The Truth About Superdad

The 'new' involved dad is old news now. So why does society cut working dads so little slack?

The Truth About SuperdadMy wife, Pam, and I both have high-stress, high-pressure, full-time jobs — also, three kids, a dog, a cat and a snake.

Every day we hit the ground running. Three kids dressed and breakfasted and out the door, dog walked, ourselves showered and dressed, bagels gobbled, then blast off for work. At night we both usually get home around seven. Immediately, we split into two labour units. She handles the kids: checks their homework, gets their teeth brushed, PJs on. I walk the dog, start dinner, make her a drink. She reads stories to the kids. I bring said drink up to her, say goodnight to the kids, then rush back down to finish dinner. If I remember, I’ll grab a load of laundry on the way down, chuck it into the washer. On a good night, we eat at 9. Other nights it’s 9:30, 9:45. Exhausted, we munch our dinners, staring at the TV, with the background music of the washer churning. Then there are dishes, maybe a little floor sweeping, garbage, recycling…

The next day; lather, rinse, repeat. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining, and I don’t want to come off as a “whinner,” someone who whines while they win. It’s a beautiful life and I’m grateful. My point is not that I’m somehow hard done by. It’s that we’re a team, domestically. And when I look around, I think we’re totally typical of the modern family.

I’m the first to admit that, if anything, Pam is the harder-working team member, but there’s plenty out there in our culture that speaks to her experience. In the last 20 or so years, we’ve heard a lot about the difficulties working women have juggling career and domestic life. We’ve heard about “supermoms,” working moms, soccer moms and “mompreneurs” who use their maternity leaves to switch gears and start their own businesses. Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung hit a nerve with their 1989 book, The Second Shift, which described how many women come home to a whole “second shift” of domestic work after a day at their full-time jobs. And books such as Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, a novel about a hedge-fund manager (a woman) barely able to keep it together on the domestic front, are fixtures of the bestseller lists.

But what is there that speaks to the male half of the work-home life juggle? Very little. In one of the few books on the topic, Working Fathers (a title meant to be provocative, since, what else would a father be?), authors James A. Levine and Todd L. Pittinsky, both associated with the Families and Work Institute in New York, call this “the invisible dilemma,” and I would say I have to agree. You almost never hear about the stress of men juggling work and family. Where’s our The Second Shift? Where’s I Don’t Know How He Does It?

the million dad march

In the last 10 or so years, men have quietly, very quietly, made huge inroads on the domestic front. Statistically, the picture is clear: Gen-X fathers — many of whom are what Neal Pollack called “alternadads,” with goatees, hipster jeans, T-shirts, piercings; along with plenty of suburban and rural dads who may work traditional jobs but whose home lives look a lot different from their fathers’¬ — spend about twice as much time with their kids as did their baby-boomer counterparts. In 2004, 10 per cent of dads took paid parental leave to care for a newborn child, up from only 3 per cent in 2000 (when the rules changed to include them, and the full complement of available leave was raised from six months to a year). About 12 per cent of stay-at-home parents are dads. And, ladies, in the last few years, the amount of housework men do has been rising, while the amount women do has been steadily dropping. True: Women still do more housework than men. But they also do less paid work. When you add together paid and unpaid work, men and women do about the same.

 

Of course, this improved balance between the sexes is a good and important thing. Almost all of the dads I know are in this boat, and none of them are complaining. They like being closer to their children and feeling like they’re making a realistic contribution to running the household — of trying to “have it all.” It’s just that women have a 30-year head start on us in learning how to juggle.

the paternal wall

While dads are doing more, and want to do more, and are expected by their partners to do more at home, at work there’s still the old “Hey, taking off early, eh, there, Johnson?” culture if you try to leave at a reasonable hour to take care of business on the home front. While there has been a more than three-fold increase in the number of dads who choose to stay at home, enough that virtually everyone knows a stay-at-home dad or two, it’s still a tiny portion of fathers who do make that choice. I’d say that the concept of dads taking parental leave is stigmatized, but it’s not — it’s hardly even on the radar.

I remember when my first child was born in 1996. I was working as a radio producer for a current-affairs show in a mostly female office. Whenever a woman had a baby, she disappeared for several months, then reappeared with the baby. Everyone ooh-ed and aah-ed and congratulated her. Nicholas was born on a Thursday night. I was back at work — a job I would soon leave to become a stay-at-home dad — that Monday. No one even asked me about him. Everyone just assumed, if they even thought about it at all, that child-care is a side-issue for dads, and someone else was taking care of it.

