Daniel Ortega is often surprised by people's reaction when he tells them he's a single dad with primary custody of his three children, all under the age of 8.
"They think I'm some sort of hero," Ortega says.
But his former employer, Ortega says, didn't share that opinion. He missed about a week of work in 2018 when his then 4-year-old daughter was in the hospital with an infection.
After a minor surgery, she was fine. Ortega's relationship with his boss was not.
"He saw me as someone he couldn't count on," says Ortega, who was using his skills as a masseuse at a company offering "stretching sessions" similar to physical therapy. He says the "crazy hours" caused him to quit, and he took a position managing a spa. The COVID-19 pandemic ended that job, and Ortega has been surviving on savings and government assistance as he trains to be a voice-over actor—a profession that will let him work from home and care for his children.
"I changed my entire career," says the Clinton, Mass., resident. "It's the most ideal job for me right now."
The pandemic forced many people to transform their lives to cope with the resulting upheaval. Ortega is nonetheless an outlier. His is one of 2.4 million U.S. households led by single fathers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There are 7.5 million households headed by single moms—more than three times the amount of their male counterparts.
The pandemic has rightfully highlighted the plight of working mothers struggling to perform their paid jobs while caring for their children. Multiple studies show that even those with male partners have been handling most of the child care and housework responsibilities during the public health crisis. Millions of moms left the workforce. Single mothers were especially hard-hit by the pandemic because they were often without any additional help. But one of the untold stories of the pandemic is the toll it took on single fathers and how their experience was more closely aligned with that of women than other men.
Single Fathers' Struggles Mirror Moms'
Even before the COVID-19 crisis began, custodial fathers and those with joint custody shared many of the same concerns as working mothers, such as the fear that they are missing out on promotions and networking opportunities. And while single dads still may enjoy some of the benefits that come from being a male in workplaces dominated by men, they aren't held in the same esteem as their partnered or childless counterparts, according to studies. Single dads often lack the support systems that are more common among women and are designed to help females navigate the challenges of single parenting.
"Single fathers prioritize their caregiving [responsibilities]," says Aimzhan Iztayeva, author of a study on custodial single fathers' experience during the pandemic that was published in the academic journal Social Sciences. "They want to be good fathers, and they do experience struggle with reconciling work and caregiving."
However, she says, these dads' focus on their children changed how they were perceived in the workplace. Working fathers and childless individuals are often believed to be "ideal workers" who have more time to prioritize their jobs. Even though that perception is changing, it still lingers in many companies' C-suites and hurts working moms and single dads—especially those in blue-collar jobs that lack flexibility and require workers to be onsite.
Single Dads Lose Advantages
"Custodial fathers no longer fit that ideal," Iztayeva says. In her interviews, low-income custodial dads said they felt their employers were less likely to accommodate their schedules than the schedules of their female counterparts. That's because working mothers fit the traditional gender expectation of who has caregiving responsibilities.
In a 2018 research study, sociologist Jurgita Abromaviciute found that traditional work stereotypes typically don't apply to single parents. Partnered working moms are often penalized in their careers by employers who pay them less out of fear that they won't be sufficiently dedicated to their jobs. However, Abromaviciute's research showed that single moms' status as breadwinners spared them from that prejudice. Meanwhile, single dads' caregiving responsibilities made them less attractive than married dads in the workplace.
Women do enjoy an advantage that many men—especially single fathers—crave.
"Single fathers want to have networks of other single fathers, [but they] struggle to find them," Iztayeva says. "In general, men have smaller social circles than women and are less likely to seek mental health care."
Men just aren't as comfortable talking about their feelings, says Josh Levs, a consultant and author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families and Businesses and How We Can Fix It Together (HarperOne, 2015).
In 2013, Levs sued his then-employer, CNN, for discrimination because it gave biological fathers only two weeks of new-parent leave but allowed 10 weeks of paid leave for biological mothers and adoptive parents. The case was eventually settled, and in 2015 CNN gave biological fathers, biological mothers and adoptive parents the same amount of leave.
All Parents Need Help
Levs says it's crucial for more companies to offer paid leave, flextime and child care benefits to all parents. However, that isn't happening.
For example, 87 percent of employees with children under 18 said company reimbursements for expenses related to child care or education services would be most helpful, according to a 2020 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). But according to that same survey, only 8 percent of companies offer such benefits.
Another SHRM survey found that 55 percent of companies offer new mothers paid leave, while only 45 percent offer that benefit to new fathers. In other words, even though the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that companies must offer men and women the same amount of leave, some companies ignore the rule, though it's worth noting that some include disability leave for birth mothers in their statistics.
Even when new-parent leave is available, men take less time off than women: According to SHRM research, men used only four weeks of leave even though they were offered six weeks, while women took an average of nine weeks.
