“Dada!” my 2-year-old, Nicholas, bounded toward me, embracing my leg before I’d even closed the front door. The guest of honor in his nightly surprise-party-of-one had arrived.
“Hi buddy!” I replied, scooping him up and kissing a tiny nose that, thankfully, looks more like my wife’s.
“He did a lot today!” my wife said. Like me, she’d just finished a long day of work, and so she proceeded to give me our caregiver’s report: baby gym, music hour at the library, two new letters in the alphabet puzzle. And now…
“Bib bib,” Nicholas said, completing my thought. He gestured to his chair where, after thoroughly perusing his bib drawer to select the evening’s lucky winner, Nicholas would spend the next 45-60 minutes fussing over (and eating some) food.
To recap: Our nanny gets to see our only child tumble adoringly on a mat and clap along to “Pop Goes the Weasel” while we endure a protracted hunger strike spanning our entire time with him before bedtime.
As co-breadwinners (TBH, she makes a bit more than me) with busy careers, my wife and I are in the same exact boat as one another. We divvy up household duties evenly. I can’t cook, she won’t clean bathrooms, etc.
With Nicholas, what we also share is a working parent’s guilt. Yes, dads get that, too—though there are differences in the way this guilt manifests in men.
For my wife and I, these shared-yet-separate pangs at forfeiting, from our offices, the best parts of Nicholas’ day are layered with traditional gender roles, modern feminism and what it means to be a two-career household in our newly woke world.
It’s good ol’ fashioned guilt, run through separate gender blenders and served soberingly cold.
There are many different facets of my working dad guilt—guilt at home, at work, imposed on me by society. I feel as though I am often just as compromised as my working wife feels. It’s frustrating for the both of us.
Marriage is, I believe, the ultimate partnership of equals. And the more progress women make in society at large—the push for equal pay, breaking glass ceilings, the #MeToo movement—the more our nation resembles an ideal marriage: a more perfect union, however impossible to fully realize.
But for dads like me, these positives come with pause—a hesitancy that leaves us perpetually wondering whether we’re doing enough to maintain a co-parenting equilibrium that is, typically, off-kilter from Day One. Here, work is a key factor.
Most dads, myself included, start fatherhood in a decidedly imbalanced role: While mom stays home with baby for her maternity leave, most dads are often back in the office a few weeks (or even days) after birth. Right or wrong, our society still sees mothers as primary caretakers from the very beginning of our children’s lives.
Dads, then, are typically in a co-parenting hole from the get-go. And as gender norms and roles evolve, we’re left to play catch-up without fully understanding where the goalposts are—where true co-parenting equilibrium lies. Our jobs serve to further condense spare time in a culture that, however fittingly, now asks dads to carry a more equitable share of the parenting load. Though appropriate, this is daunting nonetheless.
But this cultural progress can also be liberating—a win-win for moms and dads alike.
The “traditional” dad role —sole breadwinner, lone disciplinarian—had limited work/life balance; and the “traditional” mom role—a stay-at-home mom homemaker, had none whatsoever. As more households comprise two working parents, the further we get from those antiquated norms, the better. Because equality is… well… equalizing.
Today, my wife and I both have work/life balance—or, at least, as much as possible. We cover each other during particularly busy work stretches, and try not to add to each other’s guilt when work time impinges on family time. We are flexible, interchangeable.
We are equal. And as equals we can help alleviate our working parents’ guilt through symbiotic support and common experience.
But while our culture gets more woke, workplaces often lag behind societal progress. For dads, this holds true not only for the still-fledgling push for paternity leave but also in lingering perceptions of traditional gender roles.
For example, many managers are less likely to raise an eyebrow at a dad leaving early for his child’s sporting event than say, a pediatrician check-up. For decades, society has established the former activity—athletics—as manly, while relegating the latter to a woman’s work.
Times are changing but, as we drag our typically older bosses into modernity, working dads feel a distinct sort of guilt as we strive to be available for our children and respectful of our spouses’ careers. This is because striking such a balance means straying from the traditional “working dad” construct.
It’s sexism, plain and simple, and it’s wrong.
Many men—myself fortunately excluded—are trying to play a larger role in their children’s lives under the watchful eyes of suspicious employers. Similar to many bosses paying women less for equal work, too many managers see a desire for more involved fatherhood as office excuse-making. You can read the thought bubble atop their heads: “Can’t your wife handle that?”
Many fathers are trying to be New Age dads while working for Stone Age employers, resulting in a pulled-from-all-directions, paranoia-laced guilt. I myself feel it sometimes—and again, I have a particularly understanding boss.
Working dads must breach these man-made social barriers with both insistence and persistence. The more dads normalize tackling heretofore “pink collar” parenting duties, the more equal we will become to our spouses and, over time, the lower our bosses’ eyebrows will raise.
After all, our kids aren’t excuses but reasons—and very good ones at that.