MODERN FATHERHOOD ( a book in progress)
A QUIET REVOLUTION AND THE DIVISION OF LABOR IN PARENTING
There are many books, essays, and Mom to Mom conversations about the unequal division of labor in parenting today. “Why,” ask many women, “do mother’s wind up completely overwhelmed when a child is added to a couple’s life while many men continue to mostly live the life they lived before?”
In fact, this question is likely at the root of most marital conflict in the years following the transition to parenthood. Many young modern couples who envisioned an equable division of tasks find that they fall at least partly into stereotypical roles. The result is that working women find themselves with two full-time jobs and become resentful of a partner who often doesn’t even realize how much of the burden he is not helping to carry.
If this woman finds herself too exhausted to carry the double load, she may choose to leave the world of paid work or cut her hours. But the work of parenthood is not an 8hr a day, 5 day a week job. It’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, after year, after year…without lunch breaks or vacations or sick days or mental health days or really anything even like a bathroom break! Nor any pay. Nor any accumulation of social security benefits.
It requires the mundane, the repetitive, the boring and insight, research, skill acquisition, flexibility, careful thought, and constant supervision. Oh, and sacrifice. You may try to avoid that part but in my experience the conflict between your needs and your child’s will come up again and again.
You will wind up with little choice. Your child will need you in some deep way. You will fight to protect your own needs, but ultimately you will sacrifice your work, your career, your interests, your income, even your social security income in order to meet the needs of your young and growing children. This story unfolds again and again every day. True. All true.
At this point many fathers are rightfully feeling frustrated with this whole line of reasoning. The disconnected dad is a bit of an old cliché. Many of today’s fathers are changing diapers at 2 am feedings, dropping-off or picking-up kids from daycare, and pitching in with the laundry in ways that their fathers may not have done.
Others may feel upset that many of their contributions go unacknowledged. They say, “I mow the lawn every week. I built the new fence. I handle the trash. I researched the new car and talked with the bank. I unload the dishwasher and move the laundry along. I’m involved!”
And…the burden of financial responsibility truly weights heavy on a working dad. And, “If she’d just stop micromanaging, and let me do it my way then I’d be more inclined to help.” True. All true.
So what else is going on here? I believe there are three things at the core of these issues.
The first issue is that the transition from adult to parent is huge. I mean really, really HUGE! Yet, we don’t talk about it with friends, and we don’t learn about it in school. It’s a secret and un-named initiation rite to full adulthood.
You think you’re an adult when you decide to have kids and then the baby arrives and…WHACK! You’re hit with this time of massive personal growth, massive life change, massive loss of the old-you while you grow into the new-more-mature-you. We give our children about 12 years of American History but in most cases not one single parenting or parenthood course before they graduate high school.
We have books and books on infancy, toddlerhood, early school years, tweeners, teenagers, young adults and…the midlife crisis, second careers, menopause, mentorship, and retirement. But wait. We skipped a section in there…you know, those years when we undergo a metamorphosis from self-focused-adult to the fully-mature-adult stage called: parenthood.
Both men and women fall into this stage of life with no real roadmap, no previous review, no real clue about what they are going thru. We don’t even give this time of transition a name! If you say the word, “puberty” we have a whole gestalt of what that can entail for a person. If we say, “mid-life crisis” we have an idea of the feelings and challenges a person in that stage of life might be struggling to resolve.
But the transition from adult to parent? It is fraught with many predictable conflicts, yet we don’t really have a name for this transition and we don’t have legions of books about it.
Sociologists have created the words "matrescence" and "patresence" for this transition. It’s supposed to be a nod to the word adolescence. But I don’t like the division of the sexes in that choice of wording. Maybe we could try “parentalization” or “the obligational phase” or “sacrificialhood” or ??
We also have parenting books galore but very little on parenthood. Personal growth is always a mix of loss as well as gain. That “loss” component is often painful. We arrive at the door of parenthood, ignorant. With babe in arms, we meet this sudden strange mixture of pain and angst and joy and hope.
But we don’t really know what’s happening or who to blame it on.
So, problem number one is that you have two clueless adults who’ve suddenly hit this puberty-level stage of life change and don’t even realize what’s really going on.
The fact that women have long been expected to sacrifice their needs for their children’s needs means that they are more likely to have absorbed some insight into motherhood as they grew up. And they certainly will have absorbed the sense of obligation and the internal expectation to master “motherhood.”
The fact that many men have not grown up with this kind of obligatory awareness of fatherhood means that they are often truly starting from ground zero. “How do you hold a baby so its head doesn’t flop off?”
And neither newbie parent is likely to have any idea of what they may want to ultimately morph into especially within the context of their parenthood relationship to each other. What does a “good father” look like for the mother part of the team? What does a “good mother” look like for the father part of the team?
Who am I trying to grow into? At work I may want to be the CEO or the lead carpenter or a business owner. I can make a list that defines the characteristics that I need to bring to those roles. But what about successful…parent? Co-parent? What skills and characteristics does a successful co-parent have? Who is that person?
This brings us to problem number two. The fact that women have a bit of situational awareness from growing up female often leads them to the parenting role of “Family-CEO.” The fact that men often lack this small bit of situational awareness means they are, understandably, terrified and happy to cede the position of Family-CEO to their wife who has now also become, “the mother.”
So, instead the father takes on the role of the “Family-Laborer.” A laborer will do what you ask him to do. And then when you ask him to do the next thing, he’ll do that too. But he bears none of the responsibility of planning, and research, and scheduling, and delegating, and, and, and…that the CEO has to carry.
