Becoming a Working Dad
Life transitions involve three phases: the “long goodbye,” in which the person going through the transition mourns the life they’re leaving behind; the “messy middle,” in which the person sheds certain habits, mindsets, and lifestyles and begins to create new ones; and the “new beginning,” in which the person introduces their new self. These phases parallel nicely with the challenges and opportunities new working fathers face.
While the transition to working motherhood has been deeply studied by academics and discussed often in popular culture, the new dad transition has been woefully ignored. But research into these questions has accelerated in recent years. This article explores five tips for new dads to make the transition into working fatherhood a process that’s not just life disrupting, but life affirming, too.
Among the transitions people face in their lives, becoming a parent may be the most consequential. The fact that this life change is often expected and joyful does little to reduce the emotional upheaval and personal and professional adjustment required.
But while the transition that new moms face — everything from postpartum depression and career anxiety to a heightened sense of pride and purpose — has been deeply studied by academics and oft discussed in popular culture, the transition that new dads face has been woefully ignored by researchers and reduced to little more than a punchline in popular culture.
Yet the two transitions can’t be separated. The impact brought on by massive growth in the number of working moms is inextricably entangled with the impact of having a new culture of engaged dads. As more and more moms have entered the workspace (two-thirds of mothers with children under six work outside the home; for those with children over six, the number balloons to 77%), more dads have entered the parenting space.
Some of this change is by necessity — working moms, by definition, have less time in their day for childcare and increasingly demand that dads step up — but far more of the change is by choice. Dads, it turns out, enjoy being more involved in childrearing. Asked how they view their role in the family, three-quarters of fathers say their role is “both earning money and caring for my child.”
While this flowering of interest in fatherhood has many upsides for dads, moms, and children alike, it raises a host of complications and awkward adjustments for everyone involved, including employers and managers. And though the research into these questions does not go back decades, it has accelerated in recent years.
My own research into life transitions has found that they involve three phases. The first is what I call the “long goodbye,” in which the person going through the transition mourns the life they’re leaving behind. The second is the “messy middle,” in which the person sheds certain habits, mindsets, and lifestyles and begins to create new ones. The third is the “new beginning,” in which the person introduces their new self. These phases parallel nicely with the challenges and opportunities new fathers face.
Here, based on this growing body of knowledge, are five tips for new dads to make the transition into working fatherhood a process that’s not just life disrupting, but life affirming, too.
1. Accept It
The first lesson for new dads is not to skip over the changes involved. A phase of life has passed. Instead, accept that becoming a father brings with it a host of emotions. These emotions include not just upbeat ones, like joy, elation, and pride, but also downbeat ones, like fear, anxiety, and helplessness.
Researchers in Australia did a comprehensive analysis of more than 500 research papers and found that anxiety disorders in expectant fathers begin in early pregnancy and are widespread across the perinatal period. These feelings crest around birth, when dads often succumb to bouts of helplessness and solitude. For men who already have a history of mental health challenges, these changes can be especially acute.
On top of those emotions at home, dads often feel a sense of concern about falling behind or losing pace at work. Certain routines with colleagues and bosses, from social gatherings to conventions to weekend rounds of golf, may diminish in priority, thereby stoking fears that the responsibilities at home are undermining opportunities at work.
The point is that transitioning to fatherhood is an emotional experience; take time to identify and accept it.
2. Mark It
So how should working dads cope with these feelings?
The answer is to bring the feelings into the open by finding appropriate venues to explore them. My research has found that people use a variety of techniques to respond to the rush of emotions in life transitions: Some write about their feelings; others buckle down and push through. But 80% of people use rituals — public, often shared experiences that indicate to themselves and those around them that they’re going through an emotional time and are preparing for what comes next.
The same applies to fathers. For those having a hard time adjusting to the sometimes abstract news of impending parenthood, for instance, the first sonogram has been found to be a galvanizing moment. While the new mom experiences the physical transformation, the dad sometimes needs the visual ritual.
A host of research has also shown that for working dads, sharing stories with others in a support group can help. Even online groups work. The reason such encounters are effective is that gathering with peers in safe settings allows new fathers to normalize their concerns and even use humor to exert some control over them. Expressing these feelings has been shown to lead to completeness, maturity, personal growth, and pride.
The success of such support groups led the Boston College Center for Work & Family to recommend that companies start fathers’ affinity groups or offer brown-bag seminars targeted at men as a way to foster acceptance of the dual roles of working dads.
3. Shed It
If the first phase of a life transition is focused on saying goodbye to a past that is not coming back, the second phase, “the messy middle,” is concentrated on settling in and adjusting to the new reality. The first step in that process involves giving up old ways.
For working dads, this step means freeing yourself from expectations about your own identity, your relationship with your partner, even your job. A comprehensive study by two scholars in Brazil found that fathers in transition must learn to adjust in four key areas: (1) the father with himself; (2) the father with the mother and the baby; (3) the father with their support network; and (4) the father with his work.
The key finding: Fathers must not over-rely on their own fathers as role models, because previous generations of men were less focused on childrearing and balancing work and family. Instead, new fathers must shed these outdated expectations and turn instead to fathers of their own generation who are forging a new set of expectations, habits, and priorities.
Your role model as a working father is more likely to be a colleague or a friend — seek one out.
4. Create It
So what does this new generation of dads want?
The answer to that question may be the most exciting aspect of the working-dad transition. Dads today want a culture, both at home and at work, that embraces hands-on fatherhood. This desire reflects my own research into life transitions, when after saying goodbye to the past and shedding outdated patterns, people in the messy middle turn to astonishing acts of creativity.
In the case of working dads, that means creating new habits at home, from bonding with your baby to coordinating with your partner about what parts of childcare you’ll take the lead on. It also means creating a new culture at work that embraces working dads. Make no mistake: Most dads enjoy returning to work. Yet research shows that 98% of them fear losing contact with their babies.
How new dads avoid that fate is by embracing new schedules and new ways of working. More than 75% of dads use flextime when available, 57% work from home at least some of the time (a number that will surely grow as working from home becomes even more prevalent in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic), and 27% use compressed workweeks.
If you’re a new dad and a manager, take advantage of these programs as a way of helping to normalize and routinize these accommodations and forge a new culture of fatherhood for future generations. As the researchers from Boston College put it: “Offering fathers (and all employees) the time to attend to their personal needs does not offer employees permission to ‘slack off.’ What it does do is permit them to be more focused and energized when they are working.”
5. Tell It
The final phase of a life transition is the “new beginning”; it’s the one that arrives at a critical time, when the elation of new fatherhood has passed and the reality of being a dad settles in. The most important skill in this stage: updating the story of your life to include the new chapter of fatherhood.
A life transition is fundamentally a narrative event in which we revisit and update our life story to accommodate a critical change. In this case, becoming a new dad is not just a temporary transition, but a permanent one. And it’s not one that ends after a few months, but gets repeated over and over, as a child enters new phases and brings out new responsibilities, as future children come along and tax routines that were already hard won, as new responsibilities accrue at work and pull fathers away from family milestones, and as growing families require big moves, big purchases, and big challenges.
Life transitions are a lifetime sport, and fatherhood just may be the excuse you’ve long needed to start learning how to play it. But once you do, you’ll find that the skills you master are applicable across your life. They can help you turn times that at first seemed overwhelming into times that are filled with affection, wonder, and discovery.
Adapted from the HBR Working Parents Series book Advice for Working Dads.