What Elon Musk Tells Us About Working Fathers

Allegedly, Tesla Motors is not a very family-friendly company.

In the kind of incendiary blurb that advances the release of almost every biography, a former employee quotes an email our own real-life Tony Stark. Musk supposedly ripped some guy a new one for missing a meeting. The reason? The ripee wanted to witness the birth of his child. Musk has since denied this allegation. Over Twitter. Because society.

Truth is, it really doesn’t matter if Musk sent the email.

The reason is that it even if it isn’t true — and I’d like to think it isn’t — it sounds true. If not Musk, then someone, somewhere else, probably has. More specifically, some man, somewhere, probably has.

Whatever the current state of fatherhood — that fathers change diapers and the Homer Simpsonian dad stereotype is ready for retirement or that the dad bod is suddenly and shockingly an object of lust — the pressures and expectations for male behavior remain relatively unchanged.

Men are expected to put work above all else. This expectation is so prevalent that a recent study revealed that men will fake an 80-hour work week so that they can spend time with their kids. This quote sums up this entire article:

You know it’s tough to say I can’t be there because my son had a Cub Scout meeting.

As a society, we have made great strides in understanding the pressures and hidden messages and blatant insensitivity faced by different segments of the population. We are far from perfect, but we have evolved. We talk about real beauty and body shaming and equal pay and marriage equality and racial slurs and stereotypical treatments in movies and income inequality and the downward cycle of poverty and global human rights.

These are more nuanced and evolved conversations than we’ve ever had. There is still work to be done. There are still answers that need finding. There are still behaviors and attitudes that need changing.

But why don’t we talk about men and the workplace? Probably because it isn’t an easy conversation to have.

If I use myself as a litmus, I know that my relationship with work fundamentally changed after I had my first son.

I took my job both more and less seriously. When you have a child who needed to be brought out into the world with a giant pair of forceps, when doctors push you out of the way like you’re a piece of misplaced furniture and you see this boy’s head crown and it’s blue because his full head of hair is dark black but you didn’t know it was hair and so you had this terrible thought, for one awful second, that he’d run out of oxygen, and then when you hold that little crying boy and notice the forceps mark that looks like a scar over his eye and you’re damned grateful for that scar because it means he didn’t suffocate, then you get a hint of what real like life and death feels like and you don’t treat your job like life and death anymore.

But, at the same time, I began to worry about long-term viability and career management in a way that I never had before. That maybe going along and not planning what the next move and the next bit of learning needed to be was a really bad idea. There were other mouths to feed and college to pay for. Treating the work seriously, of really applying to what I was doing, hit an entirely new level.

When my oldest was about three, I travelled every week and one night, my son looked at me one night and asked, “Dad, are you sleeping over tonight?”

And that was the moment I knew I needed to find another job for myself. Because as much as I enjoyed the people and the culture and the work I was doing, young kids only understand presence. It’s the only thing you can really give your children when they are young. Choosing to take time for your family shouldn’t be something that men say when they decide to retire early and leave a highly-visible career. I didn’t want my providing for them to create a hole in their lives. And I really didn’t want my wife to be a single mom, or feel like one.

This is a hard thing, still, for men to talk about. Because there is enough reaction, to men being vulnerable, where we worry about sounding weak. Where we worry about being judged. Where we wonder if we sound too much like a woman, talking about these things.

Even if the conversation isn’t easy, there are easy responses. Work pressure is a mess of man’s own making. Men are the ones in power. If we want a different work place, men have to just make different choices.

I’m going to call a little bit of bullshit right here.

I don’t have to look any farther than the president of the United States to make my case. Any time the president goes on vacation, everyone loses their shit. Believe whatever you want about the man holding the job, but I think we can all agree that the job is a thankless grind. Those side-by-sides, of the man who campaigned and the same man two years into the job are always damning. Because the guy two years into the job looks about twenty years older than the guy who applied for the job.

And yet, even that guy — and it doesn’t matter if it was Clinton or Bush or Obama so we can take the politics right out of this — has no right to have a week off and unplug. Because we have taxes that are too high and terrorists to worry about and a sluggish economy and a lack of access to health care or too much health care and a pothole at the end of our block and last night’s episode of ‘Scandal’ was a rerun. Why is he playing golf when he should be figuring out how to fix all this? Who the hell does he think he is?

You know who we sound like when we talk like this? Young children who don’t understand why daddy or mommy has to work all the time.

As much as I appreciate the recognition that men are more willing and able to be active parents, I’d argue that most of this perception has been shifted by the rise of the stay-at-home dad. They are paving the way for men to be able to actively choose fatherhood as their only job.

With all due respect to these men, they’re not going to drive the kind of change we need to see and conversation we need to have when it comes to work-life balance. Working dads are.

Because they need to not only choose their families within the context of their working lives, they need the space and ability to do so. To do that, we’re going to need nothing less than a wholesale re-examining of what we criticize and reward men for doing at the most fundamental level.

So, that’s easy.

Anyone who works has their own set of pressures and norms and unfair judgements made against them. Hell, anyone who lives has their own set of unfair judgements made against them.

Young singles get their share of head shakes from senior teammates, for their drinking and their social media and the perceived, unencumbered ease of their lives. That isn’t fair. It’s not easy to figure out where your life is going and if you’re going to find someone to live it with, or if you even want to find someone to live it with. What appears selfish and carefree from a distance can feel unstable and uncertain and lonely when you’re in it.

Parents get their headshakes. What looks like a lack of commitment and presence for not being in the office sixty hours a week feels like a crushing pressure when you’re in it, with mornings that start at 5 and nights that end with three hours logged on from home, working until you trudge upstairs into bed.

Life is not binary. It can’t be work on | family off or vice versa. We need, as a culture, a way to flow in and out of the places that need us in a way that is more manageable and a shit ton less judgmental.

If someone puts work first 99 times, we can’t punish him for picking family for the 100th. Or even expect him to pick work 99 times in the first place. There is this great push, for more mindfulness in the workplace, but that is only for individuals. A way to drive productivity through an ability to focus on the task at hand.

What we really need is a more mindful workplace culture. Because I guarantee, if we build a more flexible and understanding workplace, the things employers want — engagement, loyalty, contribution — will skyrocket.

I work in a place that allows for flexibility. To have a partner with whom I can negotiate the needs for coverage. These things demand things of me in return. Late nights and early mornings. Picking things up at home at the ends of long days. Some brutal turn-arounds on business travel so I can get home.

But those are my choices. I’ll make those choices to continue finding some way to do my jobs as a professional and a husband and a dad as well as I’m able.

I’m blessed to have the options I do. Not everyone is. But here’s the thing. Until we have a more fundamental conversation about where our priorities are, emails that may or may not have been sent by a CEO, the one that questions a dad’s priorities for being present for the birth of his child, are going to sound like just another day at the office.

Those days affect everyone.

  5 comments for “What Elon Musk Tells Us About Working Fathers

  1. May 15, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    This is outstanding, simply awesome.

  2. May 15, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    Life is indeed “not binary.” Well-written and insightful, this piece made me think. I am a homemaker myself so work/life balance means something completely different to me than it does to a corporate CEO, what no one seems to recognize in this conversation is the intentionality of each of our own decisions. By all of today’s measures, my dad was a horrible, disengaged father, he wasn’t, he just was raised in another time. Thanks for this.
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  3. David
    February 24, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Single custodial working father. I’m also GenX. And I can whole heartedly say that baby boomers and the octogenarian generation that birthed them can kiss my ###. I’ll be glad when they with their generational preconceptions and workaholic ethics retire.

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