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Can dads have it all? Fathers grapple with work-life balance as pandemic winds down

'I feel like there's going to be a lot more conversations happening in workplaces around managing demands that parents feel between work and home'

By Nicole Thompson

When Maxime Corbet’s wife had a baby during the pandemic, their lives got a whole lot busier. 

The Montreal-area product manager found himself handling daycare pickups and, on rare occasions when child-care wasn’t available, looking after his now-18-month-old daughter while working from home, as his wife worked as a nurse at the hospital. 

“I would tell my coworkers I might not be available 100 per cent,” said Corbet. 

“I was trying my best, but (the baby) wouldn’t let me work. She would want to come to me and do stuff with me while I was working on Excel. When she was napping, I would be working. Most of the time I was working late at night when she was in bed.”

Research found some fathers reported taking on more domestic labour during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when many spent more time at home, and many said they became more involved in their children’s lives. But as once-shuttered workplaces call employees back, many dads are asking a question previously posed mostly by working moms: How can I do it all? 

Casey Scheibling, a post-doctoral fellow with the University of Toronto’s sociology department, was involved in that research, which surveyed 1,250 mothers and fathers in heterosexual relationships just over a month after the pandemic began. 

He said the division of labour appeared to remain largely the same for most Canadian families when COVID-19 hit in 2020, with women in heterosexual partnerships seeming to take on most of the domestic work. But for around a third of families asked, there was a shift. 

“A sizable minority of fathers were participating more in a myriad of different housework and child-care tasks. Playing with kids, which is something fathers historically have done a lot of, but also monitoring their physical care, enforcing rules,” said Scheibling.

“And in terms of housework, things like after-meal cleanup, shopping, laundry, and preparing meals.” 

In taking on that work, Scheibling said, men are combatting “traditional notions of masculinity that they grew up with,” which value professional accomplishments over personal ones and see nurturing as more of a feminine role. 

Among respondents, the study found women’s workload also increased and women still did the majority of the work, but the divide narrowed as men took on added tasks.

Scheibling hoped that dads who were home more during the pandemic learned how much work it takes to maintain a household and care for a family.

“Maybe some of those things will stick going forward, and that will start to decrease the gender gap as it pertains to domestic labour,” he said, adding that it will take time to do the research necessary to see if that bears out.

Closing that divide won’t be easy, said Drew Soleyn, director of Dad Central Ontario, an organization that creates online resources for fathers, some of which are administered by family services organizations, and some that can be accessed online by anyone. 

“There’s going to be more tension, there’s going to be more stress,” Soleyn said. 

“You feel really torn, you’re like: Well, this is now a real priority for me…. So how do I navigate this? How do I handle this? And how do I communicate this with both home life and work life?”

Soleyn, who is a father of three kids under the age of 10, suggested it’s early days and people are still figuring it out, but said clarifying priorities on both personal and professional fronts will be crucial in maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

“What’s the one or two key areas that you can focus on to ensure that you’re taking care of yourself, but you’re also able to meet the needs of your partner, your kids, and just overall in the whole family dynamic?” he said fathers should ask themselves.

From there, he said, they can talk to their partner, if they have one, and their workplace to make sure everyone is on the same page.

“I think you’ll see a lot of interesting things, a lot of good things, but I think it can also create a lot of challenges depending on employer stances, as well as dads’ approach to navigating the pressures they feel being pulled in multiple directions again,” Soleyn said.

“I feel like there’s going to be a lot more conversations happening in workplaces around managing demands that parents feel between work and home.”

As for Corbet, he’s got another baby on the way and a hybrid work schedule that sees him in the office a few days a week, so his life has shifted again. 

His wife isn’t working at the moment, as her job was too hard on her body during the pregnancy, so she’s taken over some of the parenting duties for the time being.

But he’s still bracing for another change when the baby comes in a few months, and some compromises to make it all work.

“I used to work like all day long and work late, finish the day at 6:30 or 7:30. Now, you have to be on the kid’s routine. I have to go pick her up at the daycare at 5:30,” he said. “So I have to stop and then I’ll get back to work later on.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2022.

Feature image – A family plays in Major’s Hill Park in Ottawa, on Sunday, July 12, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang.