Should Americans care that Paul Ryan is drawing a red line around his weekends? Americans can, and do, ignore many happenings on Capitol Hill, because they don’t see a connection to their lives. However, Ryan’s raising work-life balance and rewriting the job description for Speaker of the House could be the exception.
Some parenting decisions are simply personal matters, and others have larger ripple effects. Speaker Ryan’s publicly prioritizing his wife and three children could easily fall into that latter category.
Ryan is now third in line for the presidency. That is a significant amount of professional responsibility. Yet he has also asserted, “I cannot and will not give up my family time.” According to research by Beth Humberd, assistant professor of management at UMass Lowell’s Manning School of Business, and her colleagues, Ryan supporters should hope that he doesn’t. In her words, “The more time men spend with their children, the more satisfied they are with their jobs.”
While few Americans will ever become Speaker, many millions of us are, or will be, parents. We know how hard it is to both earn a living and enjoy family life. We also understand that the more high-powered a job is, the greater the pressure to sacrifice family time.
That pressure is especially intense for men. Americans give increasing voice to the notion that men are equally important as parents, but our actions don’t always match.
Erin Reid, assistant professor at Boston University Questrom School of Business, published a study earlier this year examining how employees handled work-life balance at a high-intensity consulting firm. In an email interview with the author, Reid noted that “Both women and men who signaled that they were not wholly devoted to work were penalized. Certainly other research . . . shows that men can be subject to a ‘not man enough’ penalty when they show significant engagement in family life.”
For fathers to succeed at the studied firm, they could both remain professionally well regarded and spend time with loved ones only if they didn’t trumpet family commitments. Men who vocally prioritized family faced negative comments, as well as lower marks on professional evaluations.
Jamie Ladge, a work-family scholar at Northeastern University’s business school, agrees that men typically use “stealth” tactics to see their families. Unlike women, who typically negotiate work absences, Ladge’s research with Humberd and Boston College's Brad Harrington shows that “If men need to leave work early, they just do it. There’s only an issue when there’s a perception that it’s taken too far.”
The parameters of acceptability in a given workplace are set from the top. And that’s why Paul Ryan’s publicly embracing family time could be significant. He has signaled that it’s acceptable for the 434 other members of the House of Representatives—and their staff—to have priorities beyond the Capitol complex. Of course, it’s healthier if they do.
“Ryan’s saying this aloud might help other men do it, and that would help women,” says Ladge. “There are health and well-being consequences associated with putting everything into one part of your identity. Ryan’s comment speaks to the issue of recognizing people as being a whole person. He’ll be most known as Speaker, but he also defines himself as a father, maybe equally.”
How Ryan will reinforce those boundaries around his family time remains to be seen. Perhaps he’ll take a page from Jewish tradition and unplug on his own Sabbath day.
However, beyond helping his family, Ryan offers an important example to parents everywhere. The more he spends time with his family and talks about parenting, the more he helps expand Americans’ conception of fatherhood. Ryan could become the face of a paradigm shift. Through words and deeds, he could communicate that fathers have an important role to play at home, even after the chaos of the newborn period fades.
Since the government already sets the pace in Washington in many regards, from declaring snow days to subsidizing employees’ use of public transit, perhaps this could become another inflection point, as increasing numbers of men insist on being actively engaged fathers. Ryan’s public commitment to his family may help change the capital’s workaholic culture, finally making space for parents to say, “We care about our kids.”