Fatherhood and the weight of work in the home
Religion & Liberty Online

Fatherhood and the weight of work in the home

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Mothers who have achieved success in corporate America are often asked how they balance the demands of child-rearing with those of their careers, and understandably so.

Fathers, on the other hand? Not so much.

The demands of motherhood are significant, to be sure, particularly during pregnancy and the early stages of child development. But given that men have continued to assume more responsibilities in the home, in conjunction with a modern influx of women in the workplace, one would hope that we might begin to hear such questions asked of successful men.

Not waiting to be asked, Max Schireson of Internet database company MongoDB recently resigned from his position as CEO, noting his fatherhood duties as the primary reason:

Here is my situation:

* I have 3 wonderful kids at home, aged 14, 12 and 9, and I love spending time with them: skiing, cooking, playing backgammon, swimming, watching movies or Warriors or Giants games, talking, whatever.

* I am on pace to fly 300,000 miles this year, all the normal CEO travel plus commuting between Palo Alto and New York every 2-3 weeks. During that travel, I have missed a lot of family fun, perhaps more importantly, I was not with my kids when our puppy was hit by a car or when my son had (minor and successful, and of course unexpected) emergency surgery.

* I have an amazing wife who also has an important career; she is a doctor and professor at Stanford where, in addition to her clinical duties, she runs their training program for high risk obstetricians and conducts research on on prematurity, surgical techniques, and other topics. She is a fantastic mom, brilliant, beautiful, and infinitely patient with me. I love her, I am forever in her debt for finding a way to keep the family working despite my crazy travel. I should not continue abusing that patience.

Friends and colleagues often ask my wife how she balances her job and motherhood. Somehow, the same people don’t ask me.

A few months ago, I decided the only way to balance was by stepping back from my job.

As Will Messenger keenly observes at Theology of Work Project, Schireson’s letter exposes the irony in our typical discussions about “work-life balance.” “In this reckoning,” Messenger notes, “time with kids is real work with a serious purpose.”

Or, as I’ve put it elsewhere, parents would do well to recognize and affirm that our “work” is often a lot less work than “life.”

As Messenger duly concludes, the implications of embracing this reality reach far and wide:

Recognizing that spending more time parenting is a re-allocation of work time, rather than working less, is as significant as it is unusual. If parenting is a leisure, or non-work activity, then a decision exchanging family-time with paid work pits career against family, commitment against laziness, achievement against triviality. In those terms, every such decision becomes lose-lose. Resentment by family, colleagues or self is a foregone conclusion. But if parents recognize that the results of work include not only products, services and business returns, but also a new generation of humanity, then reallocating work time is basic strategic planning, a routine activity that high-performing workers do on a daily basis.

As we strive for a healthy “balance,” or as I might prefer, healthy integration, do we ever consider that for many it may not be so much about idols of busyness as it is about keeping busy with the wrong things, or with the right things in the wrong order — often rather unknowingly?

Alas, for many, the optimal “balance” will require more work and busyness than our corporate dragon-slaying, not less. It will be rewarding in many, many ways, but it will also be far less glamorous, less recognized, and less rewarded by the world at large, financially and otherwise.

We can all learn from Schireson’s sacrificial act, men and women alike. But for men in particular, his example offers a healthy challenge to a mindset that I fear has been ingrained for far too long.

Perhaps it’s because men aren’t pressed with the same physical demands as women in those early stages. But for whatever reason, we seem particularly adept at finding ways to justify our work at the office, farm, or factory that, in one way or another, diminish the hard and necessary work of fathering.

This isn’t to say that doing so necessarily makes us bad or neglectful fathers. But by assuming such a position and distorting our attitudes and imaginations when it comes work in general and work in the home, we only make it harder for us to integrate these worlds in the ways that we ought. And if we do get it wrong, failure here or there is bound to impact our service as a whole, to our families, churches, communities, and the economy as a whole.

Getting it right will always be a challenge, both for mothers and fathers, but as Schireson demonstrates, if we’re honest about the nature and value of all the work we’ve been assigned, orienting our hearts, attitudes, and imaginations accordingly, the prospects for integration are much, much brighter.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.