In the 19th century, before Father's Day was celebrated or even thought about, men literally held ownership of wives and children. Women had to get their husband's permission for a divorce, and were not entitled to custody of children. In short, kids were the property of fathers.
Few of us would want to go back to that model. But as the 20th century produced a more balanced legal equation, it also brought a cultural pendulum swing that went too far in the other direction, producing an equally harmful societal norm-mother ownership of children.
In divorce, it often plays out when judges mindlessly award custody to the mother, even in cases where the father is more nurturing and engaged with his children. For married parents, you can see it most clearly in the American workplace.
Our workplaces are still structured around the idea that family responsibilities will be taken care of by someone other than the employee-he or she is expected to have unlimited hours to devote to the job. And unfortunately for fathers, it's he that most often fulfills that expectation.
There are a number of reasons why, but corporate culture has to be near the top of the list. Even in companies that have so-called "family friendly" policies like leave for teacher meetings, men aren't expected to take advantage of them. And heaven help any man who takes the full 12 weeks unpaid leave allotted by law for the birth of a newborn, or wants to job-share or go part time for a couple of years. What is he, some kind of wimp?
Despite all the big talk that big corporations do about valuing families, the truth is that the family they value most is the 1950s "organization man" model. Men are expected to be on duty regardless of family circumstance - what Wellesley College professor Rosanna Hertz calls the "test of manhood" at work. The test disadvantages fathers, who fear being seen as a less serious employee for choosing to spend time with their kids over extra hours on the job.
And the fears are well grounded. Women have been making that choice for years, and though it's not seen as abnormal as it is for men, the consequences are well-documented. For women who drop out of the workforce even for a year, the penalty is a whopping 32 percent of total earnings for the next 15 years. It's no wonder in an economy that demands every penny for families to survive, fathers aren't anxious to jump on the Daddy track.
Balancing work and family has traditionally been seen as a personal problem, one that does not concern the employer. But if corporate America wants to remain competitive, it needs to rethink what employees value, and stop giving lip service to families while giving rewards to those that pretend family doesn't exist.
Over two-thirds of fathers work more than 40 hours per week, a fourth work over 50 hours - most because of expectations or requirements, not personal preference. If more men were allowed to take paternity leave (a mere 7 percent of workplaces offer it), or encouraged to use family leave (rarely taken by men, even though they're entitled), it would start to become "normal," meaning more acceptable. Fathers would not automatically be viewed as less dedicated or less promotable (as mothers are now) if everyone, including the boss, set the standard.
This would not only give men some much-needed relief, it would level the playing field for women who now pay what some have dubbed the "motherhood tax" in the form of lower pay and fewer promotions at work.
It's been tried in a very few companies, with excellent results. Ernst & Young, the global consulting firm with 23,000 U.S. employees in 95 locations, added two weeks' parental leave at full pay in 2002. In the first year, 46 percent of those taking the benefit were male. How did they do it? "We advertised it, encouraged it, and reminded men-from administrators to partners," said a spokeswoman. In other words, the company validated its acceptability for fathers, and sent a message that careers and fatherhood are not mutually exclusive.
Valuing fatherhood in the workplace would not only help families and make companies more competitive, it would help society. More time with parents equates to less time on the streets and fewer nights with only the TV as a dinner companion for kids. When that happens, Father's Day will mean something other than a single day of recognition once a year.
Martha Burk is the director for the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations.