Paul Ryan, Leaning In, and the Need to Dadprove

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As U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan considered whether he wanted to serve as Speaker of the House, a position that is second in the line of succession to the U.S. presidency behind only the Vice President of the United States, the father of school-aged children voiced his concern for work/family balance and his ability to be there for his own family as he was attending to the family known as the U.S. House of Representatives.

As if on cue, critics attacked Congressman Ryan 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.

Yes, Ryan didn’t voice the same concerns for family/work balance when he ran for vice president in 2012. But maybe, just maybe, he learned on that campaign 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. When PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi or Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg preach the need for women to sacrifice on the personal and family front in order to be the business and career success, we applaud 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.

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. 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 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 Sandberg or Nooyi movements 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 rather than at the golf course. And we ridicule those like Paul Ryan who just may prefer weekends 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.

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.

Women may indeed need to lean in, but men need a new movement toward dadprovement, where every father can 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.

Before the Ryan debate, 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. With each Paul Ryan or former Google CFO Patrick Pichette who publicly acknowledge there should be more to working fathers than a family picture on a desk, we get closer to finding that path.

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