Israeli Fathers Who Want It All: But Can They Get a Job After Being Stay-at-home Dads?

'Your testosterone is at zero, as is your self-esteem and your partner is feeling guilty for going back to work.' Meet the men who are bringing up baby.

Asaf Rothem sat across from the marketing manager, certain that the interview was over. He was applying for a job in the content department of a high-tech company, and the interviewer had just examined his CV. She asked him about his previous employment and he told her. She asked why he remained in two workplaces for only a year, and he explained that in one place his employment conditions were changed, and that he was laid off from the second due to cutbacks. And then she came to the really empty year: the one he spent at home with his young daughter, Alona − four months of it together with his spouse, and another four months alone with the child, after her mother went back to work.

“The interviewer asked, ‘What did you during this year?,’” recalls Rothem. “I told her that I was with my daughter. I tried to explain that my wife was doing her residency. I tried to leave the impression that I’m someone who is empathetic to women − but she had this look of deep disdain. And that was pretty much the end of the interview. We talked a little more, but in every interview there’s that moment when you feel that you’re either in or out, and that was the moment. At the end she said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t get the feeling you’re really committed to content.’”

“I’m not sorry that I’m not working there,” adds Rothem. “As soon as I got in the elevator when I entered the building, my whole body, physically, told me, ‘Stop the elevator and go back down.’ But after such a long time when you’re not working, money and high-tech − they exert a pull on you.”

On the wintry morning after Independence Day, the living room of Rothem and his partner Maya’s house in Tel Aviv is brightly lit and filled with toys. A silvery Mac laptop rests on the table alongside a big toy fish and fishing reel, and an old mouse. Alona, 19 months old, dressed in purple pants and a gray hoodie, is ready to go to the supermarket with Mommy. She toddled over to Rothem holding a little pink and purple umbrella. “Rain, rain,” she says. Rothem opens the umbrella and gives her a kiss. “Raindrops! Raindrops!,” Alona cries joyfully.

‘Terribly boring’

Rothem organized his schedule so he would finish his projects before Alona was born. Maya, who was in the midst of the second year of her residency in clinical psychology, took her legally sanctioned maternity leave − and Rothem stayed home with her, too. When the official leave came to an end, though, the pair faced a dilemma. According to the law, Maya had to return to her residency − or lose the time she’d accumulated.

Rothem: “We said we’d manage for a year. Even if we went into an overdraft and accumulated some debt, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. There’s your baby and there’s money, and if you don’t know which is more important you’ve got a problem.”

Maya went back to work and Asaf remained in a world populated almost entirely by women. “We’d go for long walks. Invariably, I was the only father in the park,” says Rothem. “It’s terribly boring, but when it’s your child, it’s important to you and you do a lot of boring and useless things. I learned the ABCs of being with a child: firstly, put your smartphone away, be present. I tried not to work and not to be frustrated. But the loneliness is awful − the silence of all the electronic devices. But there were still many moments of joy, and because it’s my daughter I found myself interested in things that, in theory, a man doesn’t really care about much: the first time she rolled over, when she started crawling, when she stood up.”

However, it wasn’t just the loneliness that was tough for Rothem. “There’s social pressure, just where you’re vulnerable, and there’s internal pressure too in the sense of, ‘So what now? Before long it’ll say on my resume that I spent two years with my daughter?’ These are the kind of thoughts that go through the mind of the dad walking in the park. You genuinely want your spouse to do well, you want each of you to be able to do what they love. But still, when the traditional roles are upset, it causes a lot of doubt and uncertainty. Your testosterone is at zero, as is your self-esteem, and meanwhile Maya is feeling guilty for going back to work. It has a very bad effect on the relationship.”

When Alona was 9 months old, Rothem’s mother contracted cancer and he had to start spending lots of time at the hospital. So the baton was passed to Maya’s parents for a while. Now the job of caring for Alona is divided between the grandparents, and Maya and Asaf. Rothem came out of all this with a strong family bond as well as a (Hebrew) blog about fatherhood, “Go Ask Dad,” that he publishes together with a friend, Gil Kidron. Nonetheless, he swears he’ll never take this kind of break from work again. “For the next kid, I’ll come prepared. Now, I see that you can’t commit to something like this without a backup plan − financially and also in the sense of how you perceive yourself, and what you do when the kid is sleeping. I wouldn’t want to feel again like how I felt then.”

