THE BLOG
10/31/2013 04:57 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2013

An Untold Story: The Work-Life Struggles of Men With Stay-at-Home Wives

National Work and Family Month seems a particularly good time to call out a group we rarely associate with work-life struggles, men with stay-at-home wives. It's easy to conclude that men in traditional families have few limitations on their work availability. There is a deep bias that these men can work very long days, travel often -- on short notice and for extended periods of time -- and generally work whenever needed because someone is at home to manage it all. One might assume that men with stay-at-home spouses "have it all" -- the ability to focus intensively on their work lives and reap the attendant rewards in pay and status -- while simultaneously enjoying the many benefits of family life. I admit, with great humbleness, that in the past I've been guilty of this thinking. Through the years, I've learned the reality is far more complicated than I suspected.

Recently, a colleague shared the story of a dad, an attorney and the sole breadwinner for his family, which brought the complexity into stark relief. This father talked about the expectations he felt to work long hours and if he needed to go home at a reasonable time for dinner, he was expected to login later in the evening for a few more hours of work. But as a father with two young children, he felt the need to leave work earlier than many of his colleagues in order to support his wife. He indicated that after spending a long day caring for their children and being attentive to their frequent, at times seemingly constant demands, she needed a break. He added that after the intensity of making and eating dinner, bathing the children and settling them down for bed, he needed -- and wanted -- time with his wife to reconnect. He was cognizant how important this focused 'adult-time' was for her and for the strength and health of their relationship.

Recently, I read some academic research highlighting how spousal attitudes toward an employer influence their partner's work commitment. It seems evident that if the work-life conflict catalyzed by your job is making your spouse miserable, this conflict will at some point begin to erode your emotional connection to your work and organization. Hearing the story of this dad reminded me just how challenging the 'ideal worker' model is for men in traditional families (as well as men and women in any family structure) who seeks to be highly involved parents and spouses.

I know from consulting over nearly two decades to large global corporations on women's advancement and diversity that men, with a working or at-home spouse, are far less likely to spend their 'professional capital' on improving their work-life equation. Instead, they spend it on maximizing their advancement potential and increasing their compensation. Through my work, I've seen that many men are content to make these work-life tradeoffs. They perceive their breadwinner role as the best way to support their families. It's not unusual to hear men crediting their stay-at-home wives for making their intense career focus possible.

The more complicated story is for those men who truly want to find a more balanced approach to work, who want to be highly engaged with their families yet encounter work climates that don't expect men to walk that road. I suspect this pressure is greatest for men in single earner families. While everyone expects men with stay-at-home wives to be able to work all the time, for those with a need and/or desire to erect boundaries around their work time and accessibility, they likely perceive this behavior as too risky. After all, if they were to lose their job, the whole house of financial cards would crumble.

I've long argued that despite the conventional wisdom that families with a parent exclusively focused at home provides maximum flexibility for the other spouse to prioritize work; rarely does the conversation include the true inflexibility of this family structure. Understandably, the breadwinner is highly reluctant to push back at work or to leave a job, regardless of the emotional toll on themselves and their family. I contend it's far better to have two working parents who can far more easily respond to the vicissitudes of the job market. A more agile model, where both parents feel competent professionally and as care givers, is better suited to the realities of the 21st century global economy.

Through the years I've greatly increased my understanding of the deep importance of the provider role for men and their ambivalence about and challenges with prioritizing family. Consider results from a study of nearly 1,000 men in professional and technical roles that were fathers of children under age 18. (2) Two-thirds of these fathers indicated work was only a small part of who they were and 77 percent indicated wanting more time to spend with their children. Yet 84 percent of these same dads reported they were willing to put in a great deal of effort beyond that normally expected to help their organization succeed, only 1 in 20 took more than 2 weeks off from work when their most recent child was born, and two in three worked over 45 hours per week, 20 percent over 55 hours weekly. The predominance of job insecurity certainly helps in explaining this paradox. Job security was the factor of greatest importance to these men with nearly 50 percent identifying it as extremely important.

Through my work, I've seen how the definition of ambition -- especially for men -- is a high mark to reach. This was brought home to me while conducting research for my book The Libra Solution highlighting a highly egalitarian approach to career and family management. One of the men I interviewed worked in a technical role at a large university. In one breath he told me that he didn't consider himself to be particularly ambitious while a few minutes later he shared that he'd put his graduate studies on hold when his daughter was born a few years earlier but he was beginning to feel ready to resume working toward his PhD. My thought was, how can this man -- someone willing to make the very serious commitment to earn a PhD -- at the same time not consider himself ambitious? Perhaps it was because he was comparing himself to his wife, a highly successful tenured professor at the university. In any case, through many years I've come to more fully appreciate just how deeply the importance of ambition and bread winning are for men's self concept.

The problem is until the many men who struggle mightily with combining being an engaged parent and an ideal worker (as evidenced by the exponential rise in reported work-life conflict for men over the last 30 years according the National Study of the Changing Workforce) speak up and demand something different, I fear nothing will change. I often ponder what kind of world do we want for our children -- one in which professional achievement and involved parenting are seen as mutually exclusive? Can it possibly be good for our children to have their parents feeling so pulled apart by these dual roles? Can it be good for our economy to draw from an increasingly smaller segment of the workforce willing -- and able -- to focus so exclusively on work?

My greatest hope -- and what I see as the most promising road forward -- is for the many men who don't want to accept the work-above-all focus (which has come to represent our modern definition of professional ambition and success) to join with their female colleagues, many of whom having been fighting the good fight to adapt our out-of-sync work cultures for so very long.