The Man Trap

Sep 8, 2017

A number of years ago I was talking to my Dad on the phone, complaining mightily about something happening at work. My Dad, with a unique ability to sock it to me on occasion, said, "It sounds to me like you're part of the problem, not part of the solution."

Ouch.

But then it occurred to me that our frames of reference were completely different. As the sole breadwinner for his family, he didn't have a choice about being in the workforce. He was all in, with a goal of maximizing his achievement and his income. Not that he didn't love his work - he did - but he also faced some very real and immediate pressures to provide.

I too loved my work, but my calculation was different. My husband had a good job, so there was less pressure on me to be the primary breadwinner for our family. Indeed, I'd already dropped to an 80% schedule at work after each of our two children were born for about a year or so each time. In my mind, when the craziness at work reached new levels, I considered staying home with the kids as one viable alternative among many. Ultimately, I was able to take the significant risk of starting my own business at least in part because I faced less of an expectation to produce.

Suddenly, in conversation with my Dad, it occurred to me how the dialogue around work life balance and flexibility has primarily focused on and benefitted women, leaving many men feeling stuck.

Indeed, a recent article from 1843, the magazine published by The Economist, investigates this phenomenon. (Click here to read it in its entirety.)

"...Men, like women, are happier in more balanced relationships. Yet they are not, by and large, getting them. Outmoded notions of how people should behave, combined with the pressure to spend long hours in the office, seem to be getting in the way. This will be no surprise to the many mothers who have long complained about the difficulty of “having it all”. But the pressures faced by fathers are a less familiar topic. Indeed, most men are wary of discussing these things publicly. This is partly because they know their gripes are often eclipsed by those of women. But they also keep mum because complaining about the burdens of manhood breaches an unspoken code of manliness."

The important corollary mentioned here is gender roles. The author, Emily Bobrow, makes the argument that gender norms for men are more narrowly defined and require men to prove themselves over and over again in ways that women just don't.

In coaching we often talk about defining ourselves from the inside out rather than outside in. In other words, how can each of us identify and create lives for ourselves that match our own values, instead of valuing and creating what society tells us we should? Fundamentally that seems to be at the heart of this issue as well, with the loud chorus of bosses at work and partners and children at home making it difficult for men to hear themselves think.

How have you seen this dynamic play out in your family or at work? How can organizations and families make space for men to do the same personal work many women have had the privilege of doing to figure out what will truly make them happy and fulfilled? What do you think?


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