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The Stay-at-Home Dilemma: Modern Dads Can Pay a Steep Price for Bonding with Baby

December 12, 2014
by Glen Martin
Image of a father and child Image source: Detail of Illustration by John S. Dykes

Daddy ain’t Mommy. This is demonstrable at the most elemental level: a distressed toddler. At least, that’s my personal experience. When I gaze into the eyes of my 2-year-old son, I get a variety of reactions, depending on his mood or passing whim: delight, deep affection, irritation, boredom. But when his mother looks at him, there is only one response: melting, total, abject adoration.

When the chips are down, if he stubs his toe or is frightened by a loud noise, he always runs to Mom. When his antics make me testy, he is unconcerned. In fact, he takes it as a challenge, ramping up his rowdiness to maximize my response. But if his mother shows the slightest displeasure at his behavior, he is bereft. Which may explain why—no matter how devoted the father and his degree of resolve in sharing the parenting load equally—mothers still do more of the work. As far as the kids go, apparently, men are Y-chromosome impaired. We flunk the performance review. Oh, we try. God, how we try. But our work, frankly, is subpar. How do I know? I get a pretty good sense of my deficits when I pick up my cranky son, only to hear his screeching swell to the eardrum-piercing range. That’s when I perform a well-practiced maneuver: The quick lateral hand-off to Mom, who fixes me with an equally well-practiced moue of irritation. It’s the look that says, Can’t I get it together? Can’t I figure out the basics?

Well—no. But I’m happy to fly wingman to my wife, to play any role required of me, however subordinate. We share the same ambition here: Somehow, someway, to drag this kid into healthy adulthood. And my goal apparently is shared by my compères in fatherhood. A recent Pew Research Center study found that child care and breadwinning goals are “converging” in American households—though women still spend more time with the kids than men.

A study found that men who are “highly in­ves­ted” in fath­er­hood ex­per­i­ence sig­ni­fic­ant drops in testoster­one levels. Hav­ing a kid snooze on my belly is like get­ting an IV of es­tro­gen.

“There is a documented shift in the ideals of parenthood,” observes Joan C. Williams, a distinguished professor of law and the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the UC Hastings College of the Law. Williams cites research by Gayle Kaufman, a professor of sociology at Davidson College in North Carolina and the author of Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century.

Kaufman found that about 20 percent of fathers are traditional dads, men who view breadwinning as their primary parental duty. Another minority group is composed of true “superdads,” fathers who deliberately shape their careers to the exigencies of family life.

“But the largest group are men who believe in the new ideals of fatherhood, but feel constrained from acting on them,” says Williams. “Many men—especially younger men—look at an exemplar like Steve Jobs, and they say, ‘I don’t want what he had. He didn’t know his kids.’ They want to be more involved as fathers, but they feel their careers—and the solvency of their families—will be negatively affected by any move in that direction.”

And that’s generating familial stress. The Pew Research study found that 56 percent of working mothers and 50 percent of working fathers think it’s “very or somewhat” difficult to balance the demands of both the workplace and the home. Very or somewhat difficult? Personally, I’d say it’s—well, I’m tempted to use the adjectival qualifier derived from an old Anglo-Saxon term for sexual congress here, but this is a genteel publication. So, yes, “very to somewhat difficult” touches on it, at least. The case may well be made that dads in particular find this juggling act hard to execute, given there is even less institutional support for paternity leave than there is for maternity leave.

Adding injury to insult, a study from Northwestern University has found that men who are “highly invested” in fatherhood (such as stay-at-home dads) experience significant drops in testosterone levels. And again (speaking as a dad who works from home), that conforms to my own empirical take. Having a kid snooze on my belly is like taking a softball-sized Valium, or maybe getting an IV of estrogen. I can almost feel those contentious male hormones denaturing in my bloodstream.

Or maybe it’s just age-related decrepitude. Anyway, testosterone deprivation notwithstanding, you’d think “invested fatherhood” would be widely perceived as a social boon. But as noted, little real value is attached to it. In fact, dads who make family involvement their top priority lose more than testosterone. They also lose respect. And promotions. Maybe even their jobs.

There re­mains a strong if un­spoken im­per­at­ive that men should put their jobs above all else, that they best serve their fam­il­ies by do­ing whatever it takes to ad­vance their ca­reers.

“I’ve been concentrating on work and family issues for 20 years,” says Williams, “and I’ve said for some time that remarkably little [positive] is happening. And the reason is because nothing much is happening for men. And paternity leave is part of the reason.”

