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Father Time

The latest in balancing life at work and home

Dr. Scott Behson, a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, not only researches workplace-home life issues, he tries to strike a balance in his own life. At the Silberman College of Business, he teaches, conducts research and provides consulting services in Work-Family Balance and Workplace Flexibility. At home, with a 9-year-old son, he seeks to carry an equal load of duties with his wife, Broadway actress Amy Griffin.

Behson founded and runs Fathers, Work and Family, a popular blog dedicated to helping working fathers and encouraging more supportive workplaces. He writes regularly for academic journals and popular media outlets, appearing on a number of TV and radio news shows. Fathers for Good corresponded with Behson by e-mail to get some of the latest research and insights about how fathers can best balance their work and home life.

Scott Behson and his son take in a ballgame.

Fathers for Good: What are the differences between a stay-at-home dad and a father on paternity leave?

Scott Behson: An at-home dad, just like an at-home mom, is someone who is the primary parent and caretaker for the family and has dropped out of the workforce to do so. Parental leave is paid or unpaid temporary leave from one’s employment to recover from childbirth and/or care for the newborn. The dad obviously doesn’t need physical recovery, but in many cases is eligible for caretaking leave. Both are not as common as they probably should be.

In an ideal situation, every family would be able to discuss their priorities and needs and then structure their families the best way for their particular circumstances – of course, the kids’ needs being most important. For some families, the traditional working dad and at-home mom arrangement works great. The vast majority of families have dual-earning parents and, with some communication and flexibility, this is great, too. For example, my wife and I essentially share care roughly 50/50 because both of us value our own and each other’s career – but we make sure that our son gets enough of both of us. This takes work, but makes the most sense for my family. Finally, depending on career ambitions and personal priorities, a working mom with an at-home dad works for a lot of families, too.

While more companies are offering paid leave for dads, this still only represents about 20% of firms. The current situation is a shame as research shows that men who take more than two weeks at the birth of their children are more involved at home throughout their kids’ lives. And involved fatherhood, as we know, is just about the best thing there is for kids. Kids with involved dads do better in school, persist to graduation, get into less trouble, are less likely to get pregnant before marriage, and even have better health outcomes.

FFG: Mohamed El-Erian is the latest in a growing line of high-profile CEOs to leave their job to spend more time with their children. Can only highly successful men afford to do so?

Behson: Clearly, not everyone is in the financial position to make the same choices as El-Erian and Max Schireson (the former CEO of MongoDB whom I interviewed for the Wall Street Journal). The goal, however, is to look beyond the incompatibility between an “all-in” approach to work and the time needed to be sufficiently involved as fathers.

We’d all be better off if workplaces made more reasonable time demands on employees, offered more flexible ways to work (such as with informal telecommuting), and better accommodated men during peak parenting times (such as with paternity leave). In this way, dads wouldn’t have to drop out of work to be involved with family. Instead, they could achieve success in both important aspects of their lives.

The most important aspect of the recent attention to “CEO Dads” is that change is more likely to happen when the new generation of men in positions of corporate leadership see work-family not as a theoretical issue or one that only affects women, but rather as something they see as a real challenge in their own lives. I believe this is starting to happen, and many companies are becoming more accommodating employers in order to retain talent.

FFG: How should we think about work-home life balance?

Behson: Many who write on this topic misperceive the concept of balance. They think of balance as in a “balance beam,” in which one needs 50/50 balance and any imbalance means a perilous fall.

I prefer thinking of work-life balance as a “balanced diet.” All aspects of one’s life (career, family, health, social life, religion, etc.) are important, and many go well together and complement each other (steak and potatoes and green beans and cupcakes all together make a great meal!). Temporary imbalances are O.K. Just as it is O.K. to carbo-load on occasion and make it up with salads later on, it is O.K. to work overtime to meet a work deadline but compensate with extra family time the following weekend. A long-term approach of care and attention to the variety of one’s life goals is the real key.

My advice for dads seeking balance is to ensure that we spend sufficient time and attention both to career and family. For some, this means using flexibility and technology to better integrate time at work and time for life. For others, creating stricter barriers between work time and family time is the best way. There’s no single solution, but by thinking through your priorities, discussing them with the important people in your life and then acting in better accord with your priorities, we can all get closer to a balanced and fulfilling life.