St. Paul Pioneer Press
"Dads Are Breaking Barriers",
St. Paul Pioneer Press
By Amy Gage

"Larry McDonough thinks of himself as a fortunate man.

He's lucky enough to have a household income that allows him to work only four days a week. Lucky to be a father who sees the importance of spending time with his three daughters. Lucky to be of a race and a class that allow society to smile on him for being an involved father.

People see me as a middle-class white guy doing this and say it's a neat thing,' says McDonough, an attorney whose girls are 13, 10 and 6. If I were a poor African-American man who was staying home and collecting AFDC, a lot of middle-class white people would look at that differently. And I think that's really sad.'

Back in the 1970s, the women's movement was chided for focusing on the liberation' of people who needed it least -- white women whose race and middle-class status afforded them privileges beyond the reach of women on the margins. Similarly, the men now starting to speak out for the rights of fathers to be careerists and dads alike, to have both a personal and a professional life, are men like McDonough.

They are men whose income gives them choices. Still, I applaud them for speaking out at all.

It's harder for dads to find the psychological supports out there,' says Steve Clark, a psychologist in Medtronic's employee assistance program who founded the company's discussion group and intranet site for working fathers.

That's why these group ventures are so valuable,' he adds. It's some kind of community where dads can ask for help and share experiences.'  Lately I've been getting phone calls from men who want both a career and a family but don't know how to make it work. They don't know what that life looks like. They see women juggling all the balls, and they know the compromises women make to do it. But they also say women have role models all around them.

Dads who want more time with their children feel unsuccessful, by society's standards, and often alone. I haven't lived up to the expectations I have for myself,' says an attorney and a father who thinks his insistence on leaving work at 5 p.m. has derailed him from the partnership track at his prestigious firm.

We've talked frankly, which is why he doesn't want to see his name in print. Should his colleagues see it, they wouldn't understand. His boss, who is older, has always had a wife at home. He doesn't see the strains in the young attorney's life outside the office: the weekend runs to Cub and Target, the homework and housework he handles alone when his wife's job takes her out of town.

It's all these things outside of here that he's never had to care about at all,' the young man says. He thinks just because I'm busy here, that's all I have to care about.' The only attorneys at his firm who work part time do so because they're near retirement or have to care for an ailing spouse. No men or women are working part time because they want to be more involved parents.

Men gauge their success by their work,' says the man, whose wife earns more than he does. Previously, men did best for their family by working harder and longer. I'm in the opposite position. The most effective way for me to help my family is to step back.'

Which is precisely what Larry McDonough has done. But it was a long road getting there.

A musician by avocation, McDonough, 44, never has aspired to success as many men define it. That may be why he neither boasts nor is bashful about what, to him, is a simple fact of life: His children need more time with a parent, especially his youngest child with special needs, and he's the logical person in the household to provide it. So what if he's the dad?

It might not be the right choice for everyone,' McDonough says. But it's evolved to be the right choice for me.'

Men looking to take a life lesson from McDonough would do well to pay attention to the choices he has made, both financially and professionally.  A musician by avocation, he recently released a critically acclaimed album of jazz piano called, appropriately, Small Steps' (Marx Music, 1999). McDonough earned a bachelor of science degree in music education, is proficient on several instruments and enjoyed his early work as a high school band director.

He didn't leave the field of music because law appeared more lucrative. I always had an interest in work involving people with low incomes,' says McDonough, a staff lawyer at the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis. He claims to have no interest in private practice or big-bucks corporate law.  Balance,' that word so overused and misunderstood, means many things to this particular free spirit: raising three wonderful girls, working at legal aid, teaching, running, biking to work, playing music.'

McDonough takes pride in helping people who can't afford a lawyer. An adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, he considers himself no less a professional because he works fewer hours. I'm well-respected in the areas where I practice,' says McDonough, who focuses on landlord-tenant issues.

Deliberately or not, he has chosen a work environment that allows him the freedom to be both a father and a lawyer. Legal aid work tends to attract political liberals, McDonough says, people who would not withhold promotions or even silently judge him for saying he wants to work part time. For declaring that his wife and daughters matter.

The young attorney who asks me not to reveal his name, and the 45 men at Medtronic who confide in each other under cover of anonymity from their computers, likely could not say the same. They're afraid of something.  There's pressure from society, the workplace, maybe even from the women in their lives. But the pressure also is internal, says Clark, the psychologist. They want to succeed without having to follow their father's model.

A lot of dads today realize that their own dads were not that skilled in nurturing and didn't have the time because they were breadwinners,' Clark says. They don't feel resentment toward their dads, but there is this feeling that they want to do things differently.'

That's music to McDonough's ears."