Williams observes there is a certain pro forma conversation she has with many employers.

“First I’m told how committed the company is to women’s advancement,” says Williams. “And then I ask if they provide paternity leave, and I get dumbfounded looks in response. Or if they do provide it, it’s usually no more than two weeks.”

Men are thus running into a problem that has bedeviled women for decades: the flexibility stigma. A 2007 Cornell University study found that motherhood triggers a strong commitment penalty bias in the workplace. Requesting such things as flex time and parental leave is a flag to bosses that moms are less committed to work than their childless peers, meaning they are less likely to be hired or promoted; and if they are hired, they’ll typically receive lower salaries.

And for men, the flexibility stigma is compounded by the “femininity stigma,” says Williams. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Social Issues determined that men who requested parental leave were perceived as “higher on weak, feminine traits” (e.g., uncertainty), putting them at greater risk of demotion or downsizing. The phenomenon even has a name in social science circles, observes Williams: “gender deviance.”

Moreover, a disdain of gender deviance seems shared by both bosses and peers, says Williams, citing a study of Canadian men that found male workers who disclosed care-giving responsibilities were subject to “not man enough harassment” by their colleagues.

But that’s Canada, of course, where the boreal forest meets the northern plains, the wind whistles down from the Arctic to slash at your face like samurai katanas, and it helps to be big, hairy, and tough to do what has to be done, like extract oil from the tar sands, cut pulpwood, and trap lynx and ermine. Surely we are a little more progressive down here in the Bay Area, where nature isn’t so red of tooth and claw. Right?

Well—yes and no. Ryan Tate (full disclosure: the spouse of California science editor Anne Pinckard), until recently a senior writer at Wired, had a decidedly mixed experience when he requested parental leave from the magazine, which is owned by the publishing conglomerate Condé Nast. “I was very aggressive in asking for the full amount of my entitled leave (under California law, six weeks at reduced pay),” says Tate. “I wanted it because I felt a very strong urge to bond with my child, but also because I wanted to make an impact, however small, in the way dads are perceived.”

The company offered new mothers up to six weeks with pay, so Tate was surprised when he was interviewed by a human resources staffer who demanded birth documentation for his infant.

“I thought, ‘Do you think I’d lie about taking time off to change diapers?’ It struck me as very strange, and I was only given a week.”

Tate, who has since left Wired for a position with the investigative news site The Intercept, emphasizes that the resistance to his request was manifest at the corporate level, not in the magazine’s editorial offices.

“I certainly think it was more a matter of company policy than anything personal,” he says. “My boss was adamant that I should take all the time I needed, that I should do what’s best for my family. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was I taking myself out of the loop? Was I missing certain critical conversations, certain essential meetings?”

Some incidents seemed to confirm those intimations when Tate went back to work. He had covered the TED conference in 2013 and assumed he’d do the same in 2014. But when he returned from parental leave, he found that another reporter had been given the assignment.

“I was assured it wasn’t because of any problems with my 2013 coverage,” Tate says. “I simply wasn’t in the room, so they assigned it to someone else.”

My old­est boy as­sures me I was a good fath­er. I don’t know if he is sin­cere or merely kind, but either way, he is wrong. I was de­fi­cient as a fath­er, even as I was con­sidered ad­equate as a journ­al­ist.

And later, he says, when he took a second leave to help out with his infant daughter, “A job opening I was interested in was posted and filled before I returned.” Tate’s experience may reflect a general society-wide unease about paternity leave—a sense that it is unfairly piggy-backing on the legitimate needs of new mothers who must take it. A desire to bond with one’s child, after all, is qualitatively different from the physical necessity of nursing that child. “With my own generation, I recall times when [female academicians] got very [upset] about men taking paternity leave,” says Marjorie Shultz, a professor emeritus at Berkeley Law. “Universities can be peculiar institutions, but there was still a strong suspicion that many male colleagues weren’t taking it to provide primary care. Instead, they were using it as a kind of de facto sabbatical, an opportunity to pursue research and writing. It was viewed as an additional means of career advancement for men, and thus penalized women who were true primary caregivers while simultaneously trying to further their own careers.”

Still, continues Shultz, there remains a strong if unspoken imperative that men should put their jobs above all else, that they best serve their families by doing whatever it takes to advance their careers and bring home the bacon—even at the expense of face time with their kids. “To do otherwise somehow implies you’re not a serious man, that you’re weak or soft-headed,” Shultz says.

