Human beings are a bi-parental species; we’re biologically engineered for both parents to take part in childcare. We know this because both sexes have hormonal responses to pregnancy and childbirth. And yet we as a society continue to resist paternal equality in childcare. Those facts raise some obvious questions. This is a good article (Babble.com, 7/11/11). It takes a stab at answering the question “why do mothers resist turning over childcare to fathers?” And just by asking it, the writer shows she’s far ahead of many others who write about that issue but can’t read themselves out of the ‘mothers good/dads bad’ narrative that’s so common. It was just a couple of years ago that Parenting Magazine did an online hatchet-job on fathers.
It asked readers to fill out a survey about who did the most childcare in their households, them or their husbands. Like all such self-selected opinion polls, their respondents were overwhelmingly cranks with an ax to grind. As such, the survey was useless as actual science. It’s only function was to denigrate dads, which I suspect was the point all along. So maybe the Babble.com piece is a sign of the times. After all, we just saw Time Magazine finally getting around to admitting that the whole idea that women but not men do a “second shift” every day was wrong from the start. That notion holds that women work for pay just like men, but then have to come home and do the second shift, i.e. childcare, cooking, housework, etc. In vain did people like me point to facts revealed by many different sources that showed that, when paid and unpaid work are combined, men and women spend statistically identical amounts of time each day. Men do more paid work and women do more childcare. So it was nice to see Time finally notice what’s been obvious to many of us for years. Into the bargain, Lisa Belkin at the New York Times picked up the Time article, giving it still broader exposure. The Babble.com piece is light; it barely touches on some of the reasons why mothers tend to grab the lion’s share of the childcare. But tellingly, the author, Lyz Lenz, couches her inquiry in her admiration for her husband as a hands-on dad.
The first time I left my daughter and husband alone together was when she was 5 weeks old. And despite the fact that my husband is frequently a better parent than I am, I carefully made a list of all the things my husband could do to calm her down. Even as I wrote the list, I realized it was ridiculous. Half of the items on the list — holding her arms down, snuggling her head in the crook of your elbow — were things my husband discovered. Plus, the list was futile, since her fussing didn”t fluster him. She could scream in his face for hours and he”d gently rock her the whole time. I made the list anyway — and added instructions for thawing and preparing breast milk and emergency contact information. My husband could barely suppress his eye rolls.
The point being that her husband is perfectly capable, perfectly loving and Lenz is perfectly aware of the fact. So why does she have such a hard time letting him be the dad she knows he is? It’s a good question and one I applaud her for asking. We’ll never get to gender equality in parenting until we answer it. And we’ll never get to gender equality in the workplace until we get to gender equality in parenting. The author’s answer to the question is no more than the obvious – nature and nurture. Part of the reason women want to be mothers and to actively play that role once they are is a biological imperative. It’s the same imperative that has motivated mothers in all human cultures we know about at all times in human history. It’s the same imperative that impels females in all mammal species to mate, bear young and care for them. Our hormonal makeup produces procreative behavior and childcare. It always has. Given that most powerful of urges and the evolutionary need to produce and care for children, it should come as no surprise that our various human cultures have always placed enormous value on mothers and their care of children. Ours is no exception. The astonishing array of cultural messages about the value of mothers and the fulfillment women get from motherhood reflects, not a patriarchal desire to keep women down, but the importance of children and childcare to mothers and our society. Lenz touches on all of that without drawing any hard and fast conclusions. She doesn’t need to. Her goal is to get mothers to think about why they may be inclined to marginalize dad in childcare. They do it because biologically motherhood is deeply ingrained and because culturally it’s reinforced. But if they’re aware of their motivations, they can change their behavior and let dad in on the joys and frustrations of parenting. Lenz never uses the term “maternal gatekeeping,” the process by which mothers allow fathers to take part in childcare, prevent it or regulate their involvement, the concept is never far away.
Hogan Hilling, author of two books, Pacifi(her): What She”s Thinking When She”s Pregnant and Rattled: What He”s Thinking When You”re Pregnant, vehemently disagrees. “Look at the rise in at-home dads,’ he says. “That alone should be proof that men want to spend time with their kids.’ Yet, despite their desire to be part of the process, Hilling says many men feel left out of the childbearing and childrearing process. So fathers give up trying to help because they are told they aren”t doing it right or their wives just redo their efforts.
In doing so, men, like women, are in part conforming to cultural expectations. The same culture that encourages women to be mothers, discourages men from hands-on fathering. We’re told we’re incompetent to do it, uninterested in it and dangerous if we try it. Lenz knows better and says so. Her husband’s a great dad and she knows that if she’d just “get out of the way,” he’d be a lot happier and more relaxed. But she finds that hard. Giving the childcare over to him, even for a little while, is hard for her. It’s hard because she’s wired to do it herself, both biologically and culturally. Her recognition of her own needs and her understanding of her husband’s autonomy and capability are a pretty fair description of where we are on the long and unnecessarily hard road toward parental equality. Thanks to Hogan for the heads-up.