Josh Levs’ book on the challenges of modern fatherhood is a good metaphor for its subject. It’s a bit messy, overextended and too sure of itself — yet its role is essential, and its heart is entirely in the right place.
A lot like dads today.
American fathers are more engaged in their children’s lives, and more likely to share household duties and to approach married life and parenthood as equal partners than ever before. The problem, however, is that “our laws, corporate policies, and gender-based expectations in the workplace are straight out of the 1950s,” Levs writes.
These conditions undercut “the freedom to design our lives in the ways that work best for our families and make us productive, satisfied workers,” he argues. “We’re all paying a price for this — business owners, managers, moms, dads, and, most important, children.”
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Levs has interviewed many kinds of fathers: white-collar workers, stay-at-home dads, fathers in prison and in the military, divorced fathers, widowers, and dads of all races and backgrounds, chronicling their experiences and ideas. “All In” seeks to be a sort of “Lean In” for men, and not just in the unsubtle title echo.
Levs repeatedly invokes Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and links their causes. “When she and I sat down at her offices in Menlo Park, California, to speak for this book, we agreed: These structures must change so that men and women have the chance to be all in both at work and at home,” Levs writes.
He has the indicators: About 1 in 6 stay-at-home parents are men. When you combine paid work with household chores and child care, mothers and fathers put in about the same amount of time.
And men report plenty of work-life conflict. They want more time with their kids. They consider family time when evaluating a new job.
Among the fathers he cites, Levs highlights this typical lament: “I know I have been an imperfect father. I know I have made mistakes. I have lost count of all the times, over the years, when the demands of work have taken me from the duties of fatherhood. … I knew I was missing moments of my daughters’ lives that I’d never get back. It is a loss I will never fully accept.”
That frustrated father? President Barack Obama.
The author devotes the first third of the book to the battle over paid parental leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, requires large employers to give caregivers, whether men or women, 12 weeks off after the birth of a child. But about 40 percent of workers are not covered by it, Levs reports, and even for those who are, the law doesn’t call for any pay.
Even though about half of U.S. employers offer some paid maternity leave (normally by classifying childbirth as a short-term disability), only about 14 percent offer paid paternity leave.
“Men should have the option of staying at home for caregiving the same length of time women have,” Levs argues. It’s good not just for them, he writes, but also for working mothers, who would have greater opportunities to advance their careers with a more equal co-parent alongside them.
“If policies keep pushing women to stay home and pushing men to run back to work,” Levs asks, “how will women keep working up the ranks?”
Levs, a reporter and columnist for CNN, details his own battle with his employer, Time Warner, over paid paternity leave, an experience that sets the tone for the combative, do-it-yourself approach to the book. Even though mothers received 10 weeks of paid leave at the company, as did men or women who had adopted children, biological fathers got only two weeks. “The net effect is that the policy penalizes my family. … It’s also outdated, now that many men fulfill these critical roles at home.”
The company did not budge, so Levs filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Soon after the filing — and the publicity it generated — Time Warner added an extra week of leave for fathers and, a year later, relented even further.
“Now dads like me would get six paid weeks — a giant leap forward,” Levs writes. “And moms would get even more time after giving birth. … The company was showing a newfound understanding that, these days, moms and dads are all in this together.”
It’s an instructive story, and Levs shares it with pride. To say that “a national celebration erupted” after the company’s policy shift probably overstates matters, but I suppose it felt that way to the author. Unfortunately, Levs also layers the book with self-aggrandizing tales of his forays in the work-life battles.
It is relevant to hear about the time sports-talk radio hosts criticized a major league baseball player for taking time off when his child was born, for instance, but we don’t need to reread the indignant Tumblr post Levs dashed off in response and the great feedback he got. And he constantly pitches his book, telling readers to “hold a social media day in which you popularize a hashtag, like AllIn,” or encouraging them to share copies of his book with others. (Relax, Josh! If readers have reached that passage, they don’t need the hard sell anymore.)
His style may be over the top, but his urgency is commendable. Levs is right that the work-life balance debate is mainly happening among women, even though it involves all of us. Among the countless reviews following the publication of “Lean In” in 2013, very few carried male bylines. The prominent voices in that debate — people like Sandberg and New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter — are women.
And guys tell Levs that they feel stigmatized and that, when they put in for paternity leave at work, and if they take it, their earnings and standing suffer when they return. (“Even Canadian dads face this stigma,” Levs says, in one of my favorite lines of the book.)
At times, Levs’ recommendations seem too focused on middle- or upper-middle-class parents and workers — another similarity his book has with Sandberg’s.
When he does address the challenges facing lower-income families, he often lapses into worthy but vague admonitions.
Helping the working poor “means addressing the thorny issues of affordable housing, living wages, and paid time off for hourly workers,” he writes, and he calls for a “nonpartisan conversation that focuses on a simple question: How can we make sure that hardworking families have the basics?” Ah, nothing like the national-conversation solution!
And where he does get more specific — as with a searing interview with a longtime absentee dad who manages to reconnect with his children later in life, or in heartfelt conversations with participants in the National Fatherhood Initiative, which teaches incarcerated men to become better dads — it is clear that paid parental leave is just the beginning of the fight.
Still, Levs is an eloquent and passionate standard-bearer. He concludes with personal appeals for a better “all in” life, focusing less on corporate or government policy and more on individual health in body, mind and spirit.
Carlos Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post.
“All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses — and How We Can Fix It Together” by Josh Levs (261 pages; HarperOne; $25.99)