Mr. Mom, Meet Alpha Dad: A New Type of Father

In the ’80s, a stay-at-home dad was a punch line. Today, fathers balance life at home and the office, and—surprise!—sometimes they’re better at it than Mom.

By Sheelah Kolhatkar from Bloomberg Businessweek
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine October 2013

Mr. Mom, Meet Alpha Dad

Finn O’Hara

The Deloitte Dads lack their own demi-celebrity in the mold of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, whose bestselling book Lean Inurges women to pursue their careers aggressively and not be put off by worries about how they’ll balance their work with their families. Sandberg touches on men and how important it is to choose the right one to procreate with, but she’s primarily focused on women and what they can do to push their way further up the corporate ranks.

That’s a fine agenda for Sandberg’s book, but Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University who studies families and work, asks, “Why do we continue to focus on this as a women’s issue, when the evidence makes it so clear that it’s shared by men?” She adds, “The irony is there is some research that suggests men feel as much or more conflict and have as great or a greater desire for balance than women.”

In fact, a March 2013 Pew Research study about modern parenthood found that nearly equal proportions of parents were trying to “do it all.” Fifty percent of working fathers and 56 percent of working mothers found it “very” or “somewhat” difficult to balance work and family, according to Pew, while 48 percent of working fathers and 52 percent of working mothers responded that they’d prefer to be home with their children but needed to work for the income.

The Deloitte Dads and their imitators reflect not only the demands of men to have more flexible schedules and be more involved parents but also the increasing number of couples negotiating whose career will take priority. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of married-couple families in which both parents work was 59 percent in 2012. And signs of changing priorities were evident as much as a dozen years back: A poll taken by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center in 2000 asking men and women in their 20s whether they would accept a lower salary to spend more time with their families found that about 70 percent of the men answered yes, compared with 63 percent of the women.

“If you listen to the best young male workers, the ones coming out of the top business schools, they all talk about wanting to be really involved fathers, expecting and assuming that their wives are going to be committed to their careers,” says Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University who consults with companies around issues of gender equality. “And then they get to the workplace and find the same things that the women are bumping up against.”

“We’re primed for a cultural shift,” says Warren Farrell, a consultant and author of seven books, including The Myth of Male Power and Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap—and What Women Can Do About It. This is in part, he says, because these “bright young men are feeling that they want something more out of life than just climbing a ladder.”

They have their work cut out for them: Human resources departments are almost entirely focused on preventing lawsuits and addressing the needs of women and minority employees. Opening up the options to the guys is the inevitable next step, says Farrell, one that the upcoming generation of ambitious male workers is demanding.

Roger Trombley, a research engineer at Ford Motor who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is just the sort of bright young man Farrell is talking about. In 2010, when Trombley was expecting his first child, he and his wife, who also works at Ford, weren’t thrilled with the child-care options available, and she wasn’t eager to become a stay-at-home mother. Trombley remembered that a former colleague had worked out a novel solution with her husband: Both worked part-time, allowing each to have time at home with their kids.

Ford didn’t offer paternity leave, but it did offer a part-time track. When baby Dylan arrived, Trombley told his bosses he wanted to drop down to 70 percent of the standard workweek and work from home two days a week.

“Knowing there was the potential for backlash wasn’t going to change what I was doing,” Trombley says. “There was some nervousness. Will [working part-time] affect my performance reviews, how people view me at work, my potential to get promoted? But [in the three years I’ve been doing this] I’ve gotten great feedback.”

Now three other men in Trombley’s department have similar part-time setups. “Every one of them asked for recommendations on how to create the situation for themselves,” he says proudly.

Despite the benefits that men like Trombley have enjoyed, the idea that men are more fulfilled when they spend less time accumulating corporate pelts and more time roughhousing with their toddlers is generally still more mocked than celebrated.

Even as advertisements for Tide, Wells Fargo, Yoplait, and others have caught on to the hands-on father as a consumer group, the “incompetent dad” remains a potent meme, with the wife often telling him what to do by text message or Post-it. A guy with an infant strapped to his chest is far more likely to be held up as a source of comedy than as a masculine ideal. The image of the Baby Björn dad as unattractive and inept may have to change before more concrete things do.

Partly to counter this perception problem, Sweden, which has some of the most family-friendly policies in the world, funded an advertising campaign intended to encourage men to take advantage of the ample paternity-leave benefits their country offers them (85 percent of Swedish fathers now do). The ads feature photographs of hunky men in various states of undress, including a well-known Swedish wrestler, cradling infants in their bulging arms.

For now, at least, the Deloitte Dads are improvising a more daddy-friendly future in their own way. The day before a meeting, Andrew Hamer sent an e-mail: “Folks,” it began, “can I propose a slight change? I decided to work from home this morning so I could take my toddler to day care and help my wife with our newborn (have been on the road all week). May I suggest a conference call? Dial-in information below.”

Finn O’Hara

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