Stalled revolution

Twenty-four years ago, in her book “The Second Shift,” American sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “stalled revolution” to describe what happened to the feminist revolution, that seemed to halt in its tracks after several decades of major leaps forward. Much has happened since then, although it appears that even today, the revolution is still progressing at a crawl. True, women make up some 50 percent of all employees in the workplace here, and the percentage of working women in Israel is among the world’s highest. Women also receive more higher education than men. And yet, the wage gap between men and women has remained steady (at about 30 percent) for decades, as has the ratio between men and women’s work hours − men work more hours, women less, and this is reflected in their wages.

A 2010 study in the U.S. found that, for the first time, women in big cities were earning more than men − but only up to age 30, and on condition that they didn’t have children. So, after the generations’-long attempt to change the status of women in the labor market, the time has apparently come to change the status of the man at home. For even with babysitters, and grandparents, any household composed of a couple plus offspring involves a simple equation: For someone to be able to be at work − to meet deadlines, show dedication, get promotions and bonuses − someone else has to be at home. The question is, who will be where, and when.

The new fathers − in their thirties and forties, with one or more children − live in a world where gender definitions are much more complex than when they were growing up. Many men who work late hours feel that they should be spending more time with their children. Meanwhile, those − like Rotem − who’ve arranged their lives to put their family at the center, have to reconcile that with their inner-ideal father: the strong, careerist breadwinner. A man who runs companies doesn’t change diapers.

The coming revolution is supposed to bring men home − at least partially. This will have two advantages. Women will be able to work more, and the fathers will make a better connection with their children. It might even make them happier, according to a University of Missouri and Utah State University study from March of this year. It’s already happening, but social and psychological pressures, a largely hostile labor market, policymakers who lag behind cultural shifts, convenience, habit and prejudices − all these contribute to the excruciating slowness with which this revolution is taking place.

“One has to ask: If women want men to change, and if men say that they want to change, why isn’t the change happening?” asks Joan C. Williams in her 2010 book on the subject, “Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.” She adds: “Either they [men] are lazy, or they’re under tremendous gender pressures of their own.”

“It’s not a static picture. Men are doing more at home than they did in the past,” says Dr. Nadav Perez-Vaisvidovsky, a lecturer in social work at Ashkelon Academic College whose doctoral dissertation was about shaping paternity- leave policy. “There’s been a significant increase in the number of hours that women are working outside the home, and a parallel decrease in the number of hours they’re working in the home − but there is hardly any increase in the number of hours that fathers spend working in the home. What we do see is that women have a much greater expectation that men will help out, and men are much more willing to help. In surveys they say they want to be partners − but it hardly ever happens.”

Sharing the burden

A Haaretz survey conducted by the CA Marketing Institute, overseen by Noam Raz and Merav Shapira, supports this thesis. Over 400 Hebrew-speaking men, aged 25-52, with children aged 0-12, were questioned about their views on equality between men and women, and about what the actual division of labor is in their homes. Sixty percent said the parenting burden should be equally divided between father and mother; only nine percent said the mother should bear the major portion of the child-care burden.

In fact, though, after their children were born, 20 percent of the men did not take any days off, while most of the rest took just five days’ vacation. Only 16 percent of fathers cut back on their work after their children were born, compared to 52 percent of women. About half reported that they feel they don’t have enough time to devote to the family. However, about half the fathers also reported that they manage to spend at least three afternoons a week with their children.

“Men believe in the need for equality with mothers in child rearing, but in actuality they don’t do that much,” says Raz. “The main reason given is that they don’t have the time. In the daily division of tasks, most of the burden falls on the mother − aside from getting the children where they need to go in the morning, which breaks down relatively equally between mothers and fathers.

“With most chores − getting the kids ready in the morning; picking them up; bathing them and getting them ready for bed; transporting them to activities; cooking and housecleaning − mothers do a substantially greater share of the daily care than do the fathers,” adds Raz.

