What Do ‘Walk-Away’ Moms Mean About Dads’ Role in the Family?

The roles of men and women in the American family are changing, at least somewhat.  That means societal concepts of those roles and it’s judgments about male and female behavior are changing too.  Unsurprisingly, that leads to confusion on the part of both sexes about how to be a father or a mother.

That’s the big picture of what Dr. Peggy Drexler tries to deal with here (Huffington Post, 8/1/11).  Unfortunately she comes off as confused as everyone else.

We’ve seen pieces like hers before.  In a nutshell, they argue that a father who’s disconnected from his children gets a free pass from society, but a mother who does so is scorned.  There’s probably a germ of truth to that.  It can’t seriously be argued that our society looks at fathers and mothers the same.

And indeed, fathers do much more paid work than mothers do, which takes them out of the home more than mothers.  Mothers opt out of work, either permanently or for a period of years, much more than do fathers.  That’s all well documented, and both shapes and reflects societal expectations of mothers and fathers.

Since those expectations apply to each sex, it doesn’t make much sense to look only at one, but that’s what Drexler (like many others) does.  So for her, leaving your kids is something that fathers get to do and mothers don’t, due to some unidentified form of societal shaming.

If she’d taken a minute to view things from the dad’s point of view, she’d have noticed that fathers generally don’t want what one woman Drexler cites called “the freedom the arrangement would give her.”  That freedom Drexler said “intoxicated” her.

But most fathers don’t want to be away from their kids or “free” of them.  They want to be with them.  Most mothers do too.  So exactly who are these women who want no part of the children they bring into the world?

Well, that’s hard to tell because, while she writes at length about them, Drexler nowhere tries to identify just who these mothers are.  Are there a lot of them or a few?  Are they older, younger, better educated or less so, urban or rural, white, black or hispanic?  She doesn’t say.

Drexler does cite a study claiming that there are 100,000 “walk-away moms” in the United Kingdom, which is frankly very few, particularly when compared to the number who do the opposite, i.e. stay at home in order to care for the children.

In the U.S., the Census Bureau puts the number of stay-at-home-moms at about 5.7 million, and far understates the real number at that.  (To be called a SAHM, a mother needs to have done no paid work for the previous year and had her main task be the rearing of children.  Therefore, if a mother worked even one day out of the previous 12 months, she’s not categorized as a SAHM.)

Plus, Drexler seems to be confusing mothers who literally walk away from their children to pursue other activities with those who merely work a lot.

Women in combat. Women in space. Women taking national and international assignments for their companies. Women pursuing opportunities, passions and — in the case of female soldiers — a sense of patriotic duty. All of that, of course, is simply women following paths long open to men.

Aside from the fact that Drexler apparently believes that women serve in combat, which they don’t according to military regulation, she’s right; women are indeed doing all of those things and more.  But she elides the difference between that behavior and “walking away” from children

She views working long hours to support children and leaving them altogether to be just “a little further along the continuum of choice over children.”  No, it’s not.  Bringing home the bacon is a loving, caring act, not to say a necessary one.  It is that irrespective of who performs it, mother, father or both.

Leaving a child is different.  It’s not loving, it’s not supportive, it’s not caring.  It’s probably selfish.

The fact that Dr. Drexler fails to see that speaks volumes, and one of the things it says is that she’s trafficking in the same stereotypes she believes she’s attacking.  After all, if she really believes that working long hours is just another form of child abandonment, then she must agree with courts that routinely penalize fathers for doing just that.

Until Drexler realizes that what fathers typically do for their children is just as valuable as what mothers typically do, she’s just recycling the same old stereotypes, all the while bemoaning the fact that they’re not changing.

And while we’re on the subject of fathers and divorce court, I wonder where Drexler and the women she cites get the idea that losing your children to the other spouse constitutes freedom.  She refers to at least two “walk-away” mothers, but doesn’t tell us whether they’re paying child support.

Fathers use a lot of terms to describe the system of child support in this country, but “freedom” isn’t one of them.  Words like “slavery” and “debt peonage” come up pretty often, but not “freedom.”

And her failure to look at any but the distaff side of the issue blinds Drexler to the fact that fathers who care for children have at least as much difficulty with society’s expectations as do walk-away mothers.  But for her the coin has only one side and that side shows only the difficulties women face.

All of that is too bad, because the interplay of changing times, changing roles and social mores and accepted ways of being can be interesting stuff.  But the fascinating ideas those things can generate will never be served by ignoring half of the population or half of the problem.

Contrary to what Drexler and the others may think, this is not about women alone.  Women alone do not suffer the confusion of changing sex roles.  She might consider the concept that men and women are in this together.

What’s true is that over the course of many decades, we’ve moved much closer to equality of the sexes than ever before.  What’s also true is that that movement has consequences far beyond those anticipated when the movement began.  One of those consequences is that women can and should do more paid work than before; another is that fathers can and should do more childcare.  And each can and should reap the benefits of having done so.

Well, we’ve done a lot of the former, and very little of the latter.  As Drexler rightly points out, our society “is easily accustomed to women in challenging, male-dominated and even dangerous jobs…”  But we’re nowhere near being accustomed to fathers getting primary custody of children.

Aside from the irony that those who most actively promote women in the workplace also oppose fathers’ rights, courts, laws and innumerable practices stand between fathers and children.  In so doing, they stand between women and greater achievement in paid work.

Society has gotten ahead of itself.  It’s leapt forward on women’s rights without checking with its people to see if they were ready to call fathers and mothers equal.  So far the answer is ‘no.’  If that’s how it stays, we’ll inevitably see the erosion of women’s gains.

I would never argue for any parent to walk away from any child.  But when it comes to changing roles in the family, strangely, Drexler’s “walk-away” moms, may be heading in the right direction.

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