Margeaux Wolberg was sitting with the other 12-year-olds in her class when one of the girls turned to her and asked, “Is your mom dead?”
She never came to school like the other mothers to volunteer in the library or help the teachers. It was always Margeaux’s dad who did that.
Margeaux reached for her laptop, typed a few words into Google and showed her classmate a list of hits with her mother’s name and job titles, from chief information officer at Salesforce.com to her current role as vice-president of technology business operations at PayPal. “See, my mom’s not dead,” she said. “My mom’s famous.”
Kirsten Wolberg, 45, recounts this story with pride. She doesn’t fall into the guilt trap these days when she has to miss a school play. Instead she is content that her two daughters are growing up with such a strong role model: a woman in a high-powered job in Silicon Valley.
Long before either of her kids was born, Wolberg and her future husband Michael had a conversation about how they would divide household and childcare duties. “I said, ‘Listen, one of the things that’s really important to me is to have a parent at home full time,’” she remembers. “‘And it can’t be me.’”
Michael Wolberg, 43, worked for years for a pharmaceutical distributor. But when Margeaux was born, he quit – or retired, as he likes to say – to become a stay-at-home dad. And he hasn’t looked back. The relative quiet of spending 12 hours a day alone with a child suits his personality better than an office, he says, and much better than it would ever suit his wife.
“She’s spent many, many years trying to get to the place where she is and even further,” he says, “and this lifestyle of crawling around on the floor and changing diapers and all kinds of other stuff is not for her.”
In Silicon Valley, fathers come in many forms, from stay-at-home dads to work-obsessed executives to the increasingly common young men who are striving to “have it all”. Today, 47 per cent of men between the ages of 18 and 34 say that being a good parent is one of the most important things in their lives, up from 39 per cent in 1997, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center.
They are also increasingly feeling the stress of juggling responsibilities. Similar shares of fathers and mothers say they always feel rushed, while fathers are more likely to feel they’re not spending enough time with their kids. “In the old days, balancing work and family seemed to be a challenge only for mothers; now fathers are facing a similar challenge,” says Wendy Wang, a researcher at Pew.
US policy does little to address this social shift. Though 178 countries guarantee paid leave for mothers, and 54 do so for fathers, the US guarantees neither. Under federal law, employees can take 12 weeks of leave when a child is born – but it is unpaid. Only two states, California and New Jersey, provide partially paid parental leave for both women and men.
For now, tensions over the evolution of fatherhood are being somewhat addressed in the private sector and, overwhelmingly, at home. Silicon Valley is a microcosm of this change. The overall ethos of the technology hub, backed by the enormous wealth it has generated, allows for experimentation with new parenting arrangements. “It’s innovation,” says John Donahoe, chief executive of eBay. “The fact that it hasn’t been done makes it more interesting and challenging.”
In the broader San Francisco Bay Area, where the gay rights and 1960s countercultural movements launched a history of contradicting social convention, there is a cultural permission for men to step outside traditional roles. “Masculine identity has fragmented so much in terms of what men can be, and that is intimately linked with how men interact with children,” says Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift. “There’s not one way to be a good dad any more.”
There is a social push in Silicon Valley for men to have more time to be dads. A talent war is compelling companies to be creative – at Facebook, men can take four months’ paid leave, the same as maternity leave, and all parents get $4,000 “baby cash” to spend on strollers and other gear. For smaller companies, change usually starts once someone near the top has a child. At companies such as Pinterest, whose CEO recently became a father, and Foursquare, where dads have been multiplying in recent years, there is a thirty and forty-something culture tempering the twenty-something vibe that dominates most start-ups. “Coming in early is the new staying late,” says Alex Rainert, head of product at Foursquare, who has a three-year-old daughter and second child expected in June.
But for many other tech start-ups, youth rules. Engineers roll into the office at 11am, sometimes staying for all-night “hackathons”. Refrigerators are stocked with beer and Red Bull and ping-pong tournaments are scheduled for 8pm. The paucity of women at these companies has allowed many to ignore the issue. Just 17 per cent of technical jobs are filled by women at start-ups that are five years old, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
“The young kids in Silicon Valley, the ones that are unmarried entrepreneurs, ain’t thinking about this,” says Donahoe, the eBay CEO. “For those that are having children, you see profound change.”
At age 52, Donahoe is a rare role model for younger families. In him they see a leader who compromised his own career at various points to support his wife’s. He still made it to the top, and she was later appointed US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.
Donahoe met Eileen Chamberlain at Dartmouth College. They fell in love on their first date. The decision to get married three years later was the forming of a union they called “ChamberHoe”. “It signalled partnership, it signalled mutual respect,” Donahoe says. “It wasn’t around 50-50. It didn’t get tactical. It was more philosophical.”
Since graduating college, and over the course of raising four children, both have made accommodations in support of each other’s careers. When Eileen was accepted to a graduate programme at Harvard Divinity School, John went to work for Bain and Company in Boston instead of accepting his first choice spot at Goldman Sachs in New York.