How can this data be reconciled with a 2011 British study that found that, over the past 30 years, there has been a 60 percent increase in the amount of time men devote to household chores? Perez-Vaisvidovsky explains that the starting point for men was very low. “If men used to devote just one hour a day to housework and now they devote an hour and a half, that’s a significant increase, but the gap is still large. There is an increase, but it’s not close to equality.” The study says that men are closing the gap with their wives at a rate of 27 minutes per decade, or about 2.7 minutes per year.

Dr. Miri Rosmarin, a lecturer in the Tel Aviv University philosophy department’s Women’s Studies Program, says: “You have to realize that very often, even when women work full time − especially when it pays relatively well − there’s a babysitter, a housekeeper or Grandma. So the household could function more equally, but what’s really happening is an outsourcing of this work to other women.”

There’s also another dimension to this division of labor, Rosmarin notes. “In terms of the cultural norm, child care is still considered the mother’s job. Even in families where both spouses work, and even if the woman is the main breadwinner, society’s basic belief is that the woman is the one responsible for the family. If she has to miss her daughter’s ballet recital because of a meeting, she’s an awful mother. If the father shows up, he’s especially dedicated.”

‘Bathtub fathers’

When men are at home, chances are they will prepare the baby’s bottle, but they won’t do the laundry. The paternal tendency is to complete tasks related to child care but not to housework. The common prototype is the father who arrives home from work in the evening, straight to the omelet-shower-bed rush. Perez-Vaisvidovsky calls them “bathtub fathers.”

“We already know that there’s no such thing as just ‘quality time’ with the children, that it’s very important to be involved,” he says. “But in certain sectors, a man who leaves the office before seven in the evening is looked upon as not really caring about work.”

Perez-Vaisvidovsky, a father of four himself, was spared this fate because he lives on a kibbutz. “There are no salaries, so that eases the pressure. In academic life it’s impossible to only work mornings, but I decided that I wouldn’t work more than two evenings per week. My wife works on the kibbutz and it’s a much more relaxed work culture. We have friends that are new to the kibbutz and the father − who started working at the kibbutz factory − has suddenly gotten to know his kids.”

Sivan Shimon, a building engineer and father of a 1-year-old girl, is one such “bathtub father.” Shimon gets up when his daughter wakes during the night, and shares the morning tasks with his wife: “I get her out of bed, her mother changes her diaper, I prepare the bottle and she feeds her.” In the afternoons, though, Shimon is elsewhere − he works until 7:00 P.M. every evening. “Before she was born, I was sometimes there until 11:00 at night,” he admits.

His evening routine sounds like a scene from an action movie: “I play with her, with a few toys, show her clips on YouTube, and then we have dinner. My wife makes it − I’m out of that, I don’t know how to cook anything. Then it’s shower time. My wife gets her into her pajamas, puts her in the room, reads her a story − and then my daughter starts making this shaking gesture with her hand, which is my signal to jump into action and mix the bottle. She goes to bed at nine. I’m usually asleep by around ten.”

The construction site that Shimon is currently managing is close to home, and sometimes he pops in to see his daughter in the middle of the day. He’d like to be able to get home by five or six. The problem, he relates, is that he’s “something of a workaholic, and I work for a small company. If you don’t get something done it’s just put off for the next day, and you can’t work that way. If a bill has to be submitted to the inspection company the next day, then it needs to be prepared today. If I didn’t order the materials today, I won’t have them tomorrow, or three days later, when I need it.” Sometimes he finds himself working after his daughter has gone to sleep, until the middle of the night.

Shimon attributes his lifestyle to an extremely strict work ethic (“On vacation days I feel like a lazy bum,” he says) but he also works in a field in which the work is demanding, the hours are long, and, accordingly, there are very few women. “The only mothers I know who work in the industry work in the planning field, where the hours are 8:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.,” he says.

Did you and your wife discuss what the arrangement would be before your daughter was born?

