NYT: How Can We Get Men to do More Childcare?

The New York Times has a forum here with the provocative title “How Can We Get Men to Do More at Home?” (New York Times, 7/6/11).  Despite its headline that proves to a certainty that the paper has little idea of the realities of the topic under discussion, at least a couple of the commentators do.

That said, they also miss a lot.  They miss things that anyone with a firm grasp on the subject would at least mention.

The setup for the piece is pretty much what we’d expect: women do more paid work than before, so why don’t men keep up by doing more at home.

As two of the commentators note, they do.  Men still don’t do as much child care and other domestic tasks as women, but women still don’t do as much paid work.  And when the two are added together, they come out equal as even a casual glance at the American Time Use Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics would tell them.

But that’s not part of the NYT forum, which I count as odd since it’s so obviously germane to the topic.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the forum.

Neil Gilbert of Cal Berkeley points out some obvious things about the difference between the classes who chatter about work and family and the vast majority of parents who don’t have the means or the desire to hire nannies or daycare.  His unstated point is that for them, someone has to stay home with the kids and in fact, someone will probably want to do so given the fact that kids are at home full time for about five years.  That leaves the parent 30-40 years in which to enjoy the wonders of paid work.

Jeremy Adam Smith, author of “The Daddy Shift” writes that greater workplace equality has indeed resulted in greater equality in childcare at home (contrary to the implicit view of the NYT).  He points to “structural and interpersonal sexism” as one of the culprits.

Studies consistently show that 80 percent to 90 percent of mothers still expect fathers to serve as primary breadwinners (and very few will consider supporting a stay-at-home dad). At work, only 7 percent of American men have access to paid parental leave, among other structural limitations.

Ute Frevert notes that our attitudes change more slowly than do our laws and institutions (I don’t agree).  Her culprit is children’s books “that lead present-day women to feel responsible for the social and emotional set-up of the family.  This comes in handy for men…” who, according to her, leap at the chance to stay at work and avoid childcare.  She hopes our “mentalities” on the subject of work and childcare will change, and, although both men and women need to work on that, “[m]en”s education is thus badly needed. If they resist change, our striving is bound to fail.”

Andrea Doucet of Brock University in Canada has a suggestion that, while sincerely intended, simply won’t do much to address the problem.  It’s non-transferable parental leave for fathers.  She cites countries in which it’s been tried and high percentages of dads take off work to be with their kids.  That’s nice, but the leave is only one or two months depending on the country.

Needless to say, a month or so of leave for dad will not impact the long-term gender imbalance in childcare in the least.  That’s particularly true since mothers in all those countries have much longer periods of leave than do the fathers.  Add to that the fact that the prospect of the U.S. passing laws requiring parental leave at the bottom of a depressed economy is about as likely as the Houston Astros winning the World Series this year.

Sandrine Devillard sees that women “remain at the center of family life,” and that they seem to have an aversion to doing what it takes to get to the top of the heap in the corporate world.  Devillard sees this as a problem to be solved.  (I see it as a suggestion that women have their priorities in order better than men.)  Her solution?  “Visible commitment by top executives and programs to develop women as leaders stands at the heart of any attempt at effective gender diversity.”  Needless to say, if every top management spot in the country were occupied by a woman, it would make no discernible impact on the time spent at home and at work by the tens of millions of other men and women in the workplace.

That’s not all the commentators, but you get the picture.  For what is presented by the Times as a serious inquiry into the “problem” of why men do more paid work and women do more domestic work, this is thin gruel indeed.

Predictably, not one of the commentators flipped the coin over and looked at the other side.  Not one made the simple, obvious remark that if women want to do less at home, they need to do more at work so the dads can tend the kids.  The single-minded notion that it’s men who must do more at home ignores the fact that women must do more in the traditionally “man’s world.”

Equally predictable is the unquestioned idea that work-family conflict exists for women but not men.  As Devillard wrote, “[t]his “double burden” of work and family responsibility weigh (sic) heavily on women…”  That’s the narrative we’ve been read for the last 30 years or so; “work, employers, society, daycare, etc. must all change because women are stressed with their “double burden.”

So the Families and Work Institute’s recent finding that for some 30 years, it’s been men more than women who’ve suffered from work/family conflict, must have come as quite a shock – too great a shock apparently for Devillard or any of the commentators to mention.

A final oversight is child custody post-divorce.  Divorce is common, and people know it.  The divorce rate in the U.S. is over 40%.  What’s also common (far more so than divorce) is mothers receiving primary custody and fathers being kicked to the “visitation” curb.  That too is well-known to fathers and mothers alike.

So why would dads knock themselves out doing childcare when they know the high probability of divorce and the vanishingly small probability that they’ll play any meaningful role in the children’s lives they’ve so diligently helped raise?

The answer many would give is that, if fathers opt out of childcare while married, they can’t expect a judge to fix it for them.  That would be reasonable if we didn’t see so many hands-on dads get the same treatment that their less involved peers do.  It would be reasonable if we didn’t know that a single allegation of abuse, whether founded or not, can be all it takes to deprive the best father of his child.

It also ignores the fact that we already have plenty of evidence judges can use to give dads equal time with their kids.  In the vast majority of cases, there is no impediment, factual or legal, to their doing just that, but they don’t.

The fact is that children don’t need their fathers less because Dad spent 50 hours a week at work and Mom only 30.  Children don’t care about that and it doesn’t adversely affect their outcomes.  But family courts routinely identify the “primary parent” (i.e., the one the father’s work allowed to stay home with the kids) and give primary custody to her.

We can’t realistically ask fathers to sideline careers in the vain hope that, if divorce comes along, a judge will notice.  Chances are he won’t.

So, while some of the pieces in the Times forum have merit (Gilbert’s and Smith’s notably), the exercise generally is awash in outdated notions of female victimization and male failings.

And its central organizing principle – that women really want to chuck this motherhood thing in favor of corporate striving – is loony enough to be certified.  Here’s a hint.  In essentially all mammal species including our own, the female does either all or most of the childcare.  That is not a patriarchal construct of gender; it’s a biological fact of life.

I’m all for women working and earning more; I’m all for men spending more time with the kids.  But when individual men and women choose to address the work/family balance their way and not mine, I’m not one to criticize.

I guess that’s what makes me different from the New York Times.

Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *