Changing Gender Dynamics at Home, One Lead Dad at a Time

“My wife is listed fourth on the emergency contact list. But sometimes the school will still call her. She’ll say, ‘why didn’t you call my husband, he’s the Kindergarten class parent?’”

Changing Gender Dynamics at Home, One Lead Dad at a Time

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Sometimes the gender equity conversation can feel like a broken record, and I myself can be guilty of constantly circling back to the simplistic (but true!) idea that men need to do their fair share at home to better support women at work. We can get together and furiously nod our heads in agreement about this, but I’m becoming more curious about how we create culture change around men more fully owning domestic and parenting labor. I don’t think it comes just from women telling them to.

So let me introduce you to Paul Sullivan. He’s a former NYTimes columnist and book author focusing on wealth and finance who left his journalism job in October 2021 to start The Company of Dads, which is a podcast, community and blog focusing on connecting and empowering dads who take significant or primary family and domestic responsibilities. He came up with the idea while quarantining during the pandemic and overseeing Zoom school for his three daughters. His wife owns an asset management firm, and despite his own professional success, he’s open that his wife has always been the breadwinner. In addition to working for pay, he’s been the primary parent to their three kids. During the pandemic, “It hit me that I was lonely and I am not by nature a lonely guy. I'm an extrovert,” Paul explains. “And it was at that moment that I thought, ‘I'm the only kind of parent that doesn't have a group.’ If you are a stay-at-home mom, there's tons of community, at schools and places of worship. If you're a working mom, every school district in America reaches out to working moms because they wanna keep them involved one way or the other. But if you are the Lead Dad there isn't a group for you.”

In February 2022, he launched The Company of Dads, and I recently interviewed him on what he’s learning and some of the biggest challenges Lead Dads face. Here’s our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Double Shift members can hear the extended audio version of our discussion. Not a member yet? What are you waiting for?! It starts at $7/mo and has other great member benefits like hangouts and members-only threads.

Katherine Goldstein: So first off, how do you define the term ‘Lead Dad’? Because you actually are the first person that I've heard use this term.

Paul Sullivan: The Lead Dad is the go-to parent. He’s a man who's the go-to parent, whether he works full-time, part-time, or devotes all of his time to his kids. And, according to the US census, among married heterosexual couples, 47% of women outearn their husbands. In the US, 75 million men are fathers. Based on a few calculations I've made, I think around  20 to 25 million people could qualify as Lead Dads. So this is not a small community, and that was really what got me thinking about it. So that's a ripe market for potential Lead Dads. I thought a lot about this term ‘Lead Dad,’ and what informed it was the idea that it was proactive. I want being a Lead Dad to be a movement.

Katherine Goldstein: Obviously writing from the New York Times carries a lot of prestige, and you were writing about finance, which is, as Kate Mangino would say, is a “male coded” topic. How do you feel like people have received your change of focus?

Paul Sullivan:  A lot of people I’m reaching out to now are either men who are Lead Dads, working moms, senior family executives, and some HR people.

They get why if you want real equality, you need to create space at work and in the home for men to be dads, to take some of that classic burden and the double shift off of women. But then I talk to men who I’ve known for a long time in their late sixties, early seventies, and they tune out. I feel like older men who had a very traditional work experience and more traditional gender arrangements, they don’t always get it. This is why one of the targets for the Company of Dads is middle managers and emerging leaders. It's not CEOs. It's for people who still have the ability to change how they think about things and change the dynamic at work. You look at a CEO or CFO  even if it's a woman, all of those people in the C-suites, very few of them are enlightened enough to see a different path to getting to where they got. They have that confirmation bias.

For people in their 20s and 30s,  they think, “Oh yeah, this is obvious. Of course you should have something like this. Why would we not divide labor up? My wife is a doctor and I'm a school teacher. Well, of course we're gonna have to divide the labor up at home differently. That just makes total sense.”

Katherine Goldstein: I really like the idea of claiming Lead Dad as a term and giving it sort of a positive vision is great, But there's a couple things I wanna challenge you on.

There are lots of women out there who out-earn their male partners. The status quo as it is now, when women who out-earn male partners, studies show they typically outsource rather than the father taking on more responsibility. So what are your thoughts on that and how we can bring more nuance to this. Just because a man earns less doesn’t mean he’ll step up and be a Lead Dad.

Paul Sullivan: Maybe they outsource a lot of the stuff in the Northeast where it's super high income, but in other parts of the country, they may be out-earning their spouse and they're still doing all that stuff right at home when they get home.

So why does that happen? Kate Mangino calls it maternal gatekeeping. And another person I interviewed called it Momsplaining. [Ed Note: I don’t entirely agree with Paul about the root causes of this. Feel free to go back to my newsletter on the nuances of maternal gatekeeping for more of my opinions on this topic.]

I think for men, if less is required of us, we will do less. If less is expected of us, we will meet those low expectations. As humans, that does happen. And that's something I wanna challenge and stop.

