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Apr 22, 2022

Paul Sullivan: Calling All Lead Dads

Heidi Stevens

Paul Sullivan once hung up on Laura Tyson, former head of the Council of Economic Advisers for the Clinton administration. 

It was 2015. Sullivan was writing his weekly Wealth Matters column for The New York Times and, as parents are wont to do, taking work calls from his car outside his daughter’s ballet class. Mid-interview, the family pediatrician called with test results and, well, Sullivan figured whatever the White House economist was saying could wait.

“See, during the past 13 years, I’ve had another secret full-time job,” Sullivan wrote in his farewell note to readers. “My secret other job is that I’m the lead parent — and don’t call me Mr. Mom. In my house of three daughters, three dogs, three cats and three fish, I’m in charge, sort of.”

“Most of us want community. You want to be able to talk about something you love. You get some sense of self out of that. You get some joy out of that. You get some relaxation out of that.”

He left The Times to start The Company of Dads. It’s an online community for lead dads—men who may or may not work outside the home, but who take on the bulk of the parenting responsibilities and support their spouses or partners in their careers. 

Sullivan hosts a weekly podcast on topics ranging from masculinity and money to COVID safety on the playground. He offers dad hacks, videos, a weekly newsletter and message boards. Eventually he plans to host in-person meet-ups for lead dads. 

“This would not have been possible without COVID,” Sullivan, whose daughters are 12, 9 and 4, told me. “Work and family were always intertwined, but we tried to keep that secret. That’s just not possible anymore, and the best companies, the savviest companies, are already reacting to this. And the reason they’re reacting to this is the high performing employees who want to be able to be a lead dad or a lead mom are going to walk out the door and they’re going to get a great offer somewhere else.”

Lead dads have always been part of the culture, Sullivan said, but they’ve rarely had a space to talk about it freely and in community.

“I know a lot of lead dads in their 20s and 30s who are very open about it,” he said. “Men in their 60s and 70s who were lead dads have stories about not being accepted at all and just pushing on because they didn’t care. They wanted to support their spouse and they loved their kids. But most of us want community. You want to be able to talk about something you love. You get some sense of self out of that. You get some joy out of that. You get some relaxation out of that.”

Any and all dads are welcome: “We’re not checking Lead Dad I.D.’s at the door,” Sullivan writes on the site. “If you’re testing out a Lead Dad role, you’re welcome to join. If you’re not a Lead Dad but want to learn some of our hacks for parenting and relationships, come on in. And if you’re a working mother who needs her husband to step up and be a Lead Dad, by all means look around and get him to join.”

Sullivan says true progress will be parents feeling empowered to pause work to spend regular ol’ time with their kids — and tell the truth about it.

“I would like to make it acceptable that you can say, ‘I’m taking two hours to just be with my daughter—take a walk, read a book together, go get some ice cream.’ I think it’s just as pernicious if it always has to be an event. ‘Oh, she’s going to go play flute in a recital. ‘It’s parent-teacher conferences.’ That’s cover for us not having that deeper conversation about parenting. We owe it to the workforce, to ourselves, to parents to talk openly about all of this.”


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