Fighting Apart for Time Together

Editor's Note: This piece is part of "Mother Load," a TAP special report on work/family issues.

I had one of those fathers who was always standing on the sidelines of my lacrosse games, cheering his heart out in a slightly wrinkled suit. When my teammates' mothers would comment on how extraordinary it was that my dad made the time, it confounded me. My father's hearty presence in my life seemed like a given. Of course he made the time. He was my dad.

But as I've explored this rocky, unforgiving terrain called adulthood, I've thought more realistically about the kinds of sacrifices my dad made. It turns out that it wasn't a given that he showed up when it counted, and even when it kind of didn't; it was a Herculean effort. He described it for me recently: "I artificially expanded my time in ways that actually had a fairly big cost on my health and my quality of thinking. Like I would get up at 4:30 a.m., after maybe five hours of sleep, and get to work so that I could put in a full day before showing up at your game at 4 p.m." Last year, my father retired from the law, in part because of chronic migraines and an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. (He now happily calls the hammock his office.)

It is fascinating to me, now that I've taken a sober look at my father's constant struggle with work/family balance, that men have been almost entirely absent from the public conversation about these issues. Sure, my mom sacrificed a hell of a lot more -- a highly successful therapy practice, an immune system, and, at times, her sanity -- over the course of my childhood, but I was very aware of the toll this took on her. Shoulder-padded supermoms and their struggles to do it all were a constant theme of the women's magazines that dropped through our mail slot and the Oprah shows that flickered across our TV. My dad and his kind weren't on the work/family radar, and I didn't give much thought to his efforts.

Now that a self-described "mother's movement" is gaining steam, coalitions have been formed among groups like Women's Media Center, MomsRising, The MOTHERS Initiative, the National Association of Mothers' Centers, and the Mothers Movement Online. They've launched a "ceasefire on the mommy wars," hoping to convince mainstream media to stop rehashing the same sensationalistic stories about workplace catfights and start talking about the pathetic dearth of work/family policy in this country. But when I asked this group why the movement was comfortable with a name that cut out half the population of parents, they essentially responded that this kind of advocacy work has always and continues to be done by women, and that men are welcome to join.

But are men really going to join a revolution that doesn't have their name on it? And furthermore, isn't framing the movement in terms of mothers a tyranny of low expectations?

Valerie A. Young, the Advocacy Coordinator of the National Association of Mothers' Centers explains: "From the very beginning the focus has been on mothers and other caregivers, but we've always run up against problems with the limitations of language. And we're also up against the popular psyche, which still thinks of these as women's issues.'"

Though she reports that they've had sporadic interaction with activist fathers or organizations like Dads and Daughters, there have been no targeted outreach efforts to get men involved.

Case in point: 26-year-old Chase Whitney, a Renewable Energy Project Developer in Denver, Colorado who would one day like to be a father, preferably a present one, told me, "Call me an opportunist, but I won't complain about the name of the movement if the outcome generates a personal benefit. I do not feel compelled to contribute -- it seems to be well-championed."

A recent poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation for Work+Life Fit, Inc., concluded that though mass media continues to frame this as a "woman's issue," more than 90 percent of full-time employed adults believe work/life balance is "[a]n issue for everyone." It's clearly an unresolved issue for everyone; only 15 percent report actually achieving a schedule they are content with.

There is not only statistical evidence that men care about being present partners and fathers, but political stirrings that confirm the universality of these issues as well. Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut just created the Children, Work, and Family caucus -- proving that work/family balance is no longer a feminized issue in Washington. The Healthy Families Act, which features progressive, gender-neutral language, will be up for review again this month. The legislation would require most employers to provide their employees with seven paid sick days a year to care for themselves or a family member

Male entrepreneurs and activists are taking action, too. The Center for Men at McLean Hospital, founded by Real Boys author Dr. William Pollack, says part of its mission is to "help men identify and master the stresses of work, family and intimate relationships." Filmmaker John de Graaf is at the forefront of the Take Back Your Time movement, which seeks to raise public awareness about the need for more balanced lives for all Americans.

It is also clear anecdotally that work/family balance is not just women's territory. Most young men I spoke with affirmed that work/life issues were something they were already thinking about quite a bit, even though they didn't expect to become fathers for several years. Twenty-eight-year-old David Levi, a history teacher in a Manhattan private school, boldly explained, "There is no such thing as an absent partner or father; such a person is a non-partner, a non-father."

So why is the majority of the organizing around work/family balance still not crossing gender lines?

Even if the mother's movement manages to get federal laws enacted that require parental leave, there's still much work to be done in dealing with the messy cultural issues underlying many men's largely unspoken desire for balanced lives. Already many of the nation's largest corporations have paternity leave options for their employees that go unused by men afraid to appear uncommitted to their work, "whipped" by their domineering wives, or "soft" for wanting to spend time changing diapers instead of making dollars.

My own father explained, "The macho, John Wayne, individualism mantra needs to be shown for what it really is: a myth to create higher productivity to sacrifice the quality of people's lives."

It seems as if the Baby Boomer generation of dads, many of whom broke the "Father Knows Best" mold of leaving the caretaking to their stay-at-home wives, have begun a still-unfinished revolution in the way men see themselves and their desires in terms of work and family.

Joshua Krafchin, a 26-year-old living in Brooklyn, explained, "I am personally inspired by men who take the time in their lives to be present fathers. My father left corporate America for a number of reasons, but one was to spend more time with me. It made a difference."

But if that difference is to be expanded into wide-scale social change, it will not only require the courage of individual fathers like Krafchin's, but an inclusive, broad-based movement that values men's interests and leverage in work/family balance as much as it does women's. The mother's movement's instinct to create coalitions is a radical and wise one, but until they actively invite men to the table -- and, importantly, men embrace their invitation -- we will all be left struggling separately to lead more balanced lives together.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in April. You can read her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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