Their first child came in 1984, when John was studying at Stanford Business School, and the second in 1987 when he was back on the fast track at Bain and Eileen was at Stanford Law School. Their two boys were five and three years old when Eileen finished law school and got a clerkship with a prominent federal judge. She had to be at her desk in the judge’s chambers every morning at 7:30am.
John walked into his boss’s office. “I have to quit,” he said. “I have to take my kids to school every morning and I can never travel.” His boss refused the resignation. Instead, he found a local client for the firm and put John in charge. John went to 75 per cent time, and scheduled no meetings before 10am, the earliest he could arrive at the client offices after dropping Jack and Thomas at school.
“It’s not like it’s all motherhood and apple pie,” he says. “There were several people inside Bain that thought I was weak for going part-time, or less committed.” But, he says, it was always harder on his wife. When she got pregnant with their fourth child unexpectedly, six months after their third was born, Eileen had to decide whether she would continue working at Fenwick & West, the law firm where she did high-tech litigation, or stay home.
“I felt so confused. I wanted both,” she says. “Having four children, the level of difficulty ramped up dramatically. That was the first time I really became aware of how difficult it was to balance John’s needs and ambitions, my needs and ambitions, and the wellbeing of our children.”
She decided to leave work. No longer having a formal job stirred up a lot of questions about her identity. Over the next decade, she took classes in sociology, philosophy, feminist theory and theology, eventually earning her PhD. The path led to President Barack Obama offering her the US ambassadorship for human rights in 2010.
John Donahoe now looks to his own experience to influence how eBay is managed. He helped start a women’s network, which counts the company’s top 400 women leaders as members, and refashioned several jobs for talented employees as they started families, as his boss at Bain did for him.
But with 5,000 managers, it can be difficult to spread the message to everyone. The dominant youth culture of Silicon Valley still infects the ranks of a large company like eBay. “The problem is if you’ve got a woman who wants to figure out a part-time arrangement, and her boss is a 29-year-old single man,” he says. “I can give all the training in the world, and he’s not going to be sophisticated about how to deal with that.”
Adam Chambers, 40, is an entrepreneur in two ways. In the conventional sense, he’s starting his own company, an app for ordering wine. He’s also a new dad, and choosing to go the start-up route was a deliberate move to create more time for his daughter Zoe, who just turned one.
He turned down offers to do business development for some large companies, wanting to avoid the long days, travel and “pressure cooker” culture. His wife Laura is head of university programmes at eBay, and they decided one such job was enough.
The couple met in London almost seven years ago but she quickly convinced him to follow her to California. Too many times, they saw couples in investment banking and corporate law burn out over childcare negotiations, arguing over whose career was more important, who made more money, and who should have to cancel their meeting with the CEO to pick up a sick kid from school. “If we stayed in London, we would have been that couple that went gung ho for our careers and hated each other and divorced after five years,” he says.
But in Silicon Valley, they have the freedom to make career choices that allow for more flexibility. The key is Adam working from home. “This is my commute,” he says as he walks from his kitchen, through the garage, to his home office. They have a nanny who comes every weekday but, when something goes wrong, Adam is the one who cancels his meetings and phone calls to step in. “There’s an assumption that I will do it,” he says.
Adam would surely win a gold star from Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer who recently published Lean In, her feminist manifesto encouraging more women to be leaders (see “Alpha Female”). In Chapter 8, “Make Your Partner a Real Partner”, she advises young women to date the cool boys but marry the men who will truly support them in their own career endeavours, mainly by sharing equally in the work at home. This will allow women to “lean in” to their work, go for promotions and ask for bigger responsibilities, rather than stepping back because demands at home are overwhelming.
This message rings true for the Chambers, but up to a point. “If you have a working spouse and your child is in day care, you just can’t be as available as someone with a stay-at-home spouse or a 24-hour nanny,” Laura, 34, says. Affording the cost of round-the-clock childcare is “just not an option when you’re mid-career”.
When she was preparing to return to work, John Donahoe gave her some distinctly anti-Sandbergian advice. He helped her look for a role that would be challenging but also have tremendous flexibility in terms of early mornings, late nights and travel. “At first, it sounded like a step back and I said, ‘I’m not going to step back,’” Laura remembers. But then John told her, “You probably don’t know you need the flexibility but, trust me, you need it.”
The day Laura returned to work, Zoe started waking up every 45 minutes. At work, Laura was toast by 3pm. But she could arrange her schedule to catch up on work or sleep when she needed. “I was so grateful I had that advice and had taken it.”
For Adam, being home and available for Zoe is not a favour performed in service to Laura’s career. It is something he values deeply and wants to do. From his perspective, a revolution that allows fathers to play a more integral role in raising their children is just as urgent as Sandberg’s push to free women’s time up for work. “I don’t want to be that guy that goes to work and comes home and sits on the couch and wonders where his dinner is,” Adam says. “That guy isn’t me.”
