How Dads View (and live out) the Tension Between Their Jobs and Their Families
Fathers often find themselves in a tug of war, caught between the demands of work and those of the family. This paper looks at what the fathers in our study said about the subject of work and family balance. The beliefs of fathers related to the family/work balance fell into three types:
- Dads that believe work trumps family
- Dads that believe work and family are equally important
- Dads that believe family trumps work
Regardless of a father's belief, his attitude on work/family balance has significant implications for the family. This report on family and work balance highlights an opportunity for Focus on the Family to help families thrive.
Work Trumps Family
Some dads live to work rather than work to live. Matthew believes that he must do whatever it takes to keep his job, so his family takes a back seat to his work. He believes that to fulfill his role as a father he must put his job first. Being a good provider, Matthew says, Is fulfilling his role as a father. As a result, he believes he is justified in sacrificing his family for his work, doing whatever he has to do to ensure he keeps his job. Matthew appears to be held hostage by his job. His personal life, family time and activities are subject to preemption when work-related emergencies arise. Matthew's company dumps on him but he seems to accept this and probably encourages it since he feels he must do whatever it takes to make himself indispensable at work. To spend more time with his family, Matthew says he has to get better at his work, in other words, perform the same or additional work they dump on him more efficiently. Nowhere in his story does Matthew indicate that he has any control or is willing or able to place boundaries on his workload. Whatever the job dishes out, he believes he has to do it. If Matthew cuts back on his work to spend more time with his family, the work won't get done. Matthew seems to be in bondage to an unpredictable work flow that doesn't respect boundaries between personal and work time. He doesn't believe it would be any different at another company since "that is how it is in my industry, and in America", so Matthew doesn't look for a new job.
Daniel considers the work/family balance question to be a trick question since the two are so interdependent. Without a job, he cannot be a provider and an effective father and husband. Daniel's work comes first by necessity, and family ends up getting "the short end of the stick". Providing food, shelter, and clothing simply takes priority over personal time with family members. Daniel's work-demands prevent him from spending a lot of time with his kids. Whether real or imagined, Daniel doesn't act as though he has a choice to place his family ahead of work. Conflicts between family and work are automatically decided in favor of work. "Everything is work" is how Daniel describes non-family time, and "work" trumps family time. When Daniel's two hour commute shortened to 15 minutes, for example, the free time was instantly allocated to more work, not family. This suggests that Daniel considers family time to be an unjustifiable distraction or diversion away from "work". As he admits, "my family gets the short end of the stick". Daniel, like Matthew, has a sense of resignation to the intrusions of work on family time, believes the situation would be no different with another company, so he doesn't look for a new job. Daniel rationalizes his attitude as he points out that compared to Europe, American workers have to place their jobs ahead of family and that workers often do not take vacation for fear of losing their jobs.
Work and Family are Equally Important
For some dads, an effort is made to maintain a fine balance between work and family since they consider them intertwined and equally important. Just as you can't be with your family 20 hours per day and hold a job, or spend 20 hours per day at work and be an effective dad, occasional compromises between work and family are required to maintain a happy medium. For these dads, keeping work and family equal is a matter of pragmatism. On an emotional or ideal basis they believe that family is the higher priority. They believe that fulfilling their role as a father includes being a good provider, in fine balance with family life. They are defensive of family time, being intentional in their efforts to not let work rob their kids and family of time with their dad. One dad adjusts his shifts so he can spend more time with his kids. He'll swap shifts to be at home even for a brief period at dinner time when he can ask the kids about their day. Another dad, a teacher, goes into work early so when he comes home in the evening his family has his full attention. Some dads maximize precious family time by including their kids in everything they do or wherever they go outside of work. Rather than stay in a job that intrudes into family time and is inflexible, many of these dads look for a new job that enables family time. These dads aren't immune from the challenges of separating career and family priorities. In practice they are willing and intentional in their effort to compromise as best they can keep their career and family roles balanced.
Family Trumps Work
Work takes a back seat to family for dads that see their careers mostly as a means to an end. Although career is very important, these dads view work primarily as a means to provide for their family. The paradigm shift from "living to work" to "working to live" often occurs for dads with the advent of parenthood. In some cases, however, a workaholic father comes to this realization only after he "slows down" after a job loss or work subsides. Kyle, for example, had been putting work first and ignoring his family until his business subsided with a downturn in the economy six years ago. Once his business slowed and he had time for family, he realized that he hadn't established relationships with his children, an infant and a two year old. Kyle began cultivating his family relationships, prioritizing his family so that he could spend lots of time with his children and be there for their important life events. Over the past six years Kyle has become close to all of his children, which are now eight, six, and a caboose who is now four. He now prioritizes his roles as husband first, father second, and job third. Kyle is concerned that he will have difficulty maintaining healthy boundaries between work and family when the economy eventually recovers and his workload increases.
Ben says that although work is an important necessity for him, family is his highest priority. When asked how he balances work and family, Ben said "I just do it! That’s why I have no friends". Ben engages every waking moment he can with his family at the expense of friends and personal activities he might enjoy. Although he has no time for friends, Ben says that's "okay" since in this family role he is complete. His job is very important since it provides for his family, but the job and career are not as important to him as his family. Ben places his highest priority on God, then family, work, and Ben.
Unless a dad is independently wealthy and doesn't need to work, it is normal for him to be confronted with conflicting priorities of work and family. How the father addresses the balance of work and family has significant positive or negative ramifications for all stakeholders; himself, his family, and his employer. The father's behavior will in large measure be based on his sense of control, the flexibility of his job and family, and his willingness to engage in healthy compromise and boundary setting. Work and family will be out of balance when boundaries are absent or not enforced. Poor boundaries created by an out of balance condition can be generated by the father, or in some cases inflexible demands of the family, the job or the employer. Focus on the Family can help fathers by raising their awareness of the factors necessary for a healthy work/family balance. Since families need to eat, there may be periods of time where it is the father's duty to tolerate a work/family imbalance. On the other hand, many fathers may actually be promoting the condition by poor boundary setting or failing to research and pursue different job opportunities that may be available. With the many conflicting priorities inherent to work and family demands, the issues surrounding work/life imbalance can be a significant source of stress to fathers and their families. Family and work balance represents an opportunity for Focus on the Family to help families thrive.
Originally published August 2011
© 2011 Focus on the Family.