What Working Dads Can Do When a High-Pressure Job Asks Too Much

Today’s working fathers care about success both in their careers and at home. They take pride in being good providers for their families and dedicating the time and effort necessary to be loving fathers, partners, and spouses. But many find that their career success cuts both ways. Some find themselves enmeshed in a career that, while it has many merits, may no longer fit their full range of life priorities, especially as fathers, and keeps them from feeling fully successful at work and home. As one dad I worked with told me:

I always swore I’d get off the road after my son was in school and in travel basketball, but it is hard to turn down work when the family depends on me — plus I love my job. But now, I fear I’m really missing out. I always wanted to coach basketball, but I make, at best, one third of the games as it is. I know my wife has sacrificed more of her career than we initially bargained for, and this is putting a strain on our relationship. When I’m around, I’m a loving dad, but I think my son feels my absence. I know things are off but can’t quite figure out how to make a change.

Feelings like this can be brought on by having a first baby or milestone birthdays, or realizing how much their lives have changed in the years since they made foundational career choices. I call it the “working dad’s career trap.”

Once you commit to excelling in a demanding career, it becomes hard to scale back without jeopardizing all that you’ve worked and sacrificed for. Partner tracks and corporate ladders are not known for accommodating those who try to revise the deal. Our earning power, health insurance, and retirement plans can be weighty golden handcuffs. Big-time income also often means financial commitments to such expenditures as private schools or jumbo mortgages.

This dilemma is especially troublesome because most working fathers are just entering the harvesting phase, in James Citrin’s model of career progression — the stage in which one’s years of hard work begin to translate into positions of significantly higher salary, reputation, influence, and marketability. Being in the harvesting stage incents you to keep on your current path.

I conduct a prioritization exercise with working dads who feel torn between the path they are on and where they want to be in their lives. I ask them to allocate points to three categories of career priorities:

  • Security, income, advancement
  • Interesting work, accomplishment, helping others
  • Flexible work with independence and time for life

I then have them repeat the exercise imagining they are back when they made their foundational career decisions (often in their early 20s), and where they might see their priorities 10 or 20 years in the future. For many, this exercise is eye-opening — many find that the career they chose was once the right fit, but they hadn’t adapted their careers to new realities. It also jump-starts their thinking about how they might adjust their careers while considering the trade-offs involved. According to one dad who assessed his priorities and changed his career:

When I turned 40, I looked at my life and how it would fit with being the kind of father I wanted to be. After lots of thought and discussion with my wife, I stepped off the C-level ladder and found a more lifestyle-friendly path. I always wanted to be a hands-on dad and be there in ways many dads aren’t able to. Now, I am that dad for my two girls — picking them up at school and taking them to tennis lessons, fixing dinner, and reading to them. So, I guess my experience shows you can make mid-career changes, even if they are scary and difficult and involve risk and luck.

After thinking through priorities, if you discover a mismatch, you might want to shift your career to uncover more time for life and fatherhood. A benefit of being in the harvesting phase is that you have leverage to take charge of your career. You likely have a wide network and a good reputation and are able to explore different employers and roles. Perhaps equally important, you may have power to renegotiate the terms of your current situation.

If you are open to rethinking your career to make time to be a more present father, there are many paths to consider. You may not need to change as much as you think to have a big impact on your work and life. Sometimes a mindset change is enough. Look for opportunities to change within your current role first, and if bigger changes are needed, expand outward from there.

Get Over Yourself

In her book about career downshifting, Amy Saltzman concludes that the greatest barrier is often one’s ego.

“Getting over the idea that they will be cast as failures is the greatest challenge facing downshifters…stepping back is often the culmination of a painful battle between personal needs and professional expectations,” Saltzman says. This dad’s dilemma illustrates her point:

I had a reputation as a workhorse — I was the guy that would work until he dropped to get the job done. After my son was born, I wanted to spend more time at home and be an active part of family life. So, I decided I would leave the office at 3:30 two days a week, do dinner, bath, and bedtime stories with my son, then log back in at 8 p.m. to finish my workday…But what would other people think? Was my “workhorse” reputation going to suffer? I found myself yearning to justify and explain myself, even though no one had said one word to me about my new schedule.

It takes a strong sense of self to revisit a successful career by considering changes that might better correspond to the full range of our priorities.

Explore Flexible and Remote Work

Covid-19 transformed the workplace. Many formerly resistant companies now allow and even embrace remote work. This opens many possibilities for you to negotiate for more flexibility at your current position. You may prefer a formal flex policy or simply more autonomy over where and when you work. You have an even stronger negotiating position if you have a successful track record of working from home during the pandemic.

Avoiding even a few commutes per week saves time and money, and work from home enables you to be flexible around family events (plus you are always home in time for dinner). Many firms now recruit outside their local areas, opening up more possibilities for you both in terms of finding employment and in your ability to relocate somewhere with a lower cost of living.

Prioritize Father-Friendly Employers

If options in your current role won’t allow you the flexibility you’re looking for, investigate employers with reputations for supporting their employees’ life priorities. The Fortune 100 List, Glassdoor, the Fatherly 50 Best Companies for Working Fathers, and Working Mother Magazine’s Best Employer lists can all be valuable resources. People in your network can provide valuable insight about cultural fit. Finally, no matter where you might apply or interview, ask questions about how their organization supports working parents, and whether they embrace whole-person workplace values.

Consider Different Industry Sectors

Similar jobs at different employers can have very different work cultures and time demands. For instance, shareholder-oriented, publicly traded companies often exhibit high-pressure, “all in” work environments and less job security. Partnerships and privately held firms often take a longer-term view when it comes to employee matters. Public and not-for-profit sectors generally cannot match the pay offered by for-profit firms but try to make up for this with greater flexibility. For example, an auditing position at a Big Four accounting firm probably has more intensive time demands than an auditing position for a state government agency. Trading regular hours for lower salary may be a welcome career shift for you.

Recognize and Adjust to Financial Trade-Offs

Career paths that allow you to be more present at home usually come with lowered career trajectories and less income. To choose such a path, you and your spouse need to assess the financial consequences and ensure that your family is still well taken care of. This requires a hard look at your financial situation and may mean simplifying and cutting back significantly. You’ll need to have honest family discussions, as options may affect your spouse’s career; big expenses like housing, childcare, and college tuition; and your ability to afford family vacations and extracurriculars. Everyone needs to be on board. In my experience, many families are happy to cut back if it means more quality time with a less-stressed-out dad. The men profiled in this article demonstrate that the best way out of a working dad’s career trap is to take stock of your career path, assess whether your career fits well with being the father you want to be, and take steps, large or small, to align your career choices with your priorities.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming HBR Working Parents series book Advice for Working Dads.

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