I think division of labor needs to be talked about much more explicitly and it’s a requirement for us to have more difficult conversations.

As Eve Rodsky talks about in Fair Play, you need to own the task from start to finish. So I think we have to think about transferring ownership just as we as parents would do, with our kids.

Katherine Goldstein: What do you see as different ways people can fundamentally challenge the idea that by default the mom is in charge and the dad is “helping?”

Paul Sullivan: So I'll make the argument that it's a lot easier to challenge that thinking within the relationship than it is in the outside world. For my wife and me, we just talked about it early on and even before we had kids, it just made sense – we were just better at different things. And so we took ownership of different things. I'm more organized, she’s more spontaneous.

I'm the one taking them to the majority of their doctor's appointments. I'm the one taking them to the majority of their dentist appointments. I'm the one organizing the play dates. I’ve trained the parents of my kids' friends to come to me. And so we set those expectations and we have to reset them.

Paul and his youngest daughter.

We have some agency as individuals try to get the school to call the dad, and to try to get the pediatrician to call the dad first. My name is first on every single form. And after me it’s our babysitter. Third is my father who comes to town two days a week. And fourth is my wife. And the school will go. “Where’s the mother’s number?” I need a freeze gun. Like, “STOP IT, SHE’S IN A MEETING!” If she answers, she’ll say, “why didn’t you call my husband, he’s the Kindergarten class parent?” It frustrates the hell outta me.

Katherine Goldstein: It sounds like we all have to keep challenging those norms. So how can working moms be more inclusive and supportive of Lead Dads in their community?

Paul Sullivan: This is an amazing question. First of all, I'll say that in my experience, Working Moms don't have any problem with this. Working Moms are really busy, and they get the idea and maybe they have a husband who's a Lead Dad, and if not, they start thinking, “Wait a second. If Paul can do this, and he worked at the NYTimes and wrote three books, let's have a conversation about this in our own family.”

Stay-at-Home Moms, Primary Parent moms, that’s more challenging. Because it's a whole ecosystem. It's one thing to get on the list for the birthday party. But what’s more important here is the sharing of information. The Company of Dads is a national organization because they're Lead Dads spread out all over the place. There are dozens and dozens of Lead Dads in my town in Connecticut. But the way the information in my town is distributed is through a Facebook group, a Facebook Moms group. There's also a Working Moms group, and the Working Moms group is very receptive to men posting there. The Facebook “All Moms” group is not receptive to dads at all. A friend of mine who’s a Working Mom reached out to the administrator and said, “Hey, can we let Paul in?” And she's like, “Absolutely not.”  I was like.. Well, what are they talking about? So, I looked at the group on my wife’s Facebook and 90% is information that every parent needs. “My child is interested in this sport. How do you do it?” “I'm getting rid of this stroller. Does anybody need it?” “Hey, I'm about to go try this place out for the first time. Does anybody have experience with it?”  There's just a lot of sharing of information. Mothers and fathers can do it equally well. The other 5-10% of the posts were “Can we get together for a mom mom's night out?” Unless you are invited, I don't think a dad is gonna go hijack that night out. We're all parents. We're all trying to figure this out. We just want to share information that's going to make our lives easier and, and make sure our kids have a good education and make a few friends along the way.

Katherine Goldstein: I think that's really interesting and I think that I could theorize that their unwillingness to include dads has to do with protecting what they feel like is their social clout.

So if someone said to you, “I wish my husband would step up and be a Lead Dad, but I couldn't get him to do this,” what would you say to that person?

Paul Sullivan: Send 'em my way, I've done a lot of retail politics.

Tell 'em about the Company of Dads, say, “Hey, look what this guy is doing. This is great. It's like, why don't you go check this out?” Because once they come into the community, I work really hard to have the podcast and our content be as reflective of the broadest part of this community as possible, so that everybody feels welcome. It's really “show, don't tell.” And that's why we spent the past eight months building out something that's pretty robust so that men can feel welcome and say they want to be a part of this.

I’ve met dads who want to be a part of this but don’t want people to know they are Lead Dads. I think that link is really tough to sever between masculinity and money. That’s why I'm trying to lead on this and get out in front of it and say, “Look, this is not something to be ashamed of. This is something that's great and it's helping everybody in the family fulfill their potential. It's helping dad fulfill their potential, mom fulfill their potential, and certainly the kids fulfill their potential because they're seeing their parents working together.”


You can check out more about Paul and The Company of Dads, or even better, share it with a Dad you know who might enjoy this community. While I appreciate certain moms-only spaces to vent or talk about more personal topics like, say, pelvic floor problems, this conversation has helped me really take to heart how moms need to actively invite dads into “the information grapevine,” whatever that looks like in your community. I think it’s easy to overlook how crucial this is to full parenting participation.

Tomorrow’s members-only thread will be about ways we’ve noticed dads being excluded from parenting culture and brainstorming what we can do about it.

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