“I don’t remember. Maybe. But it was clear that someone has to be dominant in raising the children, and it ought to be the mother. I really believe that. Not from a chauvinistic attitude. That’s doesn’t prevent me from saying that a woman should also go out to work, but I feel that the educational aspect is something that comes naturally to her. I feel that I’m missing out by not being at home, but the fact is that my wife does it a lot better than I could.”

Do you think there can really be equality at home between men and women?

“It’s possible. Society has come a long way. But I don’t like the term ‘equality’ − I find it very problematic. It says that from the start someone has behaved in a way that hurts the other side. What would it mean if my wife worked 12 hours and I worked six hours − would that be equality? I don’t like these starkly divisive terms between man and wife. If I have to do the supermarket shopping, I’ll do the shopping. If needed, I’ll feed my daughter. Maybe once upon a time the man really was an outside figure in the family, but I don’t think it’s that way today. Maybe I’m not typical, but I think that things have worked out. I see dads like me who take their child to nursery school. They do just as well as the mother.”

The home-work balance

In the sector that, more than any other, has been responsible for the nonstop work culture that has taken root here in past decades, there has recently been a bit more understanding of the concept that employees also need to have a personal life. High-tech companies, particularly the international ones, have begun in recent years to offer their workers flexible hours or one shorter workday a week.

For many workers, though, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to successfully combine a high-pressure job with family duties – a quandary with deep roots in the Israeli labor market. “In Israel there are high-paying jobs that demand very long hours, and jobs that are much more convenient for child rearing − but with low wages,” explains Perez-Vaisvidovsky. “Even if they aren’t specifically labeled for a man or a woman, it’s obvious how it’s divided and who is where.”

“I’d be glad to work less, but according to my contract I’m obligated to work 8.5 hours a day minimum,” says Ariel, a political adviser from Jerusalem, who works at a job in which any hour he misses is deducted from his pay. His wife is doing her residency in clinical psychology and they have two children, with another on the way.

Ariel gets home around 5:00 P.M. most days, and at 7:00 P.M. two days a week. He’s in charge of baths, she’s in charge of dinner. “Right now I’m earning four times as much as she is, but maybe after her residency that will change,” he says. “There are two mothers who work with me, and at 4:00 P.M. they put everything down and go home. Only I stay. They also have husbands who work harder. Of course I’m dying to go home earlier, but there are financial repercussions.”

“You can’t ignore the deeply ingrained structures that impose themselves, especially on women,” says Prof. Hanna Herzog, head of the Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University and codirector of the Van Leer Institute’s Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere. “Economic thinking is the dominant force in our lives − to a crazy degree in Israel in the past decades,” she says. “This means that you work from first light until last light, there is no general security, everyone works on personal contracts. This applies to both men and women. But on average, men earn a lot more than women, that’s a very stable statistic. It’s unbelievable how this thinking that says the man is the main breadwinner has penetrated every layer of society. So who’s going to work crazy hours? Better that it’s the man. And so the family economic thinking reinforces the global economic thinking, and it’s very hard to make a change on the individual level.”

The female breadwinner

When the traditional division of roles is combined with the standard wage gaps and also ideologically justified, there is no problem. But what happens when the woman is the breadwinner? Noah (not his real name) is an entrepreneur and CEO of a startup company; his wife is a partner in a law firm and earns more than he does. The couple has 3 children − two adolescents and an 18-month-old − and since they live on a moshav and their children go to activities in other places, they also have a babysitter who picks them up from school and helps ferry them around.

As a rule, though, Noah’s wife is the one who gets home at 5:00 P.M. and then goes back to work after the kids have gone to sleep, while he gets home around 7:00 P.M. (and goes back to work after the kids are asleep). Once a week he tries to get home early. If his wife is working on a major deal, Noah will leave the office early so she can keep working. “If we both have to work in the evening, one will work from home and the other will put the baby to sleep. We’re working practically every night. It’s nuts,” he says.

Noah is not one of those fathers that stay at work to avoid being at home. “To me, being with the kids is freedom and the pleasurable part of my day, a break from the bothers of work. The thing I miss most is quality time alone with each child, although we try to arrange for that, usually on the weekends.”

