Dads, too, face clash between home and job

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 8, 2010 - 10:30 PM
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Craig and Thekla Polley and their children, Michaela, 8, Dominik, 2, (back to camera), and Tobi, 7, at their St. Paul home on Friday. Craig Polley says he tries hard to balance his hours at work and at home..

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Moms, this isn't a traditional gift, but I'm hoping recent news will please you: Dads feel your pain.

Not in the dilated-to-10-centimeters-with-an-epidural-that-never-kicked-in pain, but pain nonetheless. A study, whose findings will be included in a book coming out this fall, found that more men than women now report work-life conflict.

Joan C. Williams, distinguished professor of law at the University of California-San Francisco Hastings College of Law, has studied work-family inequities for decades. While her focus has been working mothers, "pushed out by very strong and very open gender discrimination and workplace inflexibility," she's shifted of late. Her new book, "Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter" (Harvard 2010), looks, in part, at modern fathers struggling to grasp that confounding ideal called balance.

"Men are uneasy for two reasons," said Williams, who founded the law school's Center for WorkLife Law 10 years ago. "First, our society is set up for the 'ideal worker,' which is the man married to a homemaker. That still is the one pattern rewarded to this day in many fields," she said. While some couples happily choose this model, the reality is that Mom's earnings are increasingly important to make ends meet.

"Masculinity, the sense of oneself as manly, is tied up in that provider role," Williams said. "These guys are faced with questions about whether they're really men. That cuts pretty close to the quick."

Add to that men's strong desire to be active fathers against relentless recessionary work pressures. "Full-time is no longer 40 hours. It's 50, 60, 70 hours a week," Williams said. "Men are now facing what women have long faced, the clash between the ideal worker and the ideal parent."

Todd Seabury-Kolod has observed familial sea changes for nearly 30 years. "The La-Z-Boy remote control days are gone," said Seabury-Kolod, a parent-educator with the St. Paul public schools Early Childhood Family Education program since 1983. But even in the 1980s, fathers in his groups were changing diapers and doing dishes, he said. The economy, he surmises, is making dads' work-home struggle "seem more real now."

At a recent evening meeting of dads in the Rondo ECFE, Seabury-Kolod wrote on a white board as men, ranging in age from their 20s to 50s, threw out top-of-mind thoughts:

"No lunch breaks at work to get home by 5:30. Eat at desk."

"Before kids, gone three nights per week -- changed jobs."

"Wife in school -- taking eve. classes 2 nights/weekends."

"Nothing is balanced. Everything, except taking care of the kids, goes by the wayside," said Jacob VanElswyk, 31, the father of two children, 3 and almost 1. Before kids, VanElswyk, a full-time physical therapist, saw his patients early in the morning and into the evening. Now he is grateful for his 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. job. "Man, this is a big deal to be able to have a job where you have flexibility."

After his father developed a terminal illness a few years ago, Craig Polley, the father of three, became determined to "get work-life balance in place. I realized that having the children, raising the children, was really what life was about."

Still, he feels the daily push-pull. Polley, 39, begins his workday at 6 a.m. as a mechanical engineer, so he can be home by 5 p.m. for a family dinner, and takes every other Friday off. Sometimes he'll return to his office to catch up on work after the kids are in bed.

"I try to really balance the number of hours I put in against how much time it would take from my family," Polley said.

Seabury-Kolod notes another tug, confirmed by Williams' research: the Catch-22 that moms sometimes put dads in, wanting them to earn more, and to be home more, too.

"One study showed that women, as well as men, expect men to be providers," Williams said. "One of the challenges for women is to not place men in a no-win situation, to fault them for not being the kind of providers they have been traditionally expected to be."

Williams' research, based on a review of many social science studies on work-family issues over the past decade, is part of the Council on Contemporary Families compendium, "Unconventional Wisdom: New Data and Trends in American Families," released in April.

Class differences, clashing gender expectations and a tough economy aside, Williams is optimistic about today's young families, their employers, and the ability to find common ground.

"I have seen a tremendous amount of change in the past 20 years, in terms of acceptance that you can be a good worker and still have family responsibilities," she said. "The view of femininity has widened out and now the view of masculinity is widening out. There are different ways of being a man."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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