Katrin Bennhold recently wrote a tantalizing snapshot in the New York Times of Sweden's success in encouraging fathers to take leave from work to care for children. In the process, it seems, masculinity itself undergoes revision. Sweden is not alone in paying men to take time off to be with their young families; Bennhold gives some interesting brief comparisons to progressive policies in Iceland and Germany. Here in the United States, it seems, we are significantly behind, and there are any number of ways that we could register the social, psychological and spiritual costs of the lack of active presence of fathers in early childhood.
Among other constituencies desiring and enacting a redefinition of work-life balance and masculinity, my cohort of middle-class educated men born in the 1960s and 1970s also seems to want to change things. I would wager that as time goes by, we will help move U.S. policy and practice toward greater social latitude for fathers to be good fathers. I remember a conversation at a faculty seminar in a Catholic university less than a decade ago, in which a few faculty stated with evident marvel that some of the younger male professors simply got up and left meetings when they needed to go pick up their kids from school or activities.
In recent years, a new respect for work-life balance has slowly been taking over in many academic contexts. Even the American Academy of Religion, the umbrella professional organization in North America for the scholarly study of religion, has begun to turn its attention to this, as evident in recent offerings at its Annual Meeting. I do not think the new awareness of work-life balance and slow redefining of parental gender roles has yet become a point of generalized advocacy and intensity in the Catholic theological academy, even if on the ground it is clearly gaining steam and is probably (hopefully) an irreversible development.
But some Catholic academic contexts are doing things quite well. I took a paid leave in fall 2005, after my daughter was born, a leave strongly supported by Santa Clara University, where I was then teaching. Santa Clara made the process clear, simple, and was even moving to make the "tenure clock" more flexible for those who took family leaves. My department chair and colleagues were supportive in a way that made the whole process of staying at home to care for a newborn seem natural, even for a dad. This made it possible for me to be home full-time for the first six months of my daughter's life, an experience that did indeed redefine my sense of being a parent, spouse, professor, and theologian. And at six months of age, my wife and I (both working full-time) were able to take advantage of Santa Clara's excellent on-campus child care center, Kids on Campus, while I taught and went to meetings, and I could drop in and see my daughter during lunch. (Although eventually the teachers gently helped me to see that this dropping-in was more for my own benefit than my daughter's, and so I eventually let her take lunch just with her friends.)
I tried to express to as many people as I could in Human Resources and university administration how helpful these policies were, and how wise the people who put it into place, even as my wife and I worked with other faculty and staff parents to improve further the support for working dads and working moms on campus. From the business side of things, I was told, the basic theory was that happy parents are better and more faithful employees, and I saw no reason to doubt that. The university has an interest in employees feeling addressed in something approximating their lives as "whole persons."
Now it will be up to all of us, my cohort of parents included, to take such sensible policies and generalize them to other businesses and to national policy as a whole, just as Sweden has done. A few years ago, there was an interesting conversation about how younger professors assume a different view of the work-life relationship and transparency about policy and procedure. Apparently, we want greater balance, more fairness, less stress. Life is too short, relationships too important, to be too consumed with the ideologies of the workplace. Or as one Swedish employer is quoted in the article, younger employees "want work-life balance. We have to adapt."
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States