Earlier this month, my grandmother passed away. She was 100 years, four months, and 20 days old when she left us, meaning she possessed more life knowledge than most of us can ever imagine. A week or so before her last day, I was fortunate enough to spend a little time with her. That afternoon, I had made an unscheduled stop to just see how she was doing. As I usually did, I updated her on the lives of her great grandchildren. I assured her everything was fine with me and that my wife was doing well. Just a typical visit, like those I’ve had with her for more than a decade.
As I was leaving, my grandmother looked at me and said, “you work too hard.” It’s a statement I hear often from many people all the time, so I didn’t give it much thought at that moment. But I’ve reflected quite a lot on it over the last week, as I realized that was the last thing that she ever said to me.
I brought this up in a conversation with a mentor of mine this week, noting that I hadn’t taken a vacation day in a year now, and that I hadn’t actually gone away on a vacation in almost two years. In fact, because of work demands I had missed the last three “family” vacations, leaving my wife and kids to enjoy themselves without a distracted dad.
His advice to me? Don’t look back and regret that you weren’t there to be a part of your kids growing up.
So when Paul Ryan announced he was retiring from Congress and from his position as Speaker of the House because he wants to be there for his family, I want to believe him. I, too, know what he may be feeling when he said it seems like his wife was doing 90 percent of the parenting for their children.
It’s easy to attack Speaker Ryan, and to question why he is really stepping away. Back in 2015, when Ryan’s arm was twisted to assume the speakership in the first place, he voiced concern for his ability to find the appropriate work/family balance. On cue, critics attacked him for his statements. Some saw it as a sign he wasn’t sufficiently hungry enough for one of the most powerful positions in government. And others used it to critique Ryan’s past stances on issues such as family and medical leave, the same critiques used this week when he announced his retirement for family reasons.
Maybe, just maybe, the past three years have taught Paul Ryan about the incredible strains being a national politician can have on being a husband and a father. Or maybe he’s realized that those election results he waits for every other November aren’t quite as significant in light of the development of his children and their futures.
Regardless, it is unfortunate that we see nothing wrong with questioning the motives of a man who wants to ensure he doesn’t lose focus on his family obligations, particularly after realizing he had strayed from such in recent years. When PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi or Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg preached a few years ago about the need for women to sacrifice on the personal and family front in order to be the business and career success, we applauded them for doing what it takes. Yet when a man says there is more to his personal success than his professional status, he faces scrutiny and potential ridicule.
Make no mistake, Lean In was 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. But it also offered a message that bought 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 our own families. It calls for more fathers to ask the types of questions and wrestle with the same issues that Paul Ryan and many men like him struggle with day in and day out.
Historically, families were positioned with fathers as the primary “professional” and mothers caring for the family. The end of the traditional nuclear family 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.
Lean In and the calls that have followed it are based on 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 front, in order to be professional successes. Or perhaps it simply means their priorities can be just as out of whack as their male counterparts.
Instead, we should be 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 with their kids rather than at the golf course with their buddies. And we ridicule those like Paul Ryan who just may prefer time at home in Wisconsin with the kids, rather than on the road raising tens of millions of dollars, while trying to manage a dysfunctional Congress that grows more dysfunctional by the day.
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.
It is well past time for fathers to look closely at what is truly important and focus his time and energies on what really matters. Is it easy? No. Does it require tradeoffs? Absolutely. Is it for every man? No, but it should be.
America’s fathers must stop making excuses for why we can’t be a larger part of our children’s lives and we must stop punting responsibility for our families to the women in our lives. We must spotlight those men, like Paul Ryan, who ask the right questions and make the right choices, seeking the right balance, and trying to do what is right for them and for those that truly love them.
In years past, politics used to be full of 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 need more men asking how much family commitment is worth sacrificing for professional success.
No, most men don’t need to lean in when it comes to work. They need to dive in when it comes to family. We need to ensure that we aren’t absentee fathers and that we don’t miss being there, really there, as our kids grow up. We need to publicly acknowledge there should be more to working fathers than a family picture on a desk. And we need to be willing to talk more, as fathers and as men, about how we struggle to find that life balance each and every day.
(The above post also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)