A politician’s advice for new dads shows kids don’t hurt your career—if you’re a man

You got this.
You got this.
Image: Upsplash/Daniela Rey
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Ben Terris, a Washington Post political reporter, is about to become a dad. In preparation, he did what most good reporters would do and asked everyone he knew for input, including former US president Bill Clinton and former Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Then he wrote a story about it.

The advice he got was a stark reminder of the profoundly different realities men and women face when they become parents. Sen. Tim Kaine from Virginia assured him “It’s ok not to know everything,” while Sen Jeff Flake (R-Az.) suggested taking the kids to a deserted island with no cell phone coverage. But when it came to answering the big existential question of whether it’s possible to be any good at your job with a young child at home, his contacts were less helpful.

Most dismissed the question as a minor concern, Terris said. One politician went so far as to say becoming a parent had no bearing on his career trajectory.

“I never felt like having a kid held me back in any professional way,” said Jason Kander, a 36-year-old rising star in the Democratic Party. “But I do worry that my professional life hinders my ability to be a good dad. I think I’ve been able to navigate that, but I worry about that all the time.”

In other words, being a father didn’t interfere with his career, but his career interfered with being a good father. Most working women I know, if asked the same question, would say work regularly interferes with being a good parent, and being a good parent makes career success a lot harder. This bears out in the data: Women do significantly more caring for their children and the home than men, regardless of hours worked. 

According to Pew, the share of two-parent households in which both parents work was 46% in 2015, compared to 31% in 1970. Disproportionately, the fallout from this has hit women: 41% of working moms report that being a parent has made it harder for them to advance in their career; 20% of working dads said the same.

The pay gap perpetuates this. Men get a pay boost from becoming dads while moms take a hit. A 2015 study of 17,000 workers in the UK found men with kids get a 21% “wage bonus” compared to their peers without kids, while women faced an 11% penalty.

That’s because when men have kids, employers often view them as more serious and stable, and better able to fully contribute at work. The UK study attributed 16% of the wage bonus to longer hours men worked after becoming fathers. Women enjoy no such benefit: They are regularly penalized because employers expect that motherhood will curb their ambition. Their work competes with doctor’s appointments, school plays, and that pesky need to feed children dinner every night, and be present while doing so (indeed, research says not eating dinner with our children can actually harm them (pdf)). Both genders are equally capable of executing these important yet mostly mindless tasks. And yet, more often they fall to women.

No doubt the gender imbalance in chore duty is worse among former presidents and presidential candidates. According to Terris, Clinton’s parenting crutch was to play cards and have dinner with Chelsea as much as he could, a level of effort that wouldn’t cut it for most families. Mitt Romney said always left his “briefcase at the door” when he got home, but few working fathers have the clout to banish their cell phones after hours. When these fathers’ jobs “called”, someone else undoubtedly picked up the slack (the nanny, the assistant, the spouse).

Most of us don’t have that privilege, and probably neither does Terris. For some realistic feedback, how about asking editors whether they regret never having dinner with their kids, or reporters about what it’s really like to have to file a story from your daughter’s play? Parenting hacks doesn’t make those choices any less painful, and navigating them well requires constant communication with your partner, whose responsibilities you share. What is the balance you two will strike, and whose career will take the hit? Because to edit Anne Marie Slaughter’s famous phrase, none of us can have it all—especially not US presidents.