Most modern women do not want a Family-Laborer. They want a Co-Professional. They want someone who will step-up, step-in, take initiative, learn how to parent, and be an active participant in the growth, development, and maintenance of the family. Even stay-at-home-moms, want and need a co-parent not a helper.
This is where the resentment comes in. Mothers want their children’s father to independently notice that Janie has been glum lately. And then to independently talk with Janie about what’s going on. And then to self-initiate a google search on “childhood friendships” to find insight into how he can help. And then to start a discussion with his co-parent about what he noticed, discussed, discovered. And then to make a plan with his co-parent for what if anything to do.
This is the level of involvement that mothers feel is simply the basics of fatherhood and they expect no less from themselves. It’s basic parenting at the professional level. Which is why women do not generally feel that handstands and extraordinary praise are warranted for mowing the lawn and folding the laundry.
Many women will also see a big distinction between “housework” and “childcare.” If you are grocery shopping by yourself then you are engaged in an “adult activity.” It might not be the funnest thing in the world, but you have no one to supervise, no one to parent/teach/raise, and the freedom to move about unencumbered. This is called, A Break!
The same is true of laundry, vacuuming, lawn mowing, car repair, etc.. If you get to do it, without supervising/ raising kids at the same time, then it’s an adult activity. It’s much more challenging to teach your kids to unload the dishwasher than it is to do it yourself! Moms want dads to teach the kids how to unload the dishwasher…and then follow thru again, and again, and again. Even when it’s not fun.
So, why is it so hard for some men to recognize the need for them to grow into a Professional Co-Parent as opposed to a Day-Laborer? Well, this brings us to issue number 3.
You see, what I call the “Quiet Revolution” is still really, really quiet. Men have been just as constrained by societal expectations of toughness, manliness, imperviousness, king-of-the-hilliness, and master of his domaininess as women ever were constrained by rules of femininity.
Many child development experts who are concerned with boys development will discuss a transition that hits many boys very young. Toddler and pre-school boys will engage with empathy, will express emotions of joy and sadness freely, and will be growing and developing their emotional understanding.
But often around 4-5 years of age, they begin to shut down. They try to “not” cry. This can occur even in boys raised in open, supportive, liberal homes. As they grow, they internalize outside pressures to conform to tough masculine rules. The emotions, the connections, the friendships, the range of allowed and expressible thought becomes narrower and narrower as they absorb society’s rules of acceptable maleness.
More and more, studies show that this change is not some biologically predetermined “male-brain” trait. This is learned. And it’s painful for boys.
Furthermore, as reported by the NYT in “Traditional Masculinity Can Hurt Boys, Say New APA Guidelines,” by Jacey Fortin, it has been so ingrained in our culture that until very recently even the American Psychological Association “did not have a guide for working with males, in part because they (i.e. white males) were historically considered the norm.”
The APA identified traditionally masculine “themes like anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” They further “posit that males who are socialized to conform to “traditional masculinity ideology” are often negatively affected in terms of mental and physical health.” “We see that men have higher suicide rates, men have more cardiovascular disease and men are lonelier as they get older.” “The primary purpose of the new guidelines, said Fredric Rabinowitz, one of the lead writers (of the APA guidelines) and a professor of psychology at the University of Redlands, was to help men and boys lead happy, healthy lives.”
Dr. Judy, (who) teaches about boys’ psychosocial development at Stanford University and is the author of “When Boys Become Boys,” says that, “When boys and men challenge patriarchal constructions of gender, they’re at risk of being perceived as failures, or as weak.” (NYT, by Jacey Fortin )
And perhaps this is the core reason why this revolution is so quiet. It is very hard for men to violate the code of masculinity and learn to define themselves in different ways. A white male patriarchy has been the most powerful dominant group for some time. Female and matriarchal characteristics have been seen as “lesser” and “lower ranking” for a long time. Thus, for a male to embrace a quality associated with women is to demote himself to a “weaker” and “lower ranking” identity.
As Billy Porter suggested on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it was ultimately okay for women to put on pants because that identified them with the male patriarchy and power. But for a man to put on a dress…? It’s just a piece of fabric sewn in a different way. Right? Unfortunately, a dress still associates a male with “lesser females” and therefore becomes much less “okay.”
But the next generation may help us with this because some of the historically toughest and edgiest purveyors of culture are speaking up in protest. In an interview for TME, musician Sam Fender discussed the huge success of this single, “Dead Boys.”
“It’s a song about male suicide, particularly in my hometown,” Fender told NME. “I lost some friends very close to me because of that. This song came from that place…I spoke to (people) from all different parts of the country have all got a connection to someone they’ve lost. It really opened my eyes to how much of an issue it is….”
Fender went on to say,
“I genuinely think it’s toxic masculinity and the idea of what a man is supposed to be. This really archaic, out of date idea of how a man is supposed to conduct himself. I think that’s what kills men, genuinely. I have personally struggled with that, growing up and being a young lad in 2018 in Newcastle. I think everyone does. There are a lot of challenges we are facing; like how you are supposed to react to emotional stress. I’ve got no shame in it. I was told not to cry as a kid. It’s that sort of backwards attitude, so when we feel bad we feel ashamed or we feel like embarrassed…”
“I remember specifically for me as a kid growing up or as a young teenager if I ever cried or got upset in front of anybody, I would be so humiliated. I’d be so angry with myself for being upset and then it would just become this catch 22 situation. It’s that attitude that stops men from talking and stops men from being like able to turn to each other. Me and my mates are very, very close. We all talk about our problems – especially as we’ve got older. But I don’t think a lot of people have that. Men just need to be open and not emasculate one another.”
Many other musicians are also speaking out about the culture they feel has been so toