The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: An interview with Scott Behson

dad2Today I’m excited to turn this blog over to Scott Behson, author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home. Behson is a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the brains behind the Fathers, Work, and Family blog. Our books came out on the same day, and though they were aimed at different genders, big chunks of the messaging are the same. So I asked him a few questions…

LV: Dads have been expected to work for a living for quite some time. Why do they now need a survival guide?

SB: It’s a brave new world…

This generation of fathers works for as many hours as past generations, and are still the sole or primary providers in 85% of dual-parent households. In many ways, society and workplaces still expect men to be “all in” for work, even as they are far more involved than ever at home. Dads today have tripled the time they spend caring for children and doubled their housework, as compared to a generation ago. The expectations and aspirations of today’s dads are different from their role models, so some help in navigating the new reality of dual-earner households and relatively equal parenting, I think, is quite useful to help dads, their spouses and their kids thrive.

Virtually every dad I know cares a lot about his career and is putting in the work to be a loving, hands-on involved father. As working moms can attest, trying to do it all can be very difficult. That’s why I wrote the Working Dad’s Survival Guide – to provide advice and encouragement to my fellow involved working dads so they can continue to be successful at work and also be dads they always wanted to be. If you are a hardworking dad or are married to one, I bet you’ll find ideas you can use right away to better manage your time and live closer to your priorities.

LV: Do working fathers have particular gripes that are different from those of working mothers? Or to a different degree?

BOOK COVER!SB: In many workplaces, it is not safe to “out yourself” as an involved parent. Both men and women often face a career penalty if they alter their work schedules or interrupt their careers for family reasons. Research shows that there’s often an extra stigma for men in being visible when accommodating work to family, creating a chilling effect. As a result, many men do not avail themselves of leave and flexibility policies – and those that do are seen both as less dedicated and less manly, leading to career consequences. This dynamic also hurts women, as the onus of work-family balance implicitly falls to them, often short-circuiting their careers and leading to inequity at work and at home.

Lots of dads I talk to are also frustrated that everyday involved fatherhood is either ignored or overly praised- I remember taking my young son to the playground one day and being told I was “a great dad” and “a superdad.” I appreciate the compliment, but found it odd that no one compliments my wife when she does the same things. Also, if you look at the media, dads are almost always depicted as incompetent, deadbeat, or just overgrown kids themselves. This sends the lesson that mom has to be responsible for everything – putting undue burden on women and lowering expectations for dads. This notion trickles down to workplace cultures that ignore the concerns of working fathers.

The reality is that involved fatherhood is normal and is what the vast majority of us do every day. Yet society seems to lack a vocabulary to deal with it. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that dads don’t “babysit” their own kids and that involved dads are not Mr. Mom any more than working women are Mrs. Businessman.

LV: What did you and your wife learn from juggling dual careers that you wish you’d known starting out?

SB: I always had a picture in my head about what being a dad with a working spouse would look like. The reality was far different, and actually way better. I learned that there is no one best way, and that couples really need to discuss their family and career priorities on an ongoing basis to make this crazy thing work. Each family can and should do it differently to find a juggle that works for them.

For my family, my wife is a theater actress, so it was very important for us to discuss up front how we’d work together to ensure she could resume her post-baby career and make her weird, haphazard schedule work (thankfully, it has!). This forced us to plan well ahead. I’m a college professor who has a lot of control over my time, so, very often, I’m the one who flexes my schedule around hers. Overall, we have a pretty functional, ever-changing shared-care approach. We’re really good teammates and co-parents.

Another reason this worked well for us is that our son was born just as my Spring semester ended, meaning I had a de facto “paternity leave” – we had the whole summer to figure out how this “baby makes three” thing would shake out. Because we both transitioned to parenting together, we both became equally competent and confident parents, and saw each other as parenting equals. She knows there’s no aspect of parenting (besides breast-feeding) that I can’t handle as well as she can – even if I do things a bit differently.

This has served us well, but we were exceedingly lucky. In most families, dads are not able to take extended paternity leaves, so they are often back to work so soon after the baby arrives. So much of the heavy lifting falls to moms, and they will get better at caring for the baby, and this can cause a vicious cycle in which the dad becomes the less confident and less competent “helper’ as opposed to a full co-parent.

Most dads want to be more involved, and can use some encouragement and advice to figure out how to get there.

LV: I love that you devoted a section to “making family life memorable” — why is that, and what advice would you give there?

SB: I asked all the dads I interviewed for the book how they wanted their kids to remember their childhoods with them. The universal answer is that they wanted to be remembered as involved, loving, happy presence in their lives.

