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Patrick R. Riccards's picture
For more than two decades, Patrick has worked at the intersection of education policy, research, and communications. He previously served as chief of staff to the National Reading Panel and as...
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Forget Leaning In, We Need to Dadprove

We’ve all heard the stories. In her book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women to do everything and anything they can to be the professional successes that they can be, even if it meant sacrificing family. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi followed last year by highlighting all she sacrificed on the personal and family front in order to be the business and career success she now is.

While Lean In is an important lesson for those of us with daughters, particularly as we want them to see they can do anything with their lives if they set their minds to it and work hard, it is a message that buys into a cultural stereotype that continues to dog men in our modern society. And it begs us to issue a national call for men to “dive In” when it comes to their families, particularly when it comes to involvement in our children's schools.

Historically, families were positioned with fathers as the primary “professional” and mothers caring for the family. The end of the traditional nuclear family nearly half a century ago began to change the dynamic. Single parent households and those where both parents work are now the new normal.

But the gender stereotypes from the 1950s remain. We expect the male head of household to put career and the job first. He’s still expected to be the one to work long hours. He is the one to miss family events. He is the one on his smartphone the entire time he is at a little league game or a dance recital, if he can get to them in the first place.

The root of Nooyi’s and Sandberg’s push are based in the notion that women can and should be just as focused on their career as men are perceived to be. That women need to recognize that they need to make sacrifices, particularly on the personal or family fronts, in order to be professional successes. That their priorities can be just as out of whack as their male counterparts.

Why aren’t we sending the opposite message? As a society, we still marvel at that “stay-at-home” dad, viewing him largely as an oddity worth questioning. We question the motives of those fathers who volunteer in their children’s schools, holding them up as heroes for simply making the time. We doubt the motives of those men who would prefer to spend their Saturdays at the local park rather than at the golf course.

Sure, we have stories like Patrick Pichette, the CFO at Google who retired by announcing he wanted to spend more time with his wife, recognizing he had sacrificed his family as he built a multi-decade career. Even then, it came after the fact, after his children were grown. Typically, when we hear a father talk about the need to spend more time with his family, it is as he tries to recuperate from a political stumble of a corporate axing. He's using family to gain more time until he can rise from the professional ashes like a modern-day phoenix.

The time is long past for us to begin to refocus America’s men on what is truly important. We regularly speak of fatherhood, without fully appreciating what it really means. Even today, we equate being a good father with the ability to financially provide for a family. Pay the rent, feed the family, and watch a movie together every Friday seems to be nomination for Father of the Year. It shouldn’t be.

As a father, I have finally come to understand what putting family first really means. After being a senior government official and a not-for-profit CEO, it took a life-changing professional event for me to realize that my priorities were completely out of sync. It wasn’t acceptable for me to miss my daughter’s birthday or to have my kids accept that I worked seven days a week. It wasn’t acceptable for me to spend more time checking my phone than checking out my wife on those rare date nights. And it certainly wasn't acceptable for me to pass on my responsibilities when it comes to my kids' school and learning, leaving that to "mom."

We need a new movement toward dadprovement in this country, and a time where every father can look closely at what is truly important and focus his time and energies on what really matters. Is dadprovement easy? No. Does it require tradeoffs? Absolutely. Is it for every man? No, but it should be.

We must stop making excuses for why we can’t be a larger part of our children’s lives and we must stop putting responsibility for our families on the women in our lives. We must spotlight those men who are making the right choices, seeking the right balance and trying to do what is right for them and for those that truly love them.

In politics, one often jokes about what “scandal” lurks behind a public resignation that results in a man declaring he wants to spend more time with his family. Instead, we need to start asking why more men aren’t making the same decisions. We don’t need to lean in when it comes to work. We need to dive in when it comes to our family. As a man, that is one job to which I am fully committed.