Viewpoint: Bring On The Daddy Wars

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It was interesting to watch the message boards light up over at Good Morning America last week when Diane Sawyer revisited the Mommy Wars, which raised again the question that occurs to me whenever this radioactive topic comes up: Where's dad?

Watching these stories, you would think we were a nation of single parent families, where only women wrestle with the challenges of balancing work and family, juggling roles, making ends meet in a grumpy economy. Whatever island the men live on, they apparently don't fret, don't agonize, don't judge each other and don't get drawn as cartoon characters like Working Dad who is depriving his kids vs. Stay At Home Dad who is obsessing over them.

Is it really possible that a topic that preoccupies every mom I know is of little interest at all to the dads? The ratio of trend stories about Mommy Wars to Daddy Wars runs about 1000 to 1, if you leave out stories about hockey dads brawling on the sidelines. I have a couple of theories about this, but when I do my unscientific survey of evolved, educated, engaged dads, none of the answers really explains the missing half of the Work and Family debate. In fact when you hear a man talking publicly about wanting to spend more time with his family, you know he's gotten in some serious trouble on the job.

There are men who'll admit, without fear of censure, that they don't really feel a need or desire to spend more time with their children. They are challenged by their work; they're putting food on the table; they feel like they have the balance about right. Others who either like their work less or their kids more tell the pollsters that they still don't feel like they can talk about wanting more quality time with the kids, or take that paternity leave, or ask for flex time, without compromising their careers—and surveys of employers suggest they're right. One national study last year found that men are seen as wrestling just as much as women with getting the work-life balance right-though 68% of men said that talking about it risked making them seem less ambitious and focused at work.

But you can also sense that the landscape is changing. The Mommy Wars story has been around literally for decades; the Daddy Dilemma is only slowly catching up, partly because the economy has changed and pressures have grown, but also because attitudes evolve as well. Men born after 1965 spend over 50% more time with their kids on workdays than baby boomer dads with kids the same age: 3.4 hours, vs. 2.2 hours for the boomer dads.

In fact, if there is a trend story comparable to the Mommy Wars for men, it would be a generational one: the break of Gen X men from their older peers. Look around, and you start to see stories about the PTA dads who are co-chairing the Spring Fair (which marks a change from the days when the national PTA was known as the National Congress of Mothers.) Or stories about the Male Biological Clock. Or Feminism for Men. The Boston Globe ran a piece last year on Gen X Dads with the headline: "Luxury vacations, fast-track careers, and bigger houses used to be a priority for family men, but no longer. Today's young fathers are taking paternity leaves, rejecting overtime, and rushing home after work to do all the things many of their own fathers didn't." The story noted that as men's goals got softer, their lives got harder: it cited a study from the Families and Work Institute that found that women over the past generation experienced about the same amount of conflict juggling work and family, while men's sense of frustration rose sharply. "In 1977, about one-third of men reported tension about the juggling act; in 2002, more than half said they did."

All of which, I figure, is good news. It's no easier to generalize about the private choices of millions of men than it is about the choices of women. But nor is it any use for the public conversation to suggest that only women care about these choices in the first place. The social activists who have been working for decades to make parenting easier, make the workplace more friendly to families, make career paths more flexible, make it easier to be a "good parent" — however you define that goal — can only be helped when men care just as much about the goal as women do.

And once this becomes not a women's issue but a family issue, we can lay down our arms, and talk about matters far more important than judging other people's choices. Is my child's teacher good enough? Is it possible that computer games are actually good for the brain? Why is it that horror movies these days are so horrible-and that teenage girls like them so much? Are classrooms really biased against boys? Is soccer ruining my childrens' lives, or just my weekends?

Somewhere in the background there will always be room for a debate about gender roles and what children need most from their parents. But how much better would our time be spent finding ways to make the challenges of parenting easier for everyone. Watching the way moms treat each other, at least in the Talk Show versions of World Championship Wrestling, you can't blame men for not being eager to join the conversation. But maybe if they did, they could change it.