10/20/2011 02:18 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2011

We Need to See Men Care

I travel a lot for work, and I usually feel terrible guilt about leaving my two little boys. But I had a transformative moment while Skyping with my husband back home. Because I'm away, he'd had to leave work early to relieve the sitter. And the boys had an amazing time. They went to the YMCA, they had dinner; they had a playdate. It was a way more amazing time than they would have on a typical evening, when I rush home in time, their father gets home after dinner, the kids go to bed and the adults log back on. And all of a sudden my mom guilt was replaced with joy.

This is a simple, even trite example. But to me, the solution to work family conflict is simple. Until we see more men doing caregiving, things will not change at work, because most workplace systems reward workers who are present and "at" work a lot. The very nature of caregiving demands you make time away from work to take care of people in your life. The maternal wall and the burden of care giving cost women dearly in terms of advancement and earnings.

The rallying cry in the women's leadership movement has been "You can't change what you can't see." Women are encouraged to get out there: to be visible in offices, in the media, in political office. From the White House Project to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's new effort, women are encouraged to "Get Off the Sidelines" and into public life. Do we encourage men to get into private life, though?

Guess what: until we see more men at the grocery store on weekdays, doing school drop off regularly, at the pediatrician's, at the nursing home, managing the plumber's appointments and vet and kissing the skinned knees of their sons and daughters, our norms won't shift and the mommy track will surge on. Power between women and men will not be equal.

Even in Canada or Northern Europe where maternity leave is mandated, paid, and accepted, women don't advance to power at the same rates as men. Because if women consistently duck out to give care and men don't, guess who gets ahead?

Things are changing. Tom Matlack, founder of the Good Men Project, said that if feminism worked to get women out of the house, men now are trying to figure out how to get back into the house. As Brad Harrington from Boston College's Center for Work and Family writes,

"Young fathers today know that they will have working wives. Their wives are likely to be at least as well if not better educated, just as ambitious as they are, and make more money than they do. More importantly, these men feel that being a father is not about being a hands-off economic provider. It's about paying attention, nurturing, listening, mentoring, coaching, and most of all, being present. It's also about changing diapers, making dinner, doing drop-offs and pick-ups, and housecleaning."

In 2008 almost half of employed men said they take equal or almost equal responsibility for child care; 25 percent of women said their husbands do most or an equal share of cooking.

Both men and women agree overwhelmingly that if the wife works full time, her husband should share equally in the household chores. But women still take on the second shift -- a 2009 University of Michigan study finds by all accounts, women take on a significantly larger portion of the housework and spend close to 20 hours a week on these chores, vs. 11 for men. Child care shows a similar gender pattern, with men devoting about half as many hours to child care as women.

And it seems to me difficult for men to take on truly equal and engaged care giving roles without judgment or scrutiny. No wonder many men who are taking care of children or the elderly want to stay invisible.

I've heard from more than a few dads that they feel strange participating in typically female-led kid activities during the day. How can we take small actions to make big change, get men back into the house, and make work and life better for us all?

What is your part in this equation? Here's a simple one for women: if you see a dad hanging out at preschool, do you talk to him? Do you make him feel welcome and natural being there?

I'd love to hear other ways both women and men send signals to men that being a caregiver is not the ideal fit for a man.

This piece is my contribution for National Work and Family month.