Modern Dads Balancing

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
Photo by Kraig Scattarella

Today's dads are changing diapers, driving the carpool and cooking dinner — shouldering more child and household responsibilities than the previous generation of fathers.

The numbers tell the story: Fathers do 67 percent more housework and 50 percent more child care than 25 years ago, according to surveys by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit organization based in New York.

Decades ago, men responded to fatherhood by honing their ability to support a family. Now, more are making career sacrifices and adjusting their work days as they try to reconcile the roles of provider and parent.

Yet they don't always find sympathy at their jobs. Bosses and colleagues who nod knowingly when a new mother scales back may react with surprise when a new father wants to do the same. And the biggest career-oriented rewards, many experts say, still go to those with few home duties, who can devote their full energy to work.

"The culture still remains one based on the whole breadwinner-homemaker model,'' said Ann Bookman, executive director of the MIT Workplace Center at the Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass.

The model of fatherhood is changing because wives expect a partnership and men want to be actively engaged with their kids.

"We ... have ratcheted up the expectations of what the father would do compared with previous generations,'' said Daniel Isaac, 38, of Yardley, Pa., a research scientist and teacher at Princeton University.

Isaac chose academic work in part because his wife planned a demanding career as a practicing physician. She leaves the house early in the morning, so Isaac gets their 2-year-old daughter up, dressed and to daycare. He can catch up on work on weekends, when his wife is home.

When Quinae Ewing found out he was going to become a father, his first response was to ramp up his career at Xerox and take on outside work for extra money. But after Xerox moved Ewing to Wilsonville, Ore., to become manager of cost engineering, his wife made him promise to drop his side jobs and spend more time at home.

"I realized how much I was missing out,'' he said. "I missed the bath time, eating dinner together.''

The loss of income forced the family to cut back spending. "I realized it's not so important that Dad drives his Porsche,'' said Ewing, 33. "In the end, it's the relationships you have with your kids that are most important because that's time you won't get back.''

Now he drives his 5-year-old daughter to school at 8 a.m., picks her up at 11, drops her at after-care, and picks her up again at 5 p.m. His work group schedules meetings around those commitments, without complaint.

With three-quarters of married couples both holding down jobs, it's no longer feasible to expect one partner to shoulder the load at home. Between 1980 and 2000, the share of U.S. families with a sole male breadwinner declined to 25 percent from 42 percent, according to Paul Amato, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor.

Men still do more work for pay and women more at home, according to the Families and Work Institute's surveys of dual-income couples. In 2002, women spent 3 hours on chores and 3.5 hours on children each workday, while men spent 2 hours on the household and 2.7 hours on children. Mothers worked 42.8 hours a week and fathers worked 51.3 hours on average.

Dads interested in cutting work hours are battling a 30-year trend: The American work week has steadily grown longer, said Lonnie Golden, professor of economics and labor studies at Pennsylvania State University, Abington. Much of the load is borne involuntarily, he said — top white-collar jobs come with an unwritten expectation that work weeks will be 50-plus hours, and blue-collar workers grapple with mandatory overtime.

"Of any country in the world, the United States presses workers more to give everything to the job, to the point that if you're not working 60 or 70 hours a week, you're not really a team player,'' said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. "That's a tremendous cost to women and men in those jobs, whether or not they're parents, because it means they can't live well-rounded lives.''

Tom Stern, Los Angeles-based author of "CEO Dad: How to Avoid Being Fired by Your Family,'' worked relentlessly by choice — he's an entrepreneur who sets his own schedule. His daughter's birth didn't change that drive.

The turning point for Stern came when his wife was attacked and robbed in front of their daughter. As he was calling an ambulance, he said, "I heard my 5-year-old daughter say, 'Mommy, I'm going to get you a glass of water and a towel and everything's going to be OK.' It was that moment of innocence and generosity and selflessness from my own daughter, whom I didn't know as well as I should. That changed my life. I scaled back.''

He put limits on work and became more engaged with his family.

"Many men feel that achievement is what makes you a man, and they don't understand how to measure or show to the world the achievements of being a good parent,'' said Stern, 51. "You can buy a big house when you've achieved in business. The achievement of being a dad is a more intimate, personal and private expression.''

For Mark Balachowski, 37, a groundskeeper in Cutler, Ohio, sharing childcare is a matter more practical than philosophical. His wife's schedule as a certified nursing assistant is more variable than his, so when she isn't available, he picks up his 7-year-old stepdaughter and runs errands or cooks dinner — whatever's needed.

"It's a have-to situation,'' Balachowski said. "You've got to be able to make sure there's food in the house; you can't wait for mom to go to the store.''

He'd prefer that his wife have the option to quit work and spend more time with their daughter, but both salaries barely cover their bills.

Bookman, at MIT, sees the current crop of dads facing the same conflict between work and home that mothers have grappled with for decades. "As with any historical period when there's very large cultural shifts, it's unsettling for people,'' Bookman said.

Indeed, being an involved dad may carry penalties.

Mike May, a 38-year-old salesman in the San Diego area, was fired three weeks after he took leave to care for his wife and new baby. The 2004 California law that created partially paid family leave didn't protect employees of small companies like May's — something he knew but decided to risk.

"Right now today I'm regretting it,'' said May, who has been job hunting since April 2006 and considers breadwinning to be his responsibility.

Yet he also regrets not taking leave when his older three children were newborns. "No matter what happens, I want to look back on this time as being a gift,'' May said.

In the end, men agitating for greater work-life balance may be the impetus needed for corporate culture to change across the board, said Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation at, based in Waltham, Mass.

Jeremy Smith, San Francisco-based managing editor of Greater Good magazine and author of the forthcoming "Twenty-First Century Dad,'' sees "a new idea of the good father'' emerging, but cautions, "We're just at the beginning.''

"We're in a difficult time, and we should acknowledge that,'' Smith said. "But I don't think we can reverse the changes the American family has gone through. The only way to go is forward toward more equality.''

(Katherine Reynolds Lewis can be contacted at katherine.lewis(at)

This story was originally published Thursday, June 7, 2007.