The difference often stems from traditional gender stereotypes that leave men feeling like they must be the breadwinners, experts say.
"There is a stigma that prevents men from taking it," Levs explains.
However, if men did take more new-parent leave and ask for flextime, it would benefit both men and women in the workplace by eliminating the difference in who uses such benefits.
Special Challenges for Blue-Collar Dads
Some can only dream of fungible hours. As a rigger who hoists equipment on movie sets and for special events, Matt Seprish doesn't get paid if he doesn't work. Over the years, Seprish, the custodial parent of a now 15-year-old daughter, has lost a considerable amount of money because he couldn't find a babysitter. Unable to work at all during the pandemic, Seprish is now $45,000 in debt
He says he has a slew of jobs on his calendar heading into the fall, so he hopes the latest COVID-19 wave doesn't shut down his industry again. Just as importantly, he has been able to weave together a web of friends to help care for his daughter when he works late or travels. He says there have been conversations within his union about providing members with child care benefits, though the discussions haven't led to any concrete proposals.
Child Care Is a Catch-22
"It is hard when you're a parent," says Seprish, who lives in Snow Shoe, Pa., and is president of Local 636 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. "But I know I'm doing the best thing for my daughter."
Even dads with white-collar jobs and flexible schedules say single parenting poses career challenges. "I consciously don't complain about parenting responsibilities at work," says Scott Anderson, an Atlanta-based partner at law firm Culhane Meadows who has custody of his 11-year-old twin boys. "I filter myself."
Anderson says he has no reason to think his parental status taints his colleagues' professional opinion of him. However, he would rather not discuss his personal life and risk having his colleagues jump to conclusions about his status as a single parent. "You don't want people making assumptions about what you can or cannot do," he says.
Now Anderson is thinking about finding a sitter so he can attend more industry events as the world reopens. But he must balance the benefits of going to those events with the money he will spend for child care. "It's a Catch-22," he says.
I filter myself.'
Anderson and other single fathers have more concerns about their careers than either single mothers or coupled fathers do, SHRM research found.
For example, 60 percent of single fathers said they believe their status meant they missed out on a promotion. Only 34 percent of coupled dads and 49 percent of single moms felt the same way. Nearly 80 percent of single fathers believe their situation causes them to work longer hours, while only 55 percent of single moms and 48 percent of coupled fathers share that opinion. However, 55 percent of single moms and dads agreed they have missed out on networking opportunities. Only 39 percent of coupled dads agreed.
Joint Custody Dads Struggle, Too
It's not just custodial dads who make career sacrifices for their families. Fathers with shared custody of their children also say their situation blocked their path to promotions and opportunities. Christian Paasch retired from the Air Force in 2006 and took a job with the U.S. Department of Defense, where he is now a senior program manager, to avoid deployments that would limit him from being involved in his 14-year-old son's life
About five years ago, Paasch applied and was accepted to a premier leadership training program, but he had to decline because it meant leaving the Washington, D.C., area, which would have caused difficulties with his custody court order. He applied again, and once more his acceptance was predicated on leaving the area.
"Did it affect my career? Absolutely," Paasch says. "People who go through those programs get promotions. I'm OK with that. I don't regret putting my family first."
Paasch is married now and has a 5-year-old with his wife. He is still amazed by some of his colleagues' antiquated ideas about child care. If he declines to go out for a drink or needs to stop working to pick up his son, he says, some colleagues will question why his wife can't take care of it.
Says Paasch, "We still have a 'Mad Men' dynamic going on."
Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM.
SHRM provides advice and resources to help business leaders better understand the challenges working parents face and build stronger workplace cultures.
How Companies Can Support Working Parents
Burnout is often portrayed as a workplace problem. Yet workplace burnout is an organizational problem that requires systemic solutions, especially for one group: single parents.
Video: Five Child Care Benefits for Working Parents
Examine how employers can attract talented working parents with child care benefits for employees.
Podcast: Supporting Working Moms and Dads During the Pandemic
In this episode of the All Things Work podcast, host Tony Lee talks with award-winning business journalist Joann Lublin about the new challenges COVID-19 has created for working mothers and smart steps employers can take to support them.
Accommodating Working Parents During the Pandemic
While some companies are adjusting their expectations for working parents, others may not be. If employers can't accommodate working parents, however, they could face a barrage of issues, including legal action against them.
Quiz: Are You Prepared to Help Your Employees Address the Mental Health Needs of Their Children?
As employees manage their own well-being during the pandemic, they are also concerned with the well-being of their children who are trying to cope without their traditional support systems like schools, extended family and friends. Understanding how to help your employees navigate the mental health needs of their children is a win for everyone.