Oh, dear. I didn’t mean to get sucked into the perennial work-life balance meme. I really didn’t.
There’s certainly been temptation of late. From excellent posts by Cloud and others, a crazy-ass op-ed piece in the New York Times and the resulting blogosphere uproar. . . I wanted to say something because, hey, someone is wrong on the Internet (and thanks for that link, Cloud!) but really, last week all I wanted to do was get to bed before midnight.
But something—and I can’t even remember what—has just set me off again.
In all the discussions about women, motherhood, and work-life balance, one point is often brought up: that parental leave and family care and work-life balance are not “women’s issues”; these are issues that affect both mothers and fathers, men and women. I see women bringing up this valid point in various feminist comment threads—but often (not always, of course, but often enough) there is something angrily accusatory about it. The tone is often not Gee, we should also respect men’s rights to parent and have a decent work-life balance but Goddamnit, if men would just step up to the plate this wouldn’t be such a problem! If those lazy-ass dads would just pitch in and change a diaper it would be easier and things would change! Those @!*%! men! They are not helping out and it’s all on us women, all the time!
Look, I don’t doubt that there are douchebag husbands and fathers like that. Thankfully, I don’t really know any of them. This blog post is not about them. It’s about the many fathers I know who struggle every day to share equally in the demands and joys of child-rearing, family care, and domestic chores. The dads who need to be respected for that—just as their wives are. Who turn down certain opportunities at work because they put their families first—just as many women do. The truth is that in American society, it is really more acceptable for women to “opt out” of the workforce for a few years to be a stay-at-home parent than it is for a man to do so. It’s still more acceptable for a woman to duck out of a meeting early, or miss a work event because she is tending to a sick child or attending a parent-teacher conference than it is for a man to do so. When I think about including men in the perennial “work-life balance” discussion, I don’t mean to complain about selfish pigs who aren’t doing their fair share—I want to talk about the men who are trying their best to do their share, and talk about how to make it easier for them to do so. How to make it easier for everyone to do so.
This is not your father’s generation, as the old saw has it. Even the fathers I know who have stay-at-home wives are incredibly involved and committed to sharing in childcare duties. Two of the postdocs in my lab are fathers with young children and stay-at-home wives; they both get into work at an ungodly hour (6 am) so that they can leave early and have dinner with their families and see their kids before the littlest ones go to sleep. They coach soccer and spend as much time as they can with their children. When his kids were recently sick, one of the postdocs took time off from work to stay home with them—even though his wife wasn’t working and was home anyway. He knew that she needed a break and some help—three kids sick at once!—so he helped out. Somehow, I don’t see this as common among male scientists and workers of a generation ago.
My brother-in-law is seriously considering quitting his job to stay home and be primary caregiver for his soon-to-be born baby daughter. My parents are absolutely horrified by the idea.
And I haven’t even talked about my husband, and all he does for his daughters and for me. We absolutely share in home and childcare duties—sometimes it tips more his way for a while, sometimes it tips more my way. Overall, it works out to 50-50 (although it can be so exhausting that it often feels more like 120/120).
So to end this rant. . . There are committed fathers who want to share equally in childrearing and family life. It’s not just a matter of haranguing men to take more responsibility. It’s a matter of making it more possible for them to take more responsibility—of offering reasonable paternity leave as well as maternity leave, of making it more socially acceptable for a man to ease his work hours or take time off from a job to care for his family. Although yes, I am also aware that in the United States of America, a country with no paid maternity leave and no paid sick leave, the idea of a paid paternity leave and more humane working hours lies in the same realm as unicorns and leprechauns. *
*Because in the end, you know (and as GMP eloquently pointed out in a blog post) no one really cares.