Why, then, is his wife the one who comes home early from work? “It’s part of her DNA. She can’t do otherwise. She misses being with them. She’s always taken more upon herself. Even if I started to come home earlier, she would still come three days a week − she can’t stand not to be with them. And I can. I’m very involved in their lives and I love being with them, but I don’t get that same physical ache when I don’t see them. When I have to travel abroad, I miss them terribly but I can take it. It’s physically too much for her. She shortens her work trips any way she can.”

Although the number of hours the modern father spends at home has not changed significantly, his parenting style is completely different to that of his own father. Dr. Avi Bauman, lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and president of the Israel Institute of Jungian Psychology, wrote his dissertation on mother and father roles in the 1980s, and has researched the subject of parenthood since then.

“The parenting style of the new fathers is a lot more interactive,” says Bauman. “Fathers used to have much clearer and firmer boundaries. Nowadays that’s something that takes shape amid the encounter with the child. It comes from models seen in society, in the media − and also as a result of the fact that fathers are more involved in child care. And as soon as you are involved in looking after the child − and I know this from my own experience, too − you relate to him emotionally and seek to understand him.

“The woman’s standing also has an effect,” he continues. “The higher the woman’s status in the family, the more room there is for the emotional issues.” Fathers who come to Bauman for treatment are often “stuck in an archetypical notion of fatherhood and don’t bring their own personality to it, and it creates problems with the children − who want you to relate to them, to see them.”

Bauman also has some good news for weekend dads: “Even with just these two days, if the father really devotes himself and isn’t just focused on bringing home a paycheck; if he really listens to the child and adapts himself to the child, he provides an experience. It may not be continuous, but it’s still meaningful.”

The fact that fathers are involved in child care doesn’t mean they do it the same way as their spouses. Bauman studied the parenting styles of new mothers and fathers, and found a substantial difference, which he describes as “giving space versus relinquishing control.” Apparently men are more territorial − it’s hard for them to operate with the child, to let him act as he wants, not to take control of the situation. In contrast, Bauman found that the stronger the bond the mother feels to the baby, the harder it was for her to let go and submit him to the control of others: to let other relatives hold him, or to trust that they know how to take care of him properly.

‘The Apprentice’

Different parenting styles, as well as the difference in the amount of hours that each side spends at home, are among the factors behind the creation of the familiar archetype of the “helping husband” − or, as Gil Kidron calls him, “the apprentice.” Kidron, who has a copywriting business in Tel Aviv and is Rothem’s partner in writing the fatherhood blog, had a daughter almost two and a half years ago. Right from the start, he understood that he was not the main player in this story.

“During the pregnancy you watch from the side, and at the birth you watch from the side. A mother is the most basic, fundamental thing there is, and everything else pales in relation,” he says. Kidron went back to work after a short time. “My relationship with my daughter was strong and deep from the beginning, but it’s all in relation to your limitations as a father. She would look at me with this look of, ‘Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?’”

The pressure to support his small family increased significantly after the birth − another reason to adhere to the traditional gender roles. “As a father, when the baby is really tiny you don’t fully communicate with him and you don’t have much to contribute. You have a mission: Go to work, bring home money. So it seems like you’re out of the loop, but you have the sense that you’re playing your part.”

Everything changed when Kidron and his wife separated a year ago. Now Kidron has his daughter two days a week and every other weekend. On one of the days, he picks her up early from preschool. “Now when I’m with her, it’s just me and her. We have a lot of our own private jokes. The days that I pick her up early are just tremendous, like a trip to India − full of experiences. No one tells me what to feed her; I don’t need to report if I’m going to the beach or out for a walk or how her poop looks. It’s my responsibility. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with my ex − she’s an excellent mother and I’ve learned a lot from her. But as a father, you’re automatically subordinate to the mother. When you’re divorced, the time is cut in half, but in that time you’re there 100 percent.”

The way society looks at it, says Kidron, “the mere fact that the child is breathing means I’m an amazing father. But for her mother to be considered a good mother, that’s a whole different story. It’s ridiculous. At our preschool one time, when a teacher was sick they asked for volunteers to substitute for her. Four people volunteered − one mother and three fathers. In the end, they didn’t need anyone, but every man who volunteered was looked upon as ‘Father of the Year.’