Of course, quantity time is important. Kids don’t learn how to brush their teeth, tie their shoes or eat their food without a lot of tireless thankless work. However, parenting shouldn’t just be work- it should also be really fun! My advice would be to let the dishes sit in the sink sometimes and instead spend a chunk of time playing in the yard. Turn off your phone and catch moments when you can. Be silly. Spend your money on experiences (like a camping trip) with your kids instead of buying some plastic thing they’ll get bored of in a month.

Most importantly, and I’m sure that you, as the time use expert, would agree, we should schedule time into our weekly schedules for our priorities. If we truly value family time, we need to reserve Friday evening for family board-game night, commit to screen-less family dinners, or plan Saturdays for a family bike ride. Even with successful careers, there is indeed enough time for having fun, memorable family time, if we plan for our priorities.

9 thoughts on “The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: An interview with Scott Behson

  1. I found his connection between the stigma men face when using parental leave policies and how this can be of disservice to women to be interesting. I have read several pieces of the reverse (maybe more optimistic view) where we hope to have the trickle down so that women asking for flexible schedules, etc. will benefit men. But the reverse is also true. If this stigma sticks around for men, then men won’t frequently make use of the policies, meaning it will likely fall on the women to continue to do so. And these asks still come at some price.

    I tend to get irritated when I hear of people telling my male colleagues not to take parental leave or that they don’t want an asterisk by their hours saying they only made their hours because of parental leave. No one ever gives me that advice as a woman because they know I will take the full leave policy and it would essentially be impossible to make up those hours without the asterisk. Giving this advice to my male colleagues makes the whole office culture seem to say you are less if you make use of the policy.

    1. @EB – out of curiosity, how explicit is the asterisk? Why is there an asterisk? (vs you just charge your hours to a “leave code” which would be like a client code). I’m always interested to learn how these things work.

    2. Hi- First thanks to Laura for being a great colleague.- I have a Q&A with her over on my blog as well.

      As you astutely point out, it is a vicious cycle. If work-family concerns are seen as “just” a woman’s issue, some will marginalize it as not so important. That’s horrifically wrong on many levels.

      I am optimistic, though. Gen Xer and Millennial men are much more open to shared parenting and more egalitarian relationships at home and at work. In 10 years, I bet things will get better. heck, it was hardly on the radar 10 years ago.

    3. When our 1st daughter was born, my husband worked at a company that offered 12 weeks of parental leave for dads (4 weeks paid + 8 weeks unpaid). The culture was that everyone takes the paid, but *no one* takes the unpaid, even though most moms DO take the unpaid portion. My husband put in his request to take 8 weeks total and his team spent a lot of time trying to convince him not to take more than 4. Sigh. In the end, he took all of it, but ended up getting recruited by another company while he was on leave 😉

  2. This was a great interview. So good many thoughts, especially the trickle down effect of how men are portrayed in our media.

    1. Thank you.

      On a related note, I am speaking at the National At-Home Dads Network conference this coming weekend. There’s a whole ballroom full of dads, writers, bloggers, etc. who push back on these media depictions whenever they can. In fact, their official t-shirt has the slogan ‘Dads don’t babysit: it’s called parenting”

  3. So there isn’t really an “asterisk” but that is how people refer to it. My particular workplace gives you at the end of the year both the “actual” hours and “annualized” hours. If you take parental leave, your full-time equivalency is adjusted. The annualized hours gives you the FTE as if you were there 100%.

    So I guess the “asterisk” is the fact that the “actual” hours and “annualized” hours don’t match.

    The reason it matters-So long as the annualized hours meets a certain number, you get a bonus (the amount of which is set, but then adjusted to match the actual FTE; e.g., Say you were at a 0.95 FTE, then you get 95% of the bonus.

  4. Very interesting post and lots of great points. I’m curious to know whether you (SB) had tenure, because (particularly) lacking tenure I’d find it very surprising to see a female faculty member characterize a summer as offering “de facto maternity leave.” Scheduling flexibility, maybe — depends on research field, but not leave.

    (Out of curiosity, I know the business school where I work runs on a different schedule from the university academic calendar, though I’m not sure whether it’s “better” or “worse,” or just different — is this true where you are, or is it the traditional ~14 week semesters, 2 per year, with optional summer and/or winter term teaching?)

    1. Sorry for the delay in responding. That’s an excellent question, and hopefully, one that more men will engage in as family dynamics change so not everything falls to the mom.
      My son was born in May and I submitted my materials for tenure review that September. I worked ahead to be sure my track record was tenure-worthy before my son was born. That way, I cleared the decks to immerse myself in fatherhood.
      I know many colleges now allow for women to be able to pause their tenure clocks for a year when they have a child. This is a welcome development.

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