Equally Shared Parenting - Half the Work ... All the Fun

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Redefining Fatherhood
by Ben

In many ways, my wife Alicia and I were prime examples of the American Dream.  Upwardly mobile, successful, hard-working, young professionals, we each came out of challenging home situations, got ourselves into good colleges, supported each other through graduate school, and landed lucrative jobs by the time we were in our early-30’s.  Alicia was working for a large consumer products company, and I was on the partnership-track at a prestigious law firm.  In some respects, we had it all.  

Little did I know how much having a baby would change my perspective of what “having it all” could mean.

After having our first child, Alicia was planning on taking four months off.  I also looked into, and decided to take advantage of, my law firm’s gender-neutral parental leave policy, which was rarely used by my male colleagues.  Under this policy, I was able to take a three-month paid leave to be with our newborn son once my wife had returned to work.  

The leave was a real epiphany.  It became clear to me how important my role as a father was. My wife loved my paternity leave, because it was easier for her to go back to work knowing I was at home.  She appreciated having a partner during these early days, and that gave me room to co-parent.

Usually the early issues are left to the woman, but I soon found myself doing many of these things as well.  Things like being in charge all day, or, when I was thinking about going back to work, selecting what childcare to use.  Since I was home then, it became my job to make these decisions.  It made me a more responsible parent.

Another benefit was that our son got another nurturing source; he wanted to be held by me.  He had a sense of security with me.  You miss that if you do not immerse yourself in it.  It’s just not the same if you are only there on weekends.

After taking the paternity leave, it started to become clearer to me how deeply discouraging the intense demands of my work situation had become.  I think I was depressed at work, but that was what everyone was doing.  When I was at home on leave, I realized not everyone was working killer hours.  The job had made me myopic and the paternity leave took off the blinders.  I felt the depression lift.  

Being home with the baby was isolating and demanding.  Still, as I got closer to going back to work, I realized that I did not want to go back.  To buy a little more time to adjust to my new role and expanded perspective, I asked for and received a fourth unpaid month added to my paternity leave.

I did return to work, but shortly afterwards left the large firm in search of better balance.  Over the years, that original paternity leave continued to guide my career decisions; I tried working at smaller law firms, but was never satisfied, no matter how supposedly ‘family-friendly’ the firms were billed.  Ultimately I pursued job opportunities outside of the law firm environment and decided to take a position at the large company where my wife worked.  By then, Alicia had given birth to a second son, and was already working a reduced four-day schedule.  

After working for a year at the consumer products company, I decided that I was ready to go to an 80%, four-day-a-week schedule.  With the arrival of our third boy, I saw my chance.  Initially my superior was resistant to the idea, but I came up with a unique plan to make it happen.  Instead of taking the traditional two weeks’ paternity leave offered by the company, I negotiated taking the next ten subsequent Fridays off after the baby was born.  Having established a new work pattern, I asked for, and received, permission to continue this arrangement after those first ten Fridays, at 80% pay.  I loved the arrangement, and was able to take Fridays off until our third son was 12 months old.

However, my boss was eventually replaced, and a new boss insisted that I restore my position to full-time.  He was the kind of guy who came in early and stayed late.  Even though I had been doing my job well on a four-day schedule for a year already, he just would not go for it.

My new boss had old-fashioned ideas about men’s and women’s roles.  He supported the reduced work schedules of female colleagues of mine who were doing similar jobs, but told me I should be working 100%.  I was shocked.  This gender stereotyping was a big deal for me.

This was the first time that, as a white male, I could recall experiencing being faced with  unfair bias at work.  I had this theory that the only obstacle to getting the schedule I wanted was in my head, but that clearly wasn’t true.  I was struck by how long it took to negotiate for what I wanted, and how each subsequent boss was reluctant to stick his or her neck out for me.  And this was in a group that had women who were doing this.  The pressure was not even coming from the Human Resources department; it was coming from outdated gender stereotypes, held by my managers, about what men were supposed to be doing.

My experiences growing up left me concerned about the roles my wife and I may fall into in our family.  As a child, I did not have a strong male role model, and have had to struggle with what it means to be a dad.  I know now that I don’t want to just be a “good provider.”  I want more.  I would much rather have the relationships than the material things.  I am not sure my father knew his role in the family; he was depressed and worn out by the time I was born.

But it was not merely my relationship with my father that made me receptive to alternative ways of working and having a family.  My mom had a master’s degree in mathematics, but chose to stay home to care for her four children.  While it was nice for us to have her home, and she certainly enjoyed the quality time with her children, she did not seem completely fulfilled.  Even when I was very young, I knew I wanted something different than what my parents had.

Alicia’s situation at work clearly influenced my thinking as well.  Alicia had been working a 4-day schedule for several years and I admired her decision to make balance a priority in her life.

In addition, I found inspiration from a close male friend who had worked a four-day schedule since becoming a parent, and had always been upfront about these issues with his employer.  I was impressed that Sam always told employers that he would only work a four-day schedule, and he also continued to advance his career.  He fought for what he wanted.  Although my father was not a particularly consistent or strong economic provider, I had internalized an understanding from my parents’ generation that being a good father meant holding down a well-paying job.  Sam was an important role model of something else.

Once again changes at home sparked additional changes at work.  Within the past year, Alicia took on a new role at the Company and was asked to go back to a fulltime schedule, and once again this propelled me to ask for something more.  I approached my boss and proposed a new schedule, but this time only for a three-month trial period.  I suggested a 90% schedule, where I would have the day off every other Friday, at 90% pay.  My boss agreed, and I did not make a big deal about it; I was just off every other Friday.  After it became clear that I was getting my job done well, my boss agreed to make the arrangement more permanent.

I am very present at home on this schedule; I don’t think about work or check-in on my day off.  After a while, Alicia was able to shift to a 90% schedule as well, so now one of us is always home at least one day a week.  The experience has been really positive; the kids call our days off, “Mama Day” and “Dada Day.”  They love the day they get to have with us.

Although it has not been easy, Alicia and I have been motivated by taking a long-term view of success around working reduced schedules.  Just a few months back, I took a new position in the Company and was again asked to move to a fulltime schedule.  I, instead, successfully persuaded my new manager to allow me to start off at my current 90% schedule with an understanding that they would reevaluate it if necessary.  I felt particular satisfaction from this outcome.  Previously, I felt like I was always following Alicia’s lead when it came to seeking work-life balance, but in this case, I negotiated a flexible arrangement at the start of a new position, which was a first for both of us.

I maintain that work-life balance is a constant work in progress.  I have to be vigilant and creative because there will always be change and there will always be outside influences that have the potential to take over if I let them.

I am finally at a place where I ask for things quickly, I give myself permission to ask for the things I want, and if I don’t get it the first time around, I try it all over again.  In addition, Alicia and I gain confidence from each other’s decisions.

Alicia took a six week leave-of-absence from work this past summer.  She has been there 15 years, and she felt like she needed a break so she gave herself permission to ask for one.  Now, I am thinking about doing the same thing next summer.

My ideal schedule would be to have us both working 80%.  Especially if we could maintain boundaries between home and work on the days we were off.  That would be ideal.  But my hope is that I can also serve as a role model for others to push for the balance that they are looking for.  Sam was such an important role model for me and I want other fathers to know that people like Sam and I are out there and are examples of a different approach that can be really fulfilling.  Had I not taken that initial four months off to be with our first son, I would probably have ended up as a partner in a big law firm, and I would never have known my sons the way I do now.  I am so glad I have done things differently.

©Copyright 2007 Marc and Amy Vachon

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