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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.

Making It Work

Whether their company has informal or formal policies, dads say the burden falls on them to make changes that work. Until paternity leave is expected and flextime isn't an anomaly, they must take the initiative with their boss, experts say.

If a dad and his like-minded supervisor arrange an occasional work-at-home Friday, maybe he won't be seen as the guy who always takes a four-day week. At the national accounting firm KPMG, for instance, 350 workers have formal flex agreements, but management estimates that 5,000 have informal deals.

Robert Sims has had great luck juggling his work life with his seven kids, ages 2 to 16. He used to get to First Tennessee National Corporation, in Memphis, at 7 a.m. and return after bedtime. "One day, my wife dropped me off at work and my three-year-old son said, 'This is where Daddy lives.' It broke my heart," says Sims. So he asked to switch within the company to a job that made fewer demands on his personal life and began taking flextime. Now he attends Parents' Day at his daughter Mary's first grade and then stays late at work to make up the time. Or he arrives and leaves an hour early to catch a PTA meeting. "You've got a responsibility in both places, of course," says Sims, a vice president of electronic banking. "But a family as big as ours has to be a two-parent family."

Raul Benitez, a field technician for the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, works nine-hour days so he can take every other Friday off. Although his wife works part-time, he chose this schedule so he wouldn't miss out on picking up his kids from school and coaching track and field. "I need a day off just for them," he says.

Benitez's compressed workweek is just one father-friendly benefit at the water-and-power department, whose flexible policies started after an internal study found that 35 percent of its mostly male force had missed work because of childcare problems. Today it has fathering groups at power stations, parenting and childbirth classes, and even breastfeeding workshops in which dads learn what their wives are experiencing and how they can be supportive. Supervisors reported that absenteeism and lateness dropped; morale rose.

Divorced dad Marc Duro hashed out his schedule with his supervisor at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. Duro has partial custody of his sons, ages 3 and 5. So on the two mornings he takes them to school, he arrives at work an hour later. On Wednesdays, he races out at 5:00 sharp. "It's tough when the boss is still there and you're leaving." Duro tries to make sure his work is top-notch. "My focus is on getting the job done so my boss doesn't think that if I leave early, it doesn't get done," he says. After tucking in his boys, he often gets back to work on his bedroom computer.

The Price They Pay

Recently, Duro began an informal arrangement in which he telecommutes every other Friday, and he wants to expand this plan because he hopes to get fifty-fifty custody. This may make his next step on the career ladder  -- a promotion into management  -- harder, because his managers tend to work late. "I have to balance financial responsibility against my desire to have more time with my kids," he says. "It's a quandary."

Some dads are turning down a promotion or a higher-paying job for better hours and less travel. Aaron Ferguson, father of Malcolm, 4, and Micah, 1, took a 20 percent pay cut when he quit his job at a big accounting firm because it required that he take long business trips and work nights, weekends, and vacations. When he was leaving to pick up Malcolm from preschool, he was asked, "Why can't your wife do that?" His wife, Melanie, was shocked. "That's behind the times," she says. "They're our kids, not mine."

For his part, Ferguson felt stressed out. Merely watching another father and child play catch gave him pangs of envy. "I was starting to feel that I'd let my family down," he says. So he took a job at the Defense Department, which doesn't pay as well but is much more family-friendly. There, no one raises an eyebrow if he joins Malcolm's class field trip. "It's unfair that if you want to climb up the corporate ladder successfully, you have to sacrifice your family," he says.

Ferguson was able to find a job he could enjoy, and he and his wife decided they could afford the pay cut. Not many families have those options, however. In a tough job market, a lot of men feel fortunate just to be working; rocking the boat about hours doesn't seem worth it. But an improved economy won't solve these problems. A dad whose career is his number one priority is as ingrained in our culture as the 40-plus-hour workweek.

The irony is that people with families are the ones companies ought to be catering to, says Blodgett, who has four sons. "Working fathers are usually very dedicated, hardworking, and loyal," he says. "But they don't want to be judged merely on hours at the office. It's antiquated."

The burden of bringing the working world up-to-date seems to rest on dads themselves, whose inspiration is not just time with their kids when they're young but also a hope for their future. As Blodgett says, "I'd like my sons not to have to make these sacrifices."

  Eve Heyn writes for People and is a mother of one.