A difficult balancing act

Post-baby boom dads are trying to better reconcile the competing demands posed by careers and families

April 06, 2005|By Blanca Torres | Blanca Torres,SUN STAFF

The first flower basket the Leibowitzes received after their second daughter was born two weeks ago didn't come from friends or family -- it came from the father's law firm.

Along with congratulations, Gary Leibowitz's employer, Saul Ewing LLP in Baltimore, also allowed him three months of paid parental leave.

"There is a life outside this firm and the firm acknowledges it and supports you spending time with your family," said Leibowitz, 33, who lives in Pikesville.

Leibowitz, whose wife, Dena, gave birth to Dillan on March 24, has not decided how long his leave will last -- it will depend on his caseload. He took three weeks off when the couple's first daughter, Alexis, was born two years ago.

In a break with the past, Leibowitz and other dads born after the baby boom are trying to achieve a better balance between the demands of the workplace and raising a family. It's a balance women have been trying to strike for decades.

But even with more families juggling two careers, the trend of men taking leave or reducing hours has been slow to surge, experts said, since most employers do not offer paid paternity leave. And some men still fear compromising their careers by taking the time, or simply can't afford to.

"Culture still doesn't support the notion that fathers need to be as engaged as women in their kids' lives," said Roland Warren, president of National Fatherhood Initiative, based in Gaithersburg. "Businesses have a lot of support systems primarily for mom ... when men try to take advantage of these things, although you can do it, there is still a notion that men shouldn't."

But career and human resource experts said companies are taking notice that more men want such benefits. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. About 15 percent of companies offer paid paternity or parental leave for an average of 25 days, according to the 2004 Benefits Survey of the Society for Human Resource Management, a national organization based in Virginia. Though up from 7 percent four years earlier, that percentage has remained virtually unchanged since 2001.

"The dramatic change is that men are doing this at all," said Joan C. Williams, professor of law, director of work/life law at American University Washington College of Law and author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It.

The shift, however small it may be, is a result of a new mentality in the workplace, she said.

"Gen X and Gen Y men are demanding to have the ability to play a larger role in family life than their fathers did," Williams said. "They face expectations at home that they will provide family support for their wives of a sort that other men don't face and their fathers didn't face."

Leibowitz said he grew up in a time when fathers focused more on careers than family and working mothers were still relatively rare. That has since changed among men his age.

"It's a balancing act," he said. "There are 24 hours in a day; you have to make a concerted effort to make time for your family. They are more important than your career and they should not take a second seat."

A study published in the September 2003 issue of the research journal Sex Roles states that employees are evaluated on behaviors beyond their technical or required job duties. The study says the perceptions of those actions often are based on stereotypes.

Men are expected to be "independent, assertive, skilled in business, and competitive" and "highly committed to their work." Therefore, the study concludes, men who take time to care for family are seen as lacking loyalty to their employer. Women who take family leave, on the other hand, often are viewed as "altruistic."

"Within our society, we have norms for who is supposed to care for families," said Julie Holliday Wayne, the study's author.

In 1995, Maryland state trooper Kevin Knussman sued his employer for refusing to grant him extended parental leave after his wife had a difficult recovery from their daughter's birth. Knussman was told by his benefits administrator that he did not qualify for more paid time off because he could not breast feed and his wife was neither dead nor in a coma. The case, which took years to litigate, drew national attention, including from then-President Bill Clinton, and Knussman eventually was awarded more than $640,000 for emotional distress and legal fees.

Confronting stereotypes is one of the challenges working fathers face, Warren said. Another issue is that some men feel uncomfortable having discussions with their employers about family and work balance.

Jan Jorgensen, a spokeswoman for the Society of Human Resource Management, said younger workers have different priorities, and employers will have to adjust as more baby boomers retire.

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