Certainly, I can relate to the widespread if unspoken perception that stay-at-home dads are pencil-necked, mush-brained weaklings. I have an older son; he’s now 18. When my ex-wife and I were raising him, we were both reporters at—to paraphrase the old Superman intro—a great (or at least middling large) metropolitan newspaper. We both worked full-time. Our son spent a lot of time in day-care and preschool and with sitters. That was viewed as appropriate by our peers. But something felt seriously off. I lost kid time that I never got back. And for what? To scoop other reporters at other papers about governmental malfeasance or personal scandal. I exchanged my birthright—or rather the pleasure and duty of spending as much time as possible with my son—for a mess of pottage. My oldest boy is generous and loving, and he assures me I was a good father. I don’t know if he is sincere or merely kind, but either way, he is wrong. I was deficient as a father, even as I was considered adequate as a journalist.

Everything feels different with my youngest son. I may not be doing a better job at parenting, but at least I’m around more. And the price I pay for being around, as Shultz alludes, is respect. My articles appear in a variety of publications and on a number of websites, and I have several consulting and corporate writing contacts. In a modest fashion, I’m prospering. But I’m no longer a staff writer for a major daily. My emails are not always returned with alacrity. When I phone bureaucrats, I don’t sense that tension, even fear, that my calls once elicited. When anyone asks what I do and I tell them I freelance and consult, their eyes take on the kind of glaze you see in three-day-old dead mackerels. But all I have to do is walk into the living room and wrestle with my 2-year-old to know it’s worth it.

Still, I would welcome a staff position if it accommodated my parental status – if it provided flex time, or even allowed me to work from my house. The irony is that my productivity is higher at home than in an office setting, where I tend to woolgather and spend too much time shooting the bull with my colleagues. But the great Human Resources monolith, of course, doesn’t support such outlier ambitions.

And that’s a shame. Not just for dads, but moms as well. Williams observes that poorly defined paternity leave policies hurt mothers as much as fathers. After all, if dads can’t get time off to help out with the baby, it’s mom who invariably takes up the slack.

“The irony is that while the role of women has changed in the workplace, things remain much the same within the home,” says Williams.

There is one significant indication that things may be shifting, says Williams: Men are beginning to file lawsuits on paternity leave issues and gender discrimination.

“If the company is large enough, it’s illegal under the [federal] Family and Medical Leave Act to discriminate or retaliate against someone for taking leave. We run a worker discrimination hotline at the WorkLife Law Center, and we’ve seen a sharp increase in calls from men who’ve experienced [leave] discrimination and want to do something about it.”

Everything feels dif­fer­ent with my young­est son. I may not be do­ing a bet­ter job at par­ent­ing, but at least I’m around more. And the price I pay for be­ing around is … re­spect.

Cynthia Calvert, an attorney who runs WorkLife Law’s hotline and maintains its database of caregiver discrimination cases, notes only nine percent of the 2008 calls were from men. In 2013, men accounted for 22 percent of the hotline calls.

“I’m putting together our 2014 [caregiver discrimination] litigation report now,” Calvert wrote in an email. “I see an uptick in the number of cases filed by men in court as well…. It is too early for me to quantify it, but I can say that almost 12 percent of [the] cases filed in court are brought by men, up from 7 percent ten years ago.”

Being self-employed, I don’t have to endure direct contempt from sneering bosses. All anyone cares about is that my work is delivered on deadline, that my contracts are fulfilled. Moreover, through dint of seven-day workweeks and long hours, I’m able to (barely) earn enough so my wife doesn’t have to work.

And by that I mean work at an office, of course. She’s not sitting around eating bon-bons. Indeed, I have the cushy part of the arrangement. I play with my son at regular intervals throughout the day, cook tasty meals, vacuum, wash clothes as necessity dictates, and change some diapers. But then I get to hole up in my office, research, write, and think deep thoughts while gazing out the window at the brown towhees and scrub jays flitting through the foliage of the liquidambar tree.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the door, chaos ensues, interrupted only by nappy time and meals. It sounds intense out there. I sip my tea. Yep: Daddy ain’t Mommy. And I’m honest (or craven) enough to admit that’s a relief. It’s almost worth the drop in my testosterone levels. 

Glen Martin is a frequent contributor to California and California Online.

From the Winter 2014 Gender Assumptions issue of California.

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