Sunday, June 26, 2011

Work-life balance rant, and tribute to fathers

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.


Cloud said...

Thanks for the shout out!

You know the thing I find most annoying about the whole work-life balance discussion? The fact that while I get asked about how I arrange my work-life balance all the time (pretty much anytime I do a networking or outreach event with younger scientists)... no one has ever asked my husband the same question. And yet, the accommodations we have made in our careers are essentially the same.

One thing occurs to me, though- I don't think it is that it is more accepted that women take time off for kids things- it is just more expected. I think that any negative consequences from doing these things hit both women and men, but that people are more surprised when men do it. Also, it is more culturally comfortable for women to take any career hit that comes, so perhaps they are more likely to go ahead and do it.

So maybe the answer for men is to start taking the time off. I think this is happening now, just slowly. And I think any woman who wants to see more equal gender roles had damn well better try her best to support men who do take time off. I know that at work, I try to be careful to make sure that the men who report to me know that I am absolutely OK with them taking time to handle family needs.

Alyssa said...

This is a wonderful post. My husband is definitely one to make concessions at work for his family. I started working as of June 1st, and he has worked from home, or taken Evan at work, so that I can attend meetings and other things baby-free.

What bothers him is the assumption that I know more about our child, or spend more time with him. This is hugely evident when visiting doctors - they all speak to me or ask me the questions and completely ignore my husband. Or, when he's out with Evan in public, people will ask him if he's "baby sitting", or isn't it nice he's giving me a break --- he's a parent too. It's equal (actually, I bet he does more!), but society has a hard time believing that.

The bean-mom said...


I think you're right--that maybe it isn't so much acceptable for women to scale back careers for family, as it is *expected* of them to do. And those expectations of course have a lot of negative repercussions... as has been discussed at Historianne's blog and many other places ad nauseum.

So you are absolutely doing the right thing (and of course you would be!) to support those men in your company who need time off for family matters. As you say, there will be no work-life balance for women until there is also work-life balance for men.

Alyssa, my husband probably spends more real hands-on, down-on-the-floor playing time with the kids than I do myself! I think our society does have a problem giving involved fathers their due. Thankfully, it's slowly changing. By the time our children are grown, maybe it really will have changed.

brnjns653 said...
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Subing said...

I don't believe it is the reality that it is extra accepted that girls carry time away for children things- it is just extra expected.

claro mensajes said...

Thanks for the shout out! , I love and like the post , Have a nice day "bean-mom"

Famous Women in Business said...

Good thing you are able to balanced them. It's already positive, so don't change it.