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Stop Blaming Dads For Not Doing Enough Childcare

November 23, 2015, 8:40 PM UTC
Photograph by Sharon Dominick — Getty Images

A new Pew Research Center report about dual-breadwinner households has been the talk of working parents in recent weeks. The paper, which showed that working moms and dads are stressed and frantically busy, focused largely on how parents handle the division of labor.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the research revealed that parents agree that women do more of the child care. And although things are shifting, in most households (50%) fathers still earn more than mothers. (Twenty-six percent of parents report earning the same income, and 22% report mothers earn more.) It’s statistics like these that remind us just how much traditional gender norms still maintain a stronghold in the majority of two-parent households.

Unfortunately, much of the press coverage of the Pew study described this dynamic as a “men versus women” problem. To me, that misses the real issue: how parents are pawns in a system that puts unnecessary stress on American families. Even worse, it obscures the big question: In a world where the most highly rewarded workers are the ones who get to the office first and leave last, should we really have expected families to change? Too many face a win-lose decision: Succeed at work or spend time actively engaged in the care of children and aging loved ones.

Brigid Schulte does an excellent job analyzing these issues in her best-selling book, Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Her chapter on the “Stalled Gender Revolution” begins with a description of the fury she felt at her husband Tom, who seemed oblivious to what needed to get done in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner. Later in this chapter Schulte puts her reporter’s hat on to better understand how she and Tom ended up with such gendered patterns at home.

After a heart-felt discussion, both parents begin to see how their behaviors and their family had been shaped by a much larger circle of forces. Maternity leave for Brigid was expected, but it was career suicide for Tom. Overseas travel for Tom reinforced his disengagement at home. It also required Brigid to find even greater flexibility to manage her work. Both parents were trying their best, but in the fast-paced world of two careers, two children and the need to pay for two college tuitions, they were left with very little time to step back and re-jigger the system.

The Pew data underscores how families all across our country are feeling the same kind of stress Brigid and Tom faced. More than half of moms (60%) and dads (51%) said they struggle to balance work and family. Even a higher rate (65%) of college educated parents report this stress—likely because they are navigating rigid career tracks that assume employees can put work first throughout their entire careers. However, 49% of non-college graduates also report work-family stress. Clearly the challenges these families are facing are not tenable for parents, children, and society as a whole.

There is a better way. For the past 15 years, our organization, ThirdPath Institute, has been helping families push back against these outdated norms and create a new more satisfying approach to balancing work and family. We’ve also been working with a group of male and female leaders who have succeeded in following “integrated career paths”—creating a team approach both at work and home so they can better manage each domain.

These integrated leaders—or as we call them Whole Life Leaders—are forging new path, holding on to both their career and life goals. What they have also taught us is that by repeatedly making this choice, integrated leaders are developing truly 21st century skills that enabled them to be more effective at work and have more fun time with family.

For example, a Whole Life Leader might leverage the seasonality of his or her work to improve work-family balance. Michelle Hickox, now the CFO of Independent Bank, was working in public accounting when her daughter was in kindergarten. When the first summer break was approaching, Hickox realized she was going to face a gap in child care every summer until their two daughters graduated from high school.

Consequently, Hickox negotiated a new schedule working 35 hours a week during the fall, about 55 hours a week during the busier tax season, and then 20 hours a month during July and August. This arrangement lasted for six years, survived the buyout of her local firm by a larger firm, and continued even as Hickox was promoted to partner. Hickox’s husband also made a number of changes, including doing the lion’s share of family work during the winter months and supporting her as she managed the extra work demands when becoming a partner.

This is the new, more modern take on family values—one where men and women are both able to arrange their work so they have plenty of time and energy to share in the care of their children (or aging parents) while also earning an income. Now add to this mix progressive public policies that make these solutions available to families across the economic spectrum, and we have something that is truly worth fighting for!

The time is ripe for change. Anne-Marie Slaughter outlines what some of these changes could look like in her new book, Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family. Bottom line, we at ThirdPath couldn’t agree more when Slaughter writes, “I continue to believe the vast majority of people want both: to create an identity through rewarding work AND to be able to care for their loved ones.” Working together—men, women, organizations and legislators—we can create a world where we equally value caregiving and competition, providing a brighter future for all.

Jessica DeGroot is the president and founder of ThirdPath Institute, which assists individuals, families and organizations in finding new ways to redesign work and life to create more time for family, community and other life priorities.