One thing I think we can all agree on is that the days when a man would come home from a day’s work, kick back in a Barcalounger and read the paper or watch TV while “the little woman” prepared a cocktail, then dinner (then put the kids to bed, then did dishes) are long gone. To be honest, that seems like such an impossibly remote time to me now. If “the past is a foreign country,” as they say, then those days seem like some far-off, exotic place, like Tahiti.

 

But it was only a generation ago.

Steve Sloan, 36, a Toronto television executive producer with three young children (who just happens to be my boss) remembers what things were like in his household when his father got home from work. “My job was to get him a beer,” he says. “I was maybe six or seven at the time. I’d get him a beer and he’d watch television while my mother made dinner.”

What would happen if you came home, I ask him, got your kid to bring you a beer and sat in an armchair watching TV, waiting for your wife to make you dinner? “I’d be sleeping on the couch,” he says, laughing. Then he thinks about it a moment, and corrects himself: “No, make that outside.”

wired and tired

In many ways, Sloan is the prototype of the modern it-never-stops superdad. As his lowly minion, I am able to observe his daily habits first-hand. He works 60 to 70 hours a week, easily. His Crackberry goes off, I would say, every minute and a half — a near-constant buzzing from the vicinity of his right hip. When you’re the executive producer of a daily, hour-long, nationally televised talk-show (“The Gill Deacon Show”), there are 1,000,001 details to attend to.

 

And he always handles it. He’s ever cheerful, the kind of boss who takes the time to say, “How are you doing? Good? Good,” to everyone, despite the fact that he recently had a third little child, who’s probably keeping him up like crazy at night. Mostly he is cut no slack for that. He took no paternity leave — maybe a day — before work beckoned. But times have changed since the birth of my son, Nicholas: people asked Steve about his baby — that morning. By afternoon, it was back to business.

At home he is, if anything, even busier, he says. There are errands to run, groceries to get. The infernal Crackberry continues to buzz. I can tell that this is a source of some mild, humorous friction between him and his wife, because when she brings their newborn in for a “viewing” at work, he mentions a recent Sunday afternoon where he turned it off for a few hours. “Oooh,” she says sarcastically, “You’d think I’d remember such a momentous occasion!”

“Look,” he says, when I mention this to him in our interview, “I’d love to turn it off more often, but I have a responsibility to my team.” Also, I notice that much of the time when it goes off in meetings (and he answers it) it’s his wife. “It’s in the top shelf of the downstairs closet,” he’ll mutter into it. “Look I gotta go, I’m in a meeting.”

It’s this combined demand of the two worlds that makes the life of modern man so stressful, according to Dr. Doug Saunders, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor specializing in stress in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine. For both men and women, a certain amount of “downtime” is crucial for psychological, emotional and mental health, he says. “You need it to heal yourself mentally and physically,” he says.

 

 

But, he says, “downtime” doesn’t necessarily mean vegging out. It’s not that our fathers didn’t do anything outside of work, he says. For example, they might have coached a Little League team, but they were able to focus exclusively on those tasks, and that was relaxing. Their phones, beepers and PDAs weren’t going off; they weren’t thinking guiltily about permission slips, parent council meeting or the mountain of laundry at home.

 

 

“One of the things that allowed them to recover from the stresses of the day is the ability to focus exclusively on the task at hand,” says Saunders. “Especially if it’s something they enjoy and benefit from.”

 

 

But now, “a lot of men are on call all the time. They’re stretched until they twang. Stress can be beneficial, but when you’re on all the time, you never allow your system time to recover and rejuvenate.”

 

 

This is a feeling busy moms know all too well, of course. But historically, men have had a much higher sense of entitlement to leisure, says Kerry Daly, a University of Guelph family relations professor and director of the Father Involvement Research Alliance. And they feel the pain of losing that more acutely than women who are used to their work being never done. Since we’re comparatively newer to the juggle, our workplaces are commensurately less evolved about our need to balance the two worlds.

 

the new full-time

 

Patrick Dickinson, 41, a six-figure-earning branding executive at a major Canadian corporation with three children under the age of six (three is the new two, didn’t you know?), agrees modern men have it tough. Next to us, he says, men of the “Greatest Generation,” as they’ve called themselves (those born in the early part of the 20th century who dealt with the aftermath of the Depression, World Wars and all that heavy stuff) “were a bunch of slackers.”

