A great gift idea for the family: Dad

Family: Fathers must admit and resolve their work-family conflicts, author says.

Family Matters

June 04, 2000|By Alison Bass | Alison Bass,Boston Globe

James Levine's idea of a great gift for families is simple: involved fathers. As director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York, Levine, 54, has spent more than a quarter-century trying to persuade men to assume more active roles as parents.

Q. Surveys show that most men don't take advantage of paternity leave or part-time schedules. Why?

A. For fear they will in some way be penalized. I'm sure there are cases where that is true. But in my book ("Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family"), I give an example of a guy at Lotus who took a leave when his baby was born and was promoted on his return.

I haven't seen any data showing men who took time off were put on a "daddy track" and penalized. But the fear is widespread, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Men are afraid they won't be moved up if they do it, so they don't.

Q. How did you and your wife deal with work/family issues when your children were young?

A. My daughter is 29 now, and my son is 24. When we got married, my wife and I agreed we would share child care, and we had the advantage of having work that was flexible. We were both at Wellesley [College] when the children were very young. And when we moved to New York, there were periods when she did more and periods when I did more. When she went back to graduate school, to get a doctorate in psychology, I was doing more.

More recently, we've gone through the experience of having my wife's parents becoming ill and dying. I actually had more flexibility in my work than she did, so during the week, I would go out to Long Island and help care for them. The idea was that we both were going to take care of them. As baby boomers move into the sandwich generation, elder care is going to be an even bigger challenge than child care for companies to deal with.

Q. In a number of surveys, both men and women say they don't have enough time to spend with their children. What's the solution from your point of view?

A. We find that working parents universally feel guilty that they're not spending enough time with their kids. But when you ask the children, as Ellen Galinksy (Levine's colleague at the Families and Work Institute) did in a recent national survey of children ages 11 to 18, most say their parents are spending enough time with them.

The real deficit I see is that working parents are not spending enough time with one another. It's like traveling on an airplane with small children; in the case of an emergency, you should put the oxygen mask on yourself first. The same is true for frazzled working parents. You can't take care of your kids unless you take care of your relationship. I find that men and women are giving lots of attention to their workplace and children, but not to each other. And that becomes a huge source of stress. If you stop paying attention to one another, then little disagreements turn into big fights and that spills over onto the kids.

Q. In your work, you've found that men are reluctant to talk openly about these issues. Why?

A. This is one of the perennial riddles of life. It's like, "Why are men the way they are?" I think we are just socialized to get up in the morning, put our pants on, go to work, and don't complain about it. The result is that a lot of guys are carrying around this work-family conflict, which I call the invisible dilemma. They all have it, but they don't talk about it. So when we do these Daddy Stress/Daddy Success seminars at companies around the country, one of the greatest benefits for these men is hearing other guys talk about it and realizing they're not alone.

There really is a huge interest and appetite among men to discuss these issues, but they're not going to show up unless you specifically target them. At Texas Instruments, where I did a seminar a few years ago, they sent out a message on their e-mail and within a few hours, they had 75 to 80 men sign up, and they had to close it off because there was no more room.

That's why I advise management that just because men aren't telling you they have these issues doesn't mean they don't. They do. Everyone has to take some responsibility here, at the corporate level and at the spousal level. Men shouldn't assume that taking time off will hurt them, and women have to challenge their husbands to ask for the time off. We have to break the silence around this issue.

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