Tuesday 17 September 2019

Why dads can't have it all

Many fathers are discovering the pressure to be a great parent and to over-achieve at work are fundamentally irreconcilable

Time for hugs: Stay-at-home dad Benny Finlay with his 16-month-old daughter Bella in Kilmeaden, Waterford. Photo: Mary Browne
Time for hugs: Stay-at-home dad Benny Finlay with his 16-month-old daughter Bella in Kilmeaden, Waterford. Photo: Mary Browne
Traditional: Kurtwood Smith as Red Forman, the breadwinner in That '70s Show
David Beckham with his children Cruz, Harper and Romeo

Ed Power

Raising kids has always been a challenge, no matter your circumstances. However, for men today, having a family is becoming a particularly fraught business. Unlike previous generations, the pressure on men to be World's Greatest Dad is relentless. Yet they are also still generally expected to be breadwinner-in-chief. Forget Having It All. New Dad is expected to Do It All.

"I was working so many hours, I wasn't seeing my kids at all," says Benny Finlay, father of Ben (7) and Bella (16 months), who walked away from a high-paying auctioneer's job as he feared he was squandering his golden years as a parent by toiling in an office.

"It was putting stress and tension on everyone in the house. I wasn't doing anything with the kids. I was wrecked - my mind was elsewhere. I want to be a hands-on dad. Why else would you be a parent?"

Sacrificing your career to be there for your kids would have seemed like madness just a generation ago. Dads were providers and any connection with their children was a bonus. In contrast, young fathers today are under pressure to excel in two aspects of life simultaneously - to be overachievers at work (that killer mortgage isn't going to pay itself) and emotionally available at home. It's an around-the-clock vocation - both your family and your employer assume you will be available 24 hours - and the strain is often overwhelming.

Become too 'emotionally available', however, and dads come in for yet more criticism. Take poster-boy parent David Beckham, who this week came under criticism for blurring the line between parenting and friendship with his children, when he opted to get father-and-son tattoos with his son Brooklyn.

In a new book, Much Promise, ex-headmaster Barnaby Lenon argues that many boys are failing in their education because dads are opting out of their traditional disciplinarian role in the home, and trying to be friends with their children instead.

At the same time, "the vast majority of dads are still relied upon to be the primary earners," says Scott Behson in The Working Dad's Survival Guide.

"But we are all expected to support our spouse's careers. We are expected to do much more childcare than parenting than our dads did… Some see us as unmanly if we put family time ahead of career - others see us as neglectful parents when work sometimes has to come first. It's all very fluid, shifting and confusing."

"The gender gap is shrinking and men are now confronting the thing women have been whining about for years," says psychotherapist Stella O'Malley, who is the author of Cotton Wool Kids: What's Making Irish Parents Paranoid. "As my husband would have said, 'you got what you wanted and now you never stop giving out'. He's right - we got what we wanted… the choice to go to college, to have great careers, to have children. We got it and suddenly we started complaining about how, having it all is doing it all and all that. Twenty years later, suddenly men are feeling it. They are experiencing the thing that we went through. The worst part is that it is invidious. It creeps up on you.

"There reasons for me quitting were that my hours were too long. I was working 60 hours a week," says Finlay, who writes about his experience at daddypoppins.com. "I was out the door from eight in the morning to eight at night. And it didn't finish when I got home. I was frazzled. I wasn't seeing my family. When the second kid arrived…it was clear that the quality of life wasn't great."

Women will point out that they've had to juggle competing demands for their time and attention since the dawn of history. On the other hand, society regards the breadwinner role as that of the male. So in that regard, the pressures faced by fathers are distinct.

"A woman knocked at the door doing a survey and she asked who did the weekly shop," says Finlay, whose wife Hazel, a third level lecturer, supports the family "I said it was me. To which she replied, 'oh so you and your wife both do it'.

A "fatherhood penalty" for men who want to be involved in raising their children has been identified by workplace experts. Dads prioritising home life over career are often overlooked for promotion.

"Fathers say they work extra hours because this is the only way to deal with their workload and that being seen to do long hours is important where they work," the 2017 report by Britain's Working Charities states. "Tellingly, twice the number of fathers compared to mothers believe flexible workers are viewed as less committed and that working flexibly will have a negative impact on their career."

"I do think fathers have a nicer relationship with their children than they ever had," says Stella O'Malley. "What is getting hit is fathers' equilibrium. They now have the second shift women were always talking about. They do a day's work and then they're wrecked but have to do the homework, make the dinner. The myth is that we all should be doing everything. We are feeling really stressed as a result of it."

Says Finlay: "I would have hoped the Fifties attitude towards work would have changed. In fact, a lot of people still seem to think that men should be the providers."

In their willingness to sacrifice work for family, dads like Benny are increasingly representative of modern fatherhood. In another British survey, 53pc of millennial fathers expressed the desire to downsize to a less stressful job while 48pc said they would take a pay cut if it improved their work-life balance. A Google enquiry found that, among millennials, fathers were more likely to watch parenting-related YouTube videos than mothers.

"It is clear that most men do face conflict in trying to rectify their desire to be engaged fathers," concluded a Boston College survey on millennial fatherhood, "while continuing their desire to 'climb the corporate ladder' - advancing in the organization, seeking jobs with greater responsibility, and pursuing a career in senior management. This results in the dilemma that women have faced for many years - can one really "have it all?"

A distinction between "egalitarian" and "traditional" dads was highlighted by Boston College. In the middle was a third category: conflicted fathers - those trying to be the best possible parent and an overachiever.

Of the three groups, you can guess which displayed the highest levels of stress.

"Conflicted dads report significantly lower satisfaction with their careers and their lives outside of work... These fathers feel they should be doing more to share care giving but admit to not doing so." One worrying side effect is that men tend to lose contact with friends as they head into middle age. In a 2015 survey, 51pc of men said they had no close friends. This is in contrast to women who still maintain friendships after becoming mothers. Men's retreat into isolation has consequences, including heightened risk of heart disease and depression.

"I won't pretend it's always easy. Anyone who says parenting is straightforward is lying," says Finlay. "But I've never regretted it. "When I gave up my job I rang some of our more important clients. A lot of them would be older investors. And so many of them said 'I wish I had done that. I have property, I have this and that. But I didn't get to know my kids. And now they're at an age where they don't want to know me'."

Irish Independent

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