 

 

“They called nine to five full-time — what a joke,” he says. Like Sloan, he has an extremely high-pressure, high-responsibility job. And also like Sloan, he wouldn’t dream of demanding “downtime” when he gets home.

 

 

“If I came through the door, watched TV and waited for a beer, it’d be because I wandered into a Legion Hall by mistake, where I would soon find myself full-time.” TV is right off the menu, he says. “I haven’t watched a full game of sports for five years.” Evenings and weekends he looks after his kids as much as his wife, Leigh, who works part-time as an executive while also building an online business. He also is the one, more often than not, who gets up in the middle of the night when one of the kids starts crying. He feels stressed
and stretched on both the home and work fronts. Sometimes dinner is “a handful of almonds, a couple of cold cuts, and a bottle of wine,” he says.

 

 

In an ideal world, Dickinson would spend more time with his kids, “but not in any officially sanctioned capacity” such as paternity leave or stay-at-home fatherhood. In his world, he says, men who do that are considered to have “gone over to the dark side,” and to be “playing for another team.”

 

 

“Anyway, it’s not really on offer,” he says. “If it is offered, it’s with an arched eyebrow. It’s like…” He mimes someone flipping through a file. ““Oh, yes, we’ve got a policy for guys like you.’ Dot-dot-dot…”

 

 

In other words, there’s not really a Daddy Track: it’s more like a Daddy Gangplank.

 

 

(Interestingly, an April study from McMaster University, published in Applied Psychology, found that both male and female workers believe that having family responsibilities means they’re offered fewer challenges and opportunities at work.)

 

pioneer days

 

Daly says that men who take time off, or opt out entirely for a while, often have to be willing to face the discomfort of being the first in their workplaces or social circles to do so. “Life issues are still cast as women’s concern at the workplace,” he says. “It’s pioneering, I might even say heroic for men to take this calculated risk.”

 

 

He agrees with Dickinson about the “arched-eyebrow” offer. “Men who want to take leave are treated with much more suspicion than women,” he says. “Men are still thought of as secondary stand-ins when it comes to parenting. It’s looked upon as “optional’ for them, whereas for women it’s looked upon as natural and necessary. So when a man takes leave, his loyalty is questioned. There’s a concern that he’s “taking advantage of the system.”

 

 

I was a stay-at-home dad for many years. Life in the slow lane, just writing and looking after my kids. And while I loved spending time with my kids when they were little, all in all, I think I prefer the fast lane — making money, owning nice shoes, having a title and business cards and wearing sweatpants only to the gym. Is that because as a man, I have some sort of ingrained breadwinner-complex dating back centuries or just because it feels good for anyone to have something to call their own? I’m not sure.

 

 

Even though the number of stay-at-home dads is on the rise, says Dickinson, it still feels as though there’s not much choice for men. “You can’t have it all,” he says. “You can only have a demanding full-time job and then do what you can at home. You sort of have to become a superman.”

 

 

Not that he thinks he is one. “I drop threads both domestically and professionally,” he admits. “And you never know which of those threads is going to become a python and take a big chunk out of your ass or become a noose around your neck.” But he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes himself as “a hyper-involved parent. To get the smiles and laughs, you also have to take the midnight barfs.”

 

 

Ultimately, that’s what matters. Daly says it’s a “good-news story in terms of men, mostly because they’re spending more time with their kids.” What they’re gaining is happier wives, some self-knowledge and more closeness with their kids. And they’re becoming happier themselves. In one cross-Canada poll, a whopping 79 per cent of fathers reported having fun as a parent all or most of the time. And in a poll conducted by ultra-manly Spike TV, only three per cent said they measure success through their work, whereas 39 per cent pointed to a combination of family, home and work. It’s true, he says, that “some men feel a high level of stress taking on all these responsibilities,” but by and large, they’re enjoying their roles.

 

 

“The latest research shows that one thing fathers get by spending more time with their children is that it teaches them how to love,” says Daly. And you can’t beat that with a baseball bat.

 

 

“They’re definitely getting back more from their kids than they would from a martini and a newspaper,” he says.

 

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad.He lives in Toronto with his wife and three kids, works as a TV writer and has a column, “Damange Control,” in the Globe and Mail.

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