It seems that everywhere I turn, the media is covering the challenge of balancing career and family. It usually refers only to women. Obviously, there’s reason for this—motherhood and career navigation, and especially the combination thereof, bring especially acute challenges for women. But after stumbling across approximately 10,000 articles about Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg talking about work-life balance, I’ve started to wonder: Does anyone realize that men deal with this, too?
A recent study by the University of Georgia with a global sample of 250,000 men found that men are struggling to balance work and family obligations as much as women, but they feel less able to talk about the issue.
“It’s just a huge disconnect because the media almost always frames [work-life balance] as a women’s issue,” study leader Kristen Shockley, a psychologist at the University of Georgia, told Live Science.
There are very good reasons why the challenges men face aren’t equivalent to the ones women face when rearing children and furthering their careers, such as the minimum of six weeks the body needs to recover from giving birth, the breast-feeding for a year many women try for, or the many other maternal gifts nature has granted women but not men. But perhaps part of the problem with our dialog about balancing children and career is that men are being left out of the conversation. When The Atlantic published Anne-Marie Slaughter’s lightning rod of a cover story in 2012, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” there were only murmurs of men’s voices in response. “Men Can’t Have It All, Either,” James Joyner piped in with a response piece. However, with dual-income households becoming the norm, men are increasingly required to make sacrifices to accommodate their wives’ careers and help with child-rearing in ways like never before. And as Joyner’s article on the matter astutely notes, with women ascendant in the career world, “an increasing number of men are less successful than their wives, in terms of income or job title.”
Whether or not this makes men shy, I think we should start more conversations about this. First of all, I think it’s helpful for men and women alike to have an open dialogue about the unique challenges we face, regardless of whether most men would like to remain the strong, silent type. And, to be honest, I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that the juggling act, while certainly stressful, has benefits unforeseen to many, including to the younger “bachelor” version of myself.
At this point in my life, I’m a full-time employee, husband, and father to two girls. I feel like I’m drowning in obligations half the time, and when I’m not drowning, I’m dancing between raindrops. You could say it’s my fault because I married a beautiful and enormously intelligent woman, and I can’t deny the world her gifts. Sure, she’s an excellent mother. But she’s also a journalist who got a job with a cable news station earlier this year. Did I mention that the TV gig is in addition to her role as a senior editor at a very successful online publication?
This is all to say, I understand intimately the challenges of work-life balance that my wife bears. Because we bear it together. Every time my wife has to appear on television—which can happen with as little notice as an hour or two—I leave my job in the city to rush home to the suburbs and take care of the kids. I then have to finish my work in the den with two elementary-school daughters in the background. Both my wife and I frequently travel for work. I’m on the school board of my daughters’ school, my wife and I are active in our church, and our calendar is full of fundraisers and social events. And our nearest close relatives are more than two thousand miles away, so aside from some wonderful friends, no one is around to help out with the kids.
You could say I fit snugly into the men-with-work-life-balance-problems category that Joyner foreshadowed and the Georgia study confirmed. Others may think that to admit to it is to somehow complain about women’s success in the professional world—and by extension, to complain about men’s increased home-life obligations that women used to predominantly carry. So men don’t speak up—but maybe we should. Because this couldn’t be further from the truth for me.
What I think young men (and women) need to hear more is that adding marriage and kids has helped my work-life balance. In many respects, I believe the benefits of being a family man are undersold. I didn’t get married until I was 30, and then we had our first child within a year. I really didn’t know what to expect from marriage. In terms of relationship experience, it felt like not knowing how to ride a bike and suddenly being strapped to a throttled Harley. While still making the adjustment to marriage, I had a child, which meant that not only did I have a lot more to help out with at home, but I wasn’t sleeping either.
And yet, it was in this period that my career took off. Why? My priorities had changed. I had less time at work, so when I did, I worked harder and was more focused. And I realized that prior to being a married dad, a lot my energy had dissipated into selfish pursuits. Frivolous socializing and ill-defined attempts at dating wasted a lot of valuable time that could have been spent doing meaningful things.
I now realize the time in my life when my work-life balance was most out of whack was my single post-college years. This is especially important for young men to understand because they often don’t have domestic aspirations the way women do—and we’re currently experiencing something of a cultural crisis as men are putting off marriage. So now I tell single guys: Be deliberate about dating. If you’re having fun seeing someone but they don’t share your values and marriage is unlikely, move on. And if you’re in a good relationship, don’t put off marriage because you’re worried about superficial concerns like money.
I also have juggling work and kids to thank for helping me pay more deliberate attention to my wife. Most adult men have several different roles and responsibilities—husband, father, employee, church elder, citizen, charity volunteer, and so forth. Being clear on priorities is immensely helpful. It’s important for me as a man to realize that the most important responsibility I have, above other obligations to work or even children, is my wife. This seems obvious, but especially after children are born and responsibilities start to pile up, couples have a tendency to forget to take care of each other. This is a HUGE mistake. One of the grand benefits of marriage is realizing that challenges are best resolved by putting together the experience and expertise of two different people, hammering out a solution, and confronting the problem as a unified whole.
The common denominator for happiness is still always working toward something with a clear purpose and a goal. When it comes to anything in life, be it your marriage, children, friendships, or career, the work you put in is commensurate to the reward. Which brings me to perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned as a working dad—to be grateful. The less time I spend complaining about juggling things, the more time I spend accomplishing things and merely being happy.
So while it’s helpful to acknowledge that men are dealing with work-life balance issues too, maybe what both sexes need is a greater focus on being in this together. I can’t be upset that I have to make sacrifices because I love my amazing kids and am enormously proud of my wife. I didn’t set out to marry what some might call a “career woman”—but I did set out to marry a compelling woman. The fact that lots of other people in the larger world value her contributions only reflects that to be true. And if that means I have to figure out how to carry the load at home more? All the better.
I think for both men and women juggling families and work, the key is ultimately to keep focused on long-term goals, and those goals should not be derailed by the frustration created by the inevitable moments of short-term chaos. As a husband who loves his wife, I know we’ll always find a way to make it work, even when there are setbacks and daunting challenges. There will also be moments when our responsibilities and family seem in harmony, and those meaningful moments, however fleeting, make it all worthwhile.
Photo Credit: Horace & Mae