Conor Sen

Fathers Face a Choice: Stay With Kids or Return to Office?

When we talk about workers going back to their offices, the goal for most people is to return to the normal routines of life. But there's at least one group of former office-dwellers who are viewing the return as uncharted territory: parents who had their first child during the past 18 months.

The back-to-office reckoning is often simpler for younger, single or childless staff. But new parents are having to figure out for the first time how to manage commuting, long hours away from home and parenting small children. All their experience thus far has been in a work-from-home pandemic world, where family interaction was part of the normal flow of their day. Particularly in the case of new fathers, the pandemic might have spawned a long-overdue cultural shift in how to balance workplace and family life.

Let’s begin this discussion of pandemic child-rearing burdens with the acknowledgement that in the US, whenever there's a family crisis it's usually mothers who pick up the slack. During the labor market recovery this year, the labor force participation rate of mothers has lagged behind fathers, in part because of the difficulty in finding affordable childcare. When it comes to mothers, data serves mostly to confirm what we already know to be true: that American work culture isn't particularly family-friendly, generally leaving mothers as the caretakers-of-last-resort in times of need.

What's been less talked about is how the pandemic has changed fathering, particularly in respect to new fathers who don't have a pre-pandemic comparison. In a study from June last year — still early in the Covid era — the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that 68% of fathers felt closer or much closer to their children since the start of the pandemic. Particularly for fathers who have spent a significant portion of time working from home during the pandemic, this makes sense — if you're always around for mealtime, bathtime and bedtime, you're likely going to feel closer to your kids. While fathers may have gone back to work sooner than mothers, Jed Kolko, the chief economist at employment website, notes that on an hours-adjusted basis there isn't the same working gap between fathers and mothers, with both having reduced the number of hours they work by about the same amount since February 2020.

After spending more time with their children than any generation of fathers in living memory, it’s understandable if that formative experience produced a different outlook on their working life. Using a survey of 18 to 64 year olds who worked remotely at least half the time during the pandemic, Upwork economist Adam Ozimek reported that 18% of people said they would consider becoming a freelancer or self-employed in order to continue working remotely. Looking at the responses by age and gender, the group with the highest share of people saying they would consider it were men between the ages of 35-44, the cohort of people most likely to have children under the age of 18.

As a work-from-home father of children aged 5 and 3 with a wife working in medicine, I can attest to the difficulty of scheduling daily childcare drop-off, pick-up, dinnertime, bathtime and bedtime, and how it wouldn't be workable if both of us had office jobs that stretched from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a commute on both ends. The hours of 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. are especially hectic as everyone is finishing up work, kids are worn down, and there are a variety of household tasks to be done.

Parents with older kids may not have liked their busy evening routines, but one way or another they learned how to make it work over the years. Now there’s a contingent of younger couples who only know a world where dad is always around because he's been working from home. So it's understandable if, when companies begin calling workers back into the office, many new parents start looking for alternatives. After all, they’ve already proven a work-from-home life is manageable for both employer and employee.

We’re still figuring out the future of work beyond the pandemic, and this issue is going to be part of the process. It's why some workers are going to leave jobs in order to work remotely or have flexible schedules. Perhaps some companies will adopt a different approach, where in-office meetings take place during family-friendly hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., so that parents can be at home for morning and evening family logistics. There are still too many workers who have jobs that require being physically present — you can't cut hair or operate a bulldozer remotely — and we should think about what this cultural shift means for them, too.

But to the extent that having a workplace that's truly family-friendly requires fathers buying into the idea as well, the pandemic — and the additional time it gave fathers at home — might have been the catalyst for a long-overdue epiphany about our options.