“I always loved my daughter, I never felt estranged,” he says. “But when I compare it to the way things are now, I wonder how much more I could have done. It must have to do with the amount of hours. I don’t know why there are men who don’t really care about it, who don’t feel any connection. I’m certain they’re going to end up regretting it.”

“Pay attention to who’s doing the work − but also to who’s in charge and who’s the laborer,” says Rosmarin. “Very few men are concerned during the course of the workday with the question of which after-school program or camp to send the children to. And responsibility leads to feelings of guilt. The laborer is liberated when he’s at work, unless he has some specific task to do. Meanwhile, the boss − the mom − is thinking: ‘What happens now? Is this good for the child or not? He seems to be getting a cold, maybe I shouldn’t have sent him to preschool.’”

A price to pay

Men who wish to deviate from the traditional framework have to be ready to pay a price with their career. When his eldest daughter was born six years ago, David Zonsheine, a high-tech executive from Tel Aviv, was vice president of development and board member of a startup company with 50 employees. Before that, he was the technical director in the projects department of another startup, and managed projects involving international airlines and car companies, including managing teams of employees in Israel and India. Even so, he never agreed to work more than 9-10 hours a day. “Right when it was time to sign, if I asked how many hours per day I was expected to work and they told me 13, I said, ‘Thanks, but I’m not willing to do that.’”

Two weeks after his daughter Ella was born, the company he worked for closed down, and he spent two months at home with his wife, Rona, and their daughter, taking the baby for walks in her stroller and changing diapers. “I was deeply connected to her from the very beginning,” he says. After a while, he started to work freelance − for starters, so he could spend more time at home. During the first year he took Ella for long outings, but still managed to work as a software developer − either at home or sitting in coffee shops − and he also taught software workshops. “It’s a strange feeling to be managing a team of 20 or more people one day, and the next day to be doing a project where there’s just two people,” he says.

Three years ago his second daughter was born, and Zonsheine returned to regular work. However, he tried to choose places that put an emphasis on production, rather than on hours spent in the office. He takes the girls to school most mornings and picks them up twice a week, and he shares the rest of the household chores with Rona. I know Zonsheine − our children go to preschool together − and I’m used to seeing him around the neighborhood, energetically pushing a stroller in the afternoon. Still, it’s not easy for him.

Zonsheine: “From my experience, and from the experience of my friends, the desire to put the family first − and not just paying lip service − clashes with things that are perceived as very masculine. What will you tell yourself, or your neighbors? That you were an amazing father? Actually, to my mind, meaningful parenting is a very, very masculine thing. And yet, sometimes I think, If I was managing dozens of people when I was 30, by now I could have been the CEO of a company with 100 people. I would have been much wealthier, I would have the title of CEO. In the years since I decided to return to more technical jobs, I’ve had offers all the time. The fundamental answer was very clear: I’m doing what’s right for me. But nevertheless, the thought was still there.”

Of course, there are other fathers who’ve chosen to slow down so as not to miss being with their children, but the responsibility cannot be placed solely on the fathers and mothers: Companies and legislators can, and should, also do something to help the cause. Paternity leave, given to the father separately from his wife’s maternity leave, has proven incredibly effective at getting fathers involved in their children’s lives.

Legislation that requires companies to shorten the workday would ease the pressure on both mothers and fathers. Initiatives like Putting the Family in the Center are trying to get companies to be more considerate of the needs of fathers and mothers.

Perez-Vaisvidovsky, however, is still skeptical. “Where women are concerned, there is a discourse about the home-work balance, even if this discourse is not as serious as it could be. But in regard to men, there is no discussion − even though when it comes to work hours, there’s overlap between what’s good for women and what’s good for men, at least up to a certain level.

“On the personal level, of course it’s possible to run an egalitarian household,” he continues, “but within the social structure that makes this very difficult, it’s a very complicated challenge. It is possible to achieve a more equal society, with a number of fairly simple steps. Is it possible to achieve a society in which there is complete equality? I’m not certain.”

Ilya Melnikov