it. But sometimes we have to almost get off the hamster wheel instead of running on the hamster wheel at full speed all the time, and then sit down in the cedar chips and to spend a little bit of time thinking about the big picture. I think if we figure out what you want in the big picture, then it might not be easy, it might not be quick, but I think we could start making decisions that are more aligned with what we want out of life. Then, in six months, two years, maybe we can find our way to a situation that’s far better for our set of priorities.

In talking to a lot of different dads, did anyone tell you that it’s really hard to be honest with yourself about what you want given the various societal pressures and cultural norms and everything? How do you advise people in that respect?

I recall a situation where I was talking to one of the dads I interviewed in the book and I asked him about this. I said, “What are things that are working well for you in terms of work life balance? What are things that aren’t? What’s getting in the way?” He’s quoted in the book. All the quotes are real, they’re anonomized, and there is no identifying information because some people talked about things they struggled with. One was like, “Man, I always promised myself once we had our kid that I would start getting off the road, and now my son is ten and I haven’t done it, and I don’t see how I can.” He feels the pressure to provide, but he also loves his job, and also I think he feels like since he’s been … It’s set up like a vicious cycle where he hasn’t been around, so then it’s harder for him to feel in sync when he is around. I felt like he can’t find a way to get himself there.

Again, I was interviewing him, I wasn’t trying to give too much advice, but I was like, “Listen, when this book comes out, go through these first couple of chapters and think through this. Maybe it won’t be easy to get off the road or change the career, but maybe in two years, or eight months, or however long it takes, maybe you can get closer to where you want to be.” Luckily life is long, and parenthood is long, careers are long, and we forget this sometimes. We’re going to be working for forty-five years. It’s okay to let an opportunity go by, or it’s okay to temporarily put something on hold.

I think a lot of people don’t like the word balance when it comes to work and family, and I think that’s because they have the wrong idea of balance. When you think of work-life balance, most people think about a tight rope or a balance beam or something where if you are not perfectly balanced, it’s a fall.

Everything falls apart, yeah.

Right, but I think we should look at it more like a balanced diet. I talk about this in the book where it’s okay to be temporarily out of balance. If you are an accountant, March and April are going to be crazy with work. If you have a sick family member, it’s going to be two weeks of all dealing with family and work goes by the wayside. That’s okay, as long as we have a long-term balance.

It takes a lot of different food groups to have a good diet, it takes work, and family, and time for yourself, and time as a couple, and time for exercise, and your own social needs, and religion, and whatever else is important in your life. It’s not just work and family, it should be almost like a balanced life in a broader sense, because we’re no good for other people if we’re burned out.

I think it’s what you’re saying about living a conscious life.

Yeah, I don’t know if I use those words in the book, but that’s beautifully said. Especially that first part, thinking about the priorities. Then, section two of the book is about the workplace, how do we navigate it, what are the things to watch out for, what are our options, how might we be able to work more flexibly or negotiate for things that we need and advocate for ourselves. Then at home, how do we make sure we have enough time for family and that we use this time really well. Then I have a section about taking care of yourself in what I was talking about there.

What do you see as the role of the partner in all of this?

Again, when we are talking about the priorities part of the book, step one is to think through your priorities. Step two is to talk about it with your spouse or the other important people in your life, because you might be a very career-oriented person and that’s great. If your spouse is on board with that and understands that you’re going to be away and then she, let me just use that pronoun for now, is going to pick it up at home, and everybody gets what they need in the family, and everybody is happy with their roles, then great.

You can have a very traditional arrangement, or you can have a very free-flowing, egalitarian relationship, that’s great, as long as it’s whatever everybody needs. One of the things I’ve observed is that a lot of times, if families don’t talk about it, it defaults to very gendered roles in the family where the dad is actually working more than he would want to, in part because the mom is working less than she would like to or perhaps leaves the workforce entirely, and neither of them are really happy with that arrangement. It’s frustrating to be home and be a full-time parent if that’s not really what suits you.

Sure, and nobody’s winning when that’s the case.

Exactly.

The kids certainly aren’t.

Yeah, but I see people suffer through that thinking it’s the only way instead of, again, examining and figuring out, “Well, I might be stuck in this role for the next nine months, but what can I do so that a year from now we can have a different arrangement?”

…Sometimes we internalize this; that we have to soldier on instead of taking a step back and seeking help, or talking about things that we need. It’s better if we recognize this is an issue. Again, one of the reasons I wrote this specifically for working dads – as a fellow working dad – is that guys are not particularly good at asking for directions. Especially when it comes to work and family, I think a lot of guys might not be comfortable talking about this or complaining about their situation, because they see that their wives are struggling with this too, and what right do we have to complain about it?

Even though ninety percent of the book would apply to working moms as well, the way the book is written was very intentional so that it’s much more accessible for guys. That’s another thing I’m trying to add to the conversation is that dads, we need to advocate for ourselves because so much depends on us. Families with involved fathers, the research is unbelievably clear that kids thrive, that their spouses thrive, that dads are happier and live longer if they’re more involved with their kids. It has so many positive ripple effects if dads are supported in the two most important roles in their lives, their role in the family and their role in their career.


Follow @scottbehson on Twitter and visit his website Fathersworkandfamily.com. Order his best-selling book, The Working Dad’s Survival Guide.