As fathers across the nation were celebrated on Sunday for being great dads, a new study on fatherhood shows that an increasing number of men are seeking alternatives to a traditional 40-hour workweek in order to spend more time with their kids.
Take Michael Sherman, 38, who last year moved out of his law offices in Mobile, Ala., and into a home office, cut his case load and hours by more than half and started homeschooling his four kids, ages 2 to 12.
Sherman said he was feeling burned out by his divorce and family law practice. His stressful workload, coupled with the fact that his oldest child was in middle school and before he knew it his kids would be off to high school then college, prompted the change. “Time was flying by,” he said.
Jason Chupick, media director for public relations firm Crenshaw Communications in New York, also wanted to make sure he had time for his 2-year old son. So when he found a new job, he chose an employer that allowed him to craft a flexible schedule.
He now works three days a week, leaving at 4:30 p.m. so he can pick up his son from day care.
“I needed the flexibility,” he said.
Like Sherman and Chupick, more dads are starting to stand up and ask for more flexible work arrangements — from time off after a baby is born to reduced hours and days. Such options were once thought to be a mother’s domain, but now an increasing number of dads want to be more hands-on in raising their kids. Others are driven by economics: a wife might earn more money or not have flexibility at work.
“It’s changing pretty quickly, thanks to the changing dynamics of the work force,” said Jamie Ladge, assistant professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University and co-author of a new study on working dads released last week called “The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood within a Career Context.” “Women are more than half of the workforce, and most of the layoffs we’ve seen in this downturn have been in mostly male-dominated jobs. So men are having to set up.”
The result? “You’re seeing many more dads at school at drop off and pick up,” Ladge said.
In search of flexibility
Of course, working fewer hours also means a smaller paycheck. On top of that, the recession has added to stress over family finances and increased expectations to perform at work.
“My rule of thumb in our household is we try to have two incomes but we live as if there’s one,” said Chupick. “We also have a tiny mortgage and have cut back as much as we could.”
Despite having flexible hours, Chupick works harder than he ever did before, writing a blog, updating his skills, and going to industry events. “You have to stay employable.”
Like working mothers, a large number of working fathers are also looking for the elusive work-life balance.
“Men are just as likely as women to want flexibility,” said Cali Yost, CEO of consulting firm Work+Life Fit Inc. Her nationally representative annual Work+Life Fit Reality Check survey found that 90 percent of men were looking for flexible hours to help balance work and home life, compared to 92 percent among women.
And some men are leaving work behind altogether when kids come along, said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a process she calls off-ramping.
“Over the last five years, there’s been a doubling of the percentage of men who off-ramp for reasons of child care — and nearly double for those who off-ramped for eldercare reasons,” she said.
And, she added, 38 percent of men, compared to 58 percent of women, take a “scenic route, stepping back without stepping out.”
“Increasingly men are ‘ramping down’ — working from home Friday afternoons or staggering their hours in order to pick up more domestic responsibilities,” she said. “This is particularly true in households where wives out-earn their husbands. These households are on the rise as the Great Recession clobbered men more than women.”
Corporate America still catching up
Steve Moore, a human resource specialist at Administaff, believes the desire for more work-life balance is a generational thing but not a gender thing.
For those under 30, he said, “it seems that some traditional stereotypes are starting to lessen just a bit in terms of who’s responsible for care of the children.”
But Yost maintained that corporate America has not caught up with this reality.
“Time and again, companies primarily address how to manage work-life issues and use flexibility in the ‘women’s initiative’ even though the policies and programs that are in place are theoretically intended for everyone,” she said.
That may explain why men are more likely to seek informal flexibility in the workplace.
According to “The New Dad” study:
“The fathers were far more likely to exercise informal flexibility rather than ask for a formal flexible work arrangement. While many of the men did use flexibility to be available to share childcare responsibilities, or attend physician’s appointments, this was always done in an informal or ‘stealth’ fashion. Virtually none of the men felt a lack of support from their manager or co-workers when utilizing flexibility.”
Indeed, there is still a stigma for working dads who are looking for the flexibility many moms have been requesting for years.
“Certainly you get snide remarks from men occasionally,” said Marc Vachon, who does IT support for a market research company called Chadwick Martin Bailey. He works a reduced workweek, with Wednesdays off so he can spend time with his preschool son.
Vachon, who’s been touting the benefits of shared parenting for years and recently wrote a book on the topic, “Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents,” said men need to step up and ask for flexibility no matter what society thinks. “From my perspective, the hurdles are mostly personal as opposed to systemic and institutional.”
When it comes to the law, men are supposed to be treated equally with women when they ask for reduced hours or time off.
For example, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, men are also eligible to take an unpaid leave of absence after a baby is born or after an adoption, said Ashley Brightwell, a labor lawyer with Alston & Bird, who said she’s seeing more men taking advantage of protections under FLMA.
“Employers need to treat employees taking leave the same,” she said. “Decisions need to be made regardless of gender.”
Unfortunately, she said, that’s not always the case. “There is certainly prejudice out there. A lot of employers assume, especially in the context of a birth, that the mother is going to need time off. They are not typically as understanding when tables are turned and dad wants to take time off.”
Even if employers are open to dads spending more time with junior, there are tradeoffs for fathers. For example, it may be harder to get the top jobs.
“Work is important to me, but the corner office is not my goal,” said Vachon. “My goal is to have a sustainable, enjoyable life.”
Just as moms have known for years, maintaining work-life balance is extremely difficult.
“Certainly, there are a lot of challenges with younger children, a lot of stress and chaos,” said Sherman, the attorney from Mobile who scaled back his work life to spend more time with his kids.
He plans to ramp up his work again in the fall, but stick to 30 hours a week so he can arrange his home-schooling schedule accordingly.
Sherman’s wife, Kathy, is a full-time, in-house corporate attorney. Sherman said he has gotten some odd looks from people who find out about their reversed roles, especially from men who can’t see themselves in such a role even though they may be longing for more time with family.
“If the reason they’re not doing it is out of some sense of pride or ego, they may be sorry in the long run that they missed an opportunity to strengthen that connection with their kids,” he said.