Dads Struggle With Work-Life Balance, Too

UPDATED: March 11, 2020
PUBLISHED: May 1, 2016
Dads Struggle With Work-Life Balance, Too

“Call an ambulance.”

Josh Levs was in the bedroom of his Atlanta home with his pregnant wife and 3-year-old son when his wife suddenly doubled over in pain and uttered those words. Moments earlier, she’d seemed fine. Now she was on the floor lying on her side as he dialed 911.

While Levs told the operator what was happening, the baby’s head emerged in his hands. “What do I do?” he asked. With a little coaching from the operator, he reached inside the womb, latched his pointer fingers under the baby’s armpits and eased his second son into the world.

“Oh, my god, the baby’s not breathing. Breathe, baby. Breathe!”

The child was motionless. Eyes shut. The umbilical cord coiled like a snake five times around his neck. Heart pounding, Levs gently unraveled the serpent, placed his son on a towel and tenderly massaged his tiny body. Only then did the child open his eyes.

“In that moment, I saw so clearly what mattered,” Levs says. “I didn’t care about money, providing, all that stuff. I cared about family. And life. The miracle that is life.”

Related: What Do You Value Most?

Top of Mind: What Do You Value Most?

Before that day, Levs, a longtime correspondent at CNN, had viewed himself as a hard-working dad. A breadwinner. And, indeed, studies show men tend to log more hours at the office after they have children. But the drama of that afternoon made him rethink his priorities and question how much time he spent away from his family. He stopped racking up 14- to 16-hour days at his desk. He started thinking more about sleep and health. “As I processed what had happened,” he says, “I realized how misguided my focus had been. So I started seeking work-life balance.”

He joined the 50 percent of American fathers who, according to Pew Research, wish they had more time to be with their children. The half who work full-time and admit to struggling to balance their responsibilities as employees and parents. It’s no secret that today’s dads pride themselves on playing an active role in raising their kids. They gratefully embrace the opportunities to take their sons and daughters to school, chaperone field trips and coach youth soccer teams. They spend twice the time their fathers did on cooking, cleaning and other household chores and triple the time looking after their offspring.

Complicated Progress

When Mark Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, gave birth to the couple’s first child last November, the Facebook CEO not only took two months of paternity leave, he also posted pictures of himself changing his daughter’s diapers. Before accepting the role of speaker of the house in October, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan publicly insisted he be allowed to preserve family time with his three kids. And despite the demands of being the leader of the free world, Barack Obama has kept his promise to routinely join his wife and daughters at the dinner table throughout his two terms in the White House.

At first glance, this would suggest we’ve made great strides in breaking down harmful gender stereotypes. But in truth, the American workplace has failed to keep up with the shift in outlook. As Levs points out in his 2015 book, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together, America’s laws, corporate policies and clubby office politics are trapped in the days of Don Draper’s Mad Men.

“The workplace was designed with the idea that women and babies stay home, men go to work,” Levs says. “It’s a backward way of thinking, one that’s hurting us.”

Though our political dialogue is filled with talk of family values, and work-life balance is a common refrain in the discussion of women’s progress in the workplace and as entrepreneurs, it can also be very hard for men to have careers and also uphold their roles as caregivers. More than one-third of working parents believe a need for flex-time has cost them a raise, a promotion or a job.

After missing out on one too many pivotal moments at home, Max Schireson, father of three, stepped down as CEO of the database company MongoDB. “Life is about choices,” he wrote in the 2014 blog post, “Why I Am Leaving the Best Job I Ever Had.” “Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family.”

Mohamed El-Erian, the former CEO of global investment management firm PIMCO, made a similar sacrifice after his 10-year-old daughter presented him with a list of 22 childhood milestones he had missed while on the job. “I was not making nearly enough time for her,” he confessed.


Half of working parents have turned down a job that conflicted with their family time.


This might seem like a non-issue to many people. Just call it a day at 5 p.m. Who’s going to stop you? But society is quick to question the work ethic of a man who values his home life as much as his profession. When Daniel Murphy, second baseman for the New York Mets, missed games early in the 2014 season to be with his wife for the birth of their son, he was roundly criticized. “I don’t know why you need three days off,” sports talk show host Mike Francesa mouthed off on the radio. “You’re a Major League Baseball player. You can hire a nurse to take care of the baby if your wife needs help.”

Ultimately such boneheaded locker room talk is not just hurtful to millionaire athletes and CEOs—it affects women, too. That’s why organizations created by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, and journalist Maria Shriver have both endorsed Levs’ efforts to promote work-life balance. “If we truly want a society with more women leaders,” he says, “we have to make sure men have the chance to stay home.”

Looking Up

There are signs of enlightenment on the horizon, despite all of this. Studies show millennials value job flexibility more than money and promotions. They’re willing to move to a new job—even a new country—to find a better work-life balance. And flexible work arrangements have proved to be fruitful for business, too. Employees who use them tend to be healthier, happier and more productive.

Half of working parents have turned down a job that conflicted with their family time. “Companies that are slow to react are going to lose employees,” says management professor Scott Behson, author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide. In fact, Behson and Levs have both been paid to help companies revise their work-life balance policies.

But that still leaves the U.S. as one of the few nations in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave—even for working moms—along with Papua New Guinea and Suriname. Togo and Bangladesh have paid paternity leave. Even at a progressive company like Netflix, which offers parents up to one year to bring a newborn into the world, the right is far from universal. To be eligible, you must be a salaried employee in the streaming division. The hourly workers who keep the DVD distribution and call centers humming had to raise a stink to receive a similar benefit. And, in the end, they were granted 12 to 16 weeks.

Despite the fact that California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have demonstrated that it’s possible to provide paid leave with a few dollars a week in payroll tax, federal lawmakers have been slow to embrace the idea. And that means men often return to work within days of a child’s birth, leaving their wives with the day-to-day intricacies of raising their offspring, and relegating themselves to a background role.

In the child’s early years, that’s less troublesome. But teens who spend quality time with both parents are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and engage in other risky behaviors. They score higher than their peers in math, too.

What’s important, says Behson, is finding what feels right for you. “Thinking about it as a tightrope walk is bad,” he says. “It means anything less than balance is a failure. I like to think of it more like a diet. Sometimes work does have to come first. Maybe it’s tax season or you have a big deadline. But other times you can dive into your family life. A temporary imbalance is not a disaster.”

Devising a Strategy

After wrestling with this very issue, Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit, coined the phrases “crystal moments” and “rubber moments” to describe his work-life strategy. The crystal moments are the ones you don’t dare miss: graduation ceremonies, birthday parties, playoff games, roles in the school play. The rubber moments can be skipped from time to time for business trips and important meetings.

Whether they realize it or not, many people already define the crystal and rubber moments in their lives. On his first trip to China to meet with the employees and partners of Ernst & Young, newly appointed global chairman and CEO Mark Weinberger delivered a speech he had taken great pains to write. And then he promptly excused himself from the dinner reception the company had arranged on the Great Wall. He had already promised his teenage daughter that he would accompany her to her driver’s license test the next morning. And so he dutifully returned home to the states on a red-eye flight.

“No one remembered my great speech that day,” he concedes. “But I received hundreds of emails admiring my decision to keep my commitment to my daughter.”

Related: Why You Should Be Chief Growth Officer of Your Family


This article appears in the June 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Busy at Work? You Can Still Put Family First

Chris Raymond is a contributing editor for SUCCESS magazine.