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The Daddy Track

When Aaron Ferguson worked as an engineer in Baltimore, he was told "That's your wife's job" when he wanted to leave in time to get home and put his son, then 2, to bed but was stuck in the office at night  -- again.

Marc Duro, a technical recruiter and divorced dad in Oakland, California, thinks he might be sacrificing a promotion because he leaves work at 5 p.m. one day a week to pick up his sons from school.

John Iekel, an editor, found himself branded "undependable" and put on the career track to nowhere because he asked to work from his Springfield, Virginia, home ten hours a week in order to pick up his two kids. 

The Hero And The Wimp

While politicians champion "family values" and employers tout their commitment to a work/family balance, the reality is still somewhat different. For all the rhetoric about the benefits of fathers who are "there" for their kids, it can still be tough for a dad even to make it home for dinner. A father who takes time off to bring his child to the doctor or cheer at a soccer game is a hero, but "the dad who takes a lot more than that can be seen as a wimp," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research center in New York City.

These days, many dads have to be more involved with their kids because most moms also work. But fathers say that regardless of whether their wives work, they want to be a bigger part of life at home than their dads ever were. In a 2000 national survey, developed by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center at Harvard, 82 percent of men in their 20s and 30s said that things like salary and prestige aren't as important in a job as whether it'll allow them time with their family. Today more and more dads want to be good caregivers and still want to be good providers too.

The good news: Increasingly, employers appear to be listening. Three in four businesses recently surveyed by consulting firm Hewitt Associates said they offer such alternatives as part-time, flextime, job sharing, telecommuting, or a compressed week of longer workdays swapped for a day off. That's a 45 percent jump since 1990.

But family-friendly policies aren't good enough if there isn't a front-line commitment to back them up. Dads have to feel that they won't be penalized for using them. 

Behind The Policies

In most cases, say experts, a stated commitment to families is just a bunch of words. "The message fathers receive loud and clear is that they're expected to talk the talk but not walk the walk when it comes to an active role in family care," says Robert Blodgett, author of Family First: Tales of a Working Father. Too often, the high-minded goals of mission-statement writers don't trickle down to the staff.

Sometimes, of course, the pressure is internal. It's not uncommon for men to judge success  -- theirs and their friends'  -- by hours worked, paycheck size, and job status. "It's a difficult step for men to give any of that up because they're perceived by society  -- and by themselves  -- as being first and foremost the breadwinners," says Brad Harrington, a professor at Boston College and executive director of its Center for Work and Family. Even dads who have managed to find more time with their family face these issues. Mark McPherson, a lawyer in Seattle, is taking a leave of absence to be with his three kids while his wife builds her dermatology practice. "It can be a little hard to be in a supportive role," he says. "I've had to come to terms with not being a star at work for now. It's been worth it, but it's a difference from my life before."

But it's the outside pressures that seem to frustrate men the most. This was the case for John Iekel. When he asked to work those ten hours a week at home, his boss refused, even though his job made telecommuting doable. "She gave me a lecture on how work had to come first," says Iekel. "It was chilling." His boss's successor labeled him a "clock-watcher" for the 9-to-5 hours he kept so he could pick up his kids. "It was evident it was going to affect my advancement and raises," says Iekel, who now lives in Falls Church, Virginia, and works at a more family-friendly company. "It made me fearful, angry, and disappointed."

Women get mommy-tracked too, of course. But at least they tend to be seen as good mothers, while dads who ask for the same benefits rarely get such understanding. "Integrating work and family isn't just a woman's or mother's issue, it's a family issue," says Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women.

Iekel's wife, Lisa, a print buyer, was furious at the way her husband was treated. "There's an assumption that the man should sacrifice all  -- even time with his family," she says. "He was discriminated against. If I worked there, they would understand that I had to leave at five."

For many dads, even being at home doesn't mean they're really away from the job. If Geordon Van Tassle, 29, a computer technician at a telecommunications firm, leaves "early" after an eight-hour day, "it's definitely noticed," he says. There's a policy offering such alternative schedules as telecommuting, but Van Tassle says many parents are wary. "Sure, it's available," he says, "but it's frowned upon by both my coworkers and the supervisors." It's perceived to mean you're not pulling your weight.

This Rockford, Illinois, father of three gets home just an hour before his 3-year-old's bedtime, so he balances her on one leg and his lasagna plate on the other. On weekends, he juggles calls at the park while his kids yell, "Come on, Dad!"

"I hate it," says Van Tassle. "If I'm not there to help my kids grow up to be good, well-respected people, I'm not doing my most important job."

While men and women alike feel pressure to be available to work at all hours, it's okay in many circles for women to complain about long hours and worry about who'll take care of their kids. But when men do, they're seen not just as shirkers but as disloyal too.