Psychology: The challenge of the dual-career family

A recent study about fathers by psychologists at Boston College has revealed they often struggle more than mothers in balancing work and family.

Holding hands 521 (photo credit: Courtesy.)
Holding hands 521
(photo credit: Courtesy.)
For decades, the debate about balancing work and family life has been framed as an issue for women. The women’s liberation movement fought to give work and professional career opportunities for women alongside men. The success of that effort has since given women the challenge of figuring out how to successfully balance work and family life.
Yet a recent study about fathers by psychologists at Boston College has revealed that fathers are struggling just as much or even more than mothers to try to balance work and family.
For thousands of years, family life was determined by women’s ability to encourage a man to maintain a monogamous relationship. A woman’s commitment to the role of mother meant she was fully absorbed in taking care of the children and running the household. Having a dedicated adult male in the family ensured safety and regular sustenance for mother and children.
Thus the traditional family was established with clearly defined roles for mother and father.
That historical traditional family is now a rarity.
In the US, the number of traditional families has dipped to just under 21 percent. It has been replaced by dual-career couples and single parents.
It is women’s success in academia and corporate life that has contributed to creating these dual-career households.
Economic necessity is another factor contributing to dual-career families. Couples have decided that to maintain their preferred lifestyle, they need more than one parent to work and bring in an income.
Men’s place in the world of work has been clear for centuries. The positions of father and breadwinner were seen as virtually synonymous.
Even in dual-career families, often after the children are born, women continue working but on a part-time basis. It is men who remain the primary source of family income.
A father in a dual-career family is now met with greater expectations regarding his role not just as breadwinner but often as full partner in parenting. Women feel that if they are working both in and out of the home, men also need to “pull their weight.” This poses a major challenge, as the workplace is not so accommodating to men taking off time for their parental role.
Employers have not embraced the concept of men sacrificing work time for family responsibilities.
Work norms still reward on the basis of showing commitment to the organization by working continuous long hours. When a father has the desire to spend time with his children, employers are reluctant to be flexible. A father taking time to be with his kids is often viewed as compromising his work commitment.
The pressure fathers often feel at work is reflected in the words of one of the fathers from the Boston College study: “It has been somewhat frustrating to me the lack of appreciation for my contributions in my role [as a father]... I think there’s an assumption that when I go home, I’m not doing as much, that I have more time to focus on work because there is just a natural inclination to believe that my wife does the bulk of the work at home.”
The pressure fathers feel is also internal. Their identity is tied up with their work. Men identify themselves by their accomplishments and financial success, which contribute to attaining significant social status. They are likely to determine their self-worth by measuring the size of their financial net worth.
This makes prioritizing the role of father over work success difficult and challenging. I have worked with CEOs who travel internationally to achieve business success, yet their role as father poses one of their biggest challenges. The dilemma of when to take off and be with their children is evident whether they own their own business, are in a family business or work as professionals.
Lastly, men are often subject to stress generated at home. When the woman assumes the role of mother, she is in charge of caregiving and running the household. Thus when the man helps out, he is entering his wife’s domain of primary responsibility. As a result, when he spends time caring for children, the experience is more likely to be that he is helping his wife than taking a joint primary role in parenting.
Since this help usually only offers the mother a short reprieve from her responsibilities, she may unwittingly minimize her husband’s contribution.
For example, a father may help to put the children to bed, make sandwiches for lunch and or give the kids a bath. But his wife is not likely to value that contribution as much as he does because she still feels the weight of her caretaking responsibility. The focus of the work becomes giving the wife/mother a break from her chores as opposed to spending quality time with the kids.
What are some successful strategies for fathers to use to deal with these challenges? As with many aspects of marital relationships, communication is a key to helping resolve stress.
On a basic level, fathers should ask what is most helpful, and mothers should show appreciation for that help, acknowledging that it is helping her and is positive paternal involvement.
A major challenge for a father is to begin to view his own identity and self-worth as coming as much from family life as it does from accomplishments and success at work. When asked what he does, a father should develop the habit of acknowledging that he sees himself as a father, as well as a lawyer, investment banker or CEO.
I heard a good example of identifying the role of father from a friend of mine. He taught school-age children in South America. and he told me how he got the message across to parents.
He had a child in his class, Ernesto, who was the son of the interior minister of Chile, a man of considerable public stature and political power. To focus the minister on his father role, every time my friend met the minister, he would greet him by saying, “Hi, father of Ernesto.”
The writer is a clinical psychologist and certified life coach, who helps young adult males, adults in transition and business executives achieve positive goals. He has offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.