Instead, he wants his daughter to see him cooking and hoovering. And he wants her to see Laura leaving for the office every day. He wants her to learn from an early age that both a career and an equal partnership are realities for her.
To a large extent, men have been left out of the push for work-life integration. It is women who have led the charge to implement maternity leave policies and shift attitudes. As more men seek flexibility at work, they are facing pressures of their own. Studies show that men who take time off or request flexibility to care for children are perceived by co-workers as “weak” or “uncompetitive” and face a greater risk of being demoted or laid off.
Men sometimes internalise the pressures. When Zoe was a few months old, the new nanny had to take several days off. At first, Adam tried to keep appointments for Skype calls during Zoe’s naps, but it all got too overwhelming. “I’m doing a bad job at work, I’m doing a bad job with my daughter, and everyone hates me,” he says. Now he knows not to try. If something goes wrong, he commits to being dad for the whole day.
Adam is relieved to have the freedom of being his own boss, and the support of Silicon Valley to do things differently. His goal is to build his own company to success, where someday he is the leader helping employees build flexibility into their lives. For him, real progress in the workplace, for women and men, will come when more men forge flexible work schedules and wash dishes in front of their children, then turn those experiences into corporate policies. “If you can repeat that 100,000 times, we might get somewhere,” he says.
The Chambers’ approach is increasingly common in the Valley. Men and women both work, with one person in a stable corporate job with health insurance, while the other starts or joins a start-up. Then they switch. The divide spreads out the financial risk, and also allows the parents to alternate over the years who takes on more family responsibilities.
Mauria Finley and Greg Yap, both 39, take 50-50 division to an even more detailed level. Both are analytical people with a classic Stanford-educated, Silicon Valley pedigree. After they had their two sons, they found a concrete method to splitting up the duties. They sat down and calculated who was picking the kids up and dropping them off at school, who was doing the laundry.
“We tallied it and saw that I was doing more,” Finley says. So they redistributed tasks more equally. When Finley got up in the middle of the night to breastfeed, Yap would change more diapers.
Some decisions have been more emotional. Finley is the founder and chief executive of an e-commerce start-up, Citrus Lane, based in Mountain View. Until last year, Yap ran a 200-person team at Ventana, a biotechnology company based in Arizona. Yap was flying there on Monday morning, then flying home Friday night.
“It was a job I loved doing,” he says. “But eventually Mauria said, ‘I just can’t take this any more.’ Both of us underestimated the emotional component of me being away. It wasn’t about having enough people around to get everything done, it was about having the partner she was used to having each and every day.”
Finley had to keep her company in Silicon Valley – close to the funders and the best engineers and business development professionals. Working from home wasn’t an option for Yap. So he left, and is now looking for something closer to home.
For other dads who have had great financial success, fatherhood can be viewed as a welcome sabbatical from career, or even a retirement option. Serial entrepreneur Venky Harinarayan sold his latest start-up to Walmart in 2011. He stayed on with the retailer for a year, then left last June. He’s thinking about what his next company will be, but not much. Mainly he’s been hanging out with his three sons – a 12-year-old and four-year-old twins – driving them to school and appointments. One twin recently begged him not to go back to work.
Harinarayan has noticed other men doing the same, including dads who fared well in the Groupon and Facebook IPOs. “There are a bunch of guys just chilling out in Silicon Valley right now,” he says.
While stay-at-home moms are very common in the Valley, consistent with studies that show that wives of men with high-paying, time-consuming jobs are more likely to stop working, there are also more stay-at-home dads in the region compared to other urban areas, says Smith, the author.
Bryan Johnson stopped working after his second daughter was born. His wife, Jocelyn Goldfein, who is now the director of engineering at Facebook, was working at VMware at the time. The business software company had an IPO while she was out on maternity leave, so money was not a concern.
“To me it was always clear that I would stay at home,” Johnson says. “Jocelyn had a higher-powered career. She was moving much more quickly up the ranks and making a lot more money.” Even before the kids were born, Johnson, now 38, got home from work several hours earlier than Goldfein, 37, and cooked dinner and cleaned the house.
“I consider this a key to my success,” Goldfein says. “I get the occasional twinge that I’m not mom of the year. But I also know the girls don’t lack for anything. As a family, we’re ahead of the game.” And for Johnson, spending an afternoon at the park with the girls is preferable to an office.
Same with Michael Wolberg. He has got much more satisfaction from his parental achievements than professional. When Margeaux was a baby, he and Kirsten took her to a restaurant with Kirsten’s parents. They watched as he put her to sleep in less than a minute, by nudging his face close to hers and letting her rub his ears. “It was impressive,” he says.
For him, these bonds are more valuable than any paid work. “When you look past all the stuff that isn’t so pleasant, the diapers and the middle of the night this-or-that, the emergency room trip during the Super Bowl because she thought she had a bead stuck in her nose, that all melts away,” he says. “And you’ve got these wonderful little beings.”
April Dembosky is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent