Peter Rega maneuvers through South Florida traffic like a man on a mission. It's nearing 5 p.m. and Rega, a divorced father, has wrapped up his sales calls and is on his way to pick his son up from after-school care. Cell phone to ear, Rega tells his customer he will call back in an hour, once he successfully shuttles his 12-year-old son, Peter, home for dinner and then to karate lessons.
"I'm a top salesman," Rega said. "For me, my phone rings 24/7. I have to train my customers that there are certain hours I'm not available."
A new report shows that fathers, much like Rega, are dramatically feeling the pull between work and family. Indeed, men reported their levels of work-life conflict have risen significantly over the past three decades, while the level of conflict reported by women has not changed much.
The recession only has added to the pull: Fathers are worried about finances and feeling intense pressure to perform at work. At the same time, expectations are higher than ever at home to be full partners in child rearing.
Fathers are struggling with too many hours at work or not enough hours. They are fighting debt, fearful of losing their jobs and experiencing the intense desire to bond with their children.
"A profound shift is taking place with today's new dads," said Brad Harrington, co-author of The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood Within a Career Context. "Men have redefined 'good father' from breadwinner to role model, friend, mentor."
Doug Bartel, a father of three, commutes an hour each way to work as Blue Cross Blue Shield director of business development for South Florida. Bartel says he's torn by the same time demands as his wife, who works, too. "I don't want to miss an opportunity to do something at work that's important for my career, but there's a certain time in kids' lives between ages 5 and 15 when you are molding them, and I want to make sure as a dad I am there."
Harrington's research found a strong cultural perception that when men become dads, little will change at work.
The roles fathers play at home are still underappreciated in the workplace. Corporations do not recognize that fatherhood is a taxing role, Harrington said.
"Employers did not expect fathers to make compromises in their work day or work choices."
These new dads, on the other hand, said fatherhood enhanced their reputations at work.
This is in sharp contrast to new mothers, who experienced negative messages in returning to the workplace.
I talked about fatherhood with a dozen men, from minimum-wage workers at Wendy's to high-powered executives. Each told me about sacrifices and juggling at work to be a partner in child-raising.
Peter Weichhan, for example, will quietly slip out the door of his Hollywood home to his job at the Fort Lauderdale airport, where he handles luggage for US Airways. The crack-of-dawn shift creates some rearranging in the Weichhan home, where dad usually does breakfast and morning drop-off for school.
Weichhan's wife is a US Airways flight attendant and typically works three days straight. Weichhan's schedule changes monthly, and he usually gets to spend the days with his kids when his wife works. "That means I hardly ever have the weekend off."
His seniority allows him to switch his schedule around with 24 hours' notice, making him the one who handles family emergencies or volunteers for field trips. The downside: He may have to work an early morning or a 16-hour shift to make up the time. The upside: "My kids know that I'm involved in their lives."
For some fathers, balancing work and family in 2010 means going to extremes. On a Friday night, you may find Leoncio de la Peña maneuvering through an international airport, scrambling to land the last seat on a flight to Miami. De la Peña, an international banking attorney with four young children, set a rule for himself: "No matter what, when my kids wake up on Saturday morning, I am there, period." Also a strong believer in family dinners, de la Peña says he gets to work by 6 a.m. each morning to be home to eat with his family by 6 p.m.
And then there's Eisman Urbina, temporarily unemployed and eager to go back to work as a minimum wage photographer's assistant so he can afford the gas costs to see his son.
When he's working, Urbina, a divorced dad, says he will drive six hours between Miami and Orlando on Fridays and Sundays to get his 5-year-old son each weekend. At one time, Urbina was studying to become an industrial engineer. "I was looking for a better life. Now I'm just looking to survive and be there for my son."
Going forward, there's a lot of optimism that work/life balance will ease for fathers. The young new fathers in Harrington's study said they were using informal flexibility at work, rather than the formal flexibility many mothers use. They reported that their immediate managers, as opposed to top executives, were from dual career households, too, and were quite supportive of the work-life challenges they faced.
"Work-family conflict applies equally to both genders," Harrington said. "Is the country ripe for this conversation?"