Sometimes I feel like a bad dad.
Doubts over my parental savvy often correlate with how long I’m at the office. When I call to tell Mrs. Tepper that I’ll be here until 7:30 p.m. working on a magazine feature—and won’t be home to put our son Luke to bed—the soft disappointment in her voice stays with me like a faint ember.
The same guilty feelings apply to my job, too.
I’m 28 and now is the time to work long hours, take on more responsibility and show my bosses just how willing I am to immolate myself for the greater good. Every time I leave the building at 5:30 p.m., a part of me thinks I’m sacrificing future promotions, raises and glory.
What it means to be an American father, and the responsibilities therein, have changed radically in the last few decades. In 1975, 45% of families consisted of a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home mom; today 31% do. And now, men are taking on more chores and spending more time with their children than their dads spent with them.
But this blending of gender roles has done much to confuse the male mind. We want to spend more time with the kids and earn accolades on the job; we want to attend the soccer game and become senior management; we want to be Bill Cosby and Steve Jobs.
Many of us feel—just as working moms do—that we’re succeeding at neither.
The Research Backs Me Up on This
According Boston College’s Center for Work & Family, 86% of dads agreed or strongly agreed that “my children are the number one priority in my life.”
That’s well and good.
At the same time, though, more than three in four fathers wished to advance to a position with greater responsibilities and three in five demonstrated a strong desire to reach senior management.
Half of working dads say they find it very or somewhat difficult to balance the responsibilities of work and family, according to Pew.
And on the whole, we don’t feel like we’re living up to the dad role either. Almost eight in 10 dads want to spend more time with their children on an average workday, and one in two say they spend too little time with their kids. (Only 23% of mothers feel that way.) From first-hand experience, there is nothing quite as enervating as coming home from work to an already-sleeping son.
In Boston College’s research, you also see dads grappling with perceptions of what they want and the reality of how things are.
While today’s fathers also recognize that parenting is a two-person job—65% say they believe that partners should take care of a child evenly—only one in three say that they actually split the work in half. Women typically spend more than three times as many hours per week solely looking after the child than men.
Even on weekends, men fail to live up to their ideal. On Saturdays and Sundays, moms spend 1.2 more hours on housework and childcare than dads do. When it comes to time spent on leisure activities, dads out-loaf moms by an hour.
While Mrs. Tepper and I have something of a modern marriage—split chores, female breadwinner—she almost certainly watches Luke more on the weekends, especially when sports are on.
In spite of my few hours more on the couch, however, I’d still argue that achieving and maintaining true work-life balance is impossible. You can’t achieve these competing goals—working at the top of my game, being the best dad and husband ever, and getting in a few NBA games to recharge my own engine—within a finite number of hours in the day.
So, What Is a Modern Dad to Do?
I put that question to Sara Sutton Fell, the CEO of FlexJobs.com, a job search site focusing on companies that allow for flexible schedules and telecommuting. Her advice: to think of work-life balance as more of a journey than a destination.
“As a working parent with two young sons, I believe that work-life balance is often mistaken as an end-point that we reach eventually,” she says. “In my experience, it’s more of a balancing act—shifting your weight back and forth between your various responsibilities.”
Some days you’re going have to work long hours at the office to close out a project or meet a deadline, in other words; and some days you’re going to work from home to take your kid to the doctor.
Try to find an employer that will embrace that flexibility, Fell says.
This makes sense.
But we’ve also got to try to overcome our own guilt. That means accepting our limitations as parents and workers and people, and setting realistic expectations for ourselves.
It’s difficult to remember, but today’s dads spend more time with their kids than their fathers spent with them by a factor of three. Today’s fathers are by and large more engaged in their kids’ lives than previous generations. So we’re definitely doing better, if not up to the standards we’d hold for ourselves.
When I’m stuck in the office until dark, maintaining that perspective is difficult. But I try to remember that the next morning I’ll be there when Luke wakes up, and with any luck, arrive home in time to help his mom put him to sleep.
And if not, there’s always tomorrow.
Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad: