Western notions of fatherhood are shifting from a vision of fathers as solely financial providers and role models, to an ideal of fatherhood that also embodies caregiving and nurturing. While our image of fatherhood is changing, our view of the ideal worker remains unchanged–someone fully devoted to the workplace, without outside obligations or commitments. How can these changing ideals co-exist? Do fathers experience conflict between work and family life as they seek to live out these ideals? This qualitative study looks at how men view themselves as fathers, and how organizations are constraining or empowering men to adopt more engaged parenting identities.
Organizations and managers need to acknowledge fatherhood as an important role if fathers are to benefit from the “new” dad persona.
Researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with 31 fathers in managerial or professional positions, with children under the age of four and working spouses. Participants were predominantly white, and all but one were in heterosexual relationships. The median age of the participants was 33. Interviews were 45 to 90 minutes in length, conducted either in person or by phone. The interviewers asked questions about participants’ work life and work history, personal history (including relationships with children and spouses), and the experience of being a father.
The researchers identified four images of fathering:
- Provider–financially providing for the family (the more traditional view of fatherhood);
- Role model–modelling appropriate behaviour and guiding;
- Partner–contributing to child rearing by being a supportive and engaged spouse; and
- Nurturer–being an emotionally and physically present caretaker.
Interviews revealed that the majority of men experience all of these images of fatherhood in varying degrees, and also demonstrated how the norms and expectations of the workplace can shape these experiences. In particular, tensions can arise if workplaces are not flexible enough to accommodate more demanding fatherhood roles, and the responsibilities men have in relation to their spouses can intersect with experiences in the workplace to further exacerbate these issues.
Few men sought to reduce the multiple identities they held of themselves as fathers, and even saw fulfilling these as part of being successful.
Being visible as someone capable of juggling competing roles was considered a way to gain respect amongst coworkers. Responses showed that men maintained the multiplicity of their identities by embracing the positive aspects of fatherhood. Instead of reducing multiplicity, fathers either looked for opportunities for cooperation between competing roles, or simply accepted that they needed to fulfill multiple identities in tandem.
Nearly all respondents expressed some constraints in the workplace and a desire for more flexibility to accommodate the shifting demands of parenting. Participants felt that becoming fathers helped them socially at work, allowing them to form new bonds with other parents. However, respondents also said that workplace discussions of fatherhood needed to remain positive. Discussing the stress of managing the balance between work and family remained taboo. In contrast, the few respondents who only identified with traditional views of themselves as fathers (financial providers and role models), were more likely to report their workplaces as being restrictive in terms of flexibility.
The research demonstrates that enacting both traditional and involved images of fatherhood creates a positive sense of self, and fathers are willing to live with the tensions that this multiplicity creates. The researchers acknowledge that further study is needed, however, when it comes to the specific tensions that may be more pronounced and impactful for fathers outside of their research sample, including single fathers and fathers working hourly jobs.
- Organizations should implement gender inclusive work-life programs – Traditionally, the expectation of work availability does not change when male workers become fathers. Programs intended to support work flexibility for parents may either not be in place, or organizational culture may prohibit men from participating. Of the men interviewed in this study, those who took advantage of work flexibility to support their parenting role did so on an ad hoc basis. To enable fathers to realize their parenting ideals, programs that support work-life balance and integrate flexibility into workplace culture must be established.
- Recognize the importance of interactions with management – Interviewees cited exchanges they had with managers as a determining factor in how diversely they could view themselves as fathers. Managers can have a positive impact on fathers who wish to be more engaged in parenting if they are vocal and transparent about supporting flexibility. The research highlights the strong role that managers play in shaping a workplace culture that enables men to balance work and childcare responsibilities. Considering the important role that managers play, implementing training programs to help leaders understand the constraints on fathers in the workplace, as well as developing strategies for supporting fathers, need to be adopted.
More Research Briefs
The “New” Dad: Navigating Fathering Identity Within Organizational Contexts
Beth Humberd, Jamie J. Ladge, Brad Harrington
University of Massachusetts, Northeastern University, Boston College
Journal of Behavioural Psychology