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Amy Cross's picture

As mothers, we talk a lot about balance. It’s an elusive concept—that sort of stands for being tired and overwhelmed.  But even that conversation is highly unbalanced. It’s not a full discussion, because we don’t talk about balance for fathers nearly as much. Don’t both parents deserve to find a comfortable spot on the continuum of personal and occupational fulfillment.

“We have to rise up against the idea that balance is a woman’s issue, says Stephanie Coontz, it’s equally a men’s issue.  Currently, men are reporting higher levels of work family conflict than women.”

Few people know more about the state of the American family’s past and present besides Stephanie Coontz, the often-quoted Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families and author of two books about marriage. Citing current research Coontz says, “When you ask kids, they want more time with their working dads.  They want their moms to be less stressed, but if they want more time with either parent, they want it with their dad.”

For her recently-released book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Coontz interviewed dozens of women who lived through the period of The Feminine Mystique.  In that important book, Betty Friedan described how women could not find happiness solely in housewifely pursuits. They craved more than one dimension in life—they needed to channel energies into things other than house and children. Freud had said people needed love and work—and it seems that is true for both men and women.

Coontz says looking back at the 60s mystique helped her identify similar straightjacket problems today:  one that she labels the career mystique.  “We have to battle the career mystique, that says the only way to build a career is for ONE person in the couple to devote all their time to it in the prime years of their lives”.   She notes that men are often not exempted from this mystique: that dads don’t have many options for part-time work, they don’t have career possibilities with a daddy-track that are available to women only—if you don’t happen to be lucky enough to be a blonde Swede. Holland too, is making strides in offering reduced work hours to fathers as evidenced in a recent New York Times story. But US dads do mostly without.

After Freidan’s book, after the 60’s and 70’s, women did get to leave the house more and men took on more domestic pursuits.  “Men have been deeply influenced by the women’s movement and the entry of women into the workforce,” says Coontz. “They had to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing housework and childcare, but now that they’ve been dragged in, they are beginning to find satisfaction in those things.  They are beginning to root part of their identity into being a father and partner.”  That is a huge change.  Just imagine Don Draper of the series Mad Men taking the day off to take care of his runaway or sick daughter.  It wouldn’t happen.  Coontz acknowledges there has been a shift of fathers into more actively participating dads, “After studying the popular culture of the 60s, it’s a stunning change that we should be proud of”.

The feminine mystique showed us that we should allow women to define themselves beyond mothers and housewives who are disconnected from the outside world.  It’s equally unfair to not allow men just a small part of their identity beyond the breadwinner role.  As much as men have taken on domestic jobs, Coontz still maintains that men who stay home are looked upon as “oddballs who experience loneliness and social isolation.”   She reports that attentive dads are looked down upon so much in the workplace that when taking their children to doctor’s appointment, they’ll lie and say its their own.

While we still need to work on work-family issues, the policies and programs have to be extended to both genders, or to both partners equally to achieve true balance.  That would be a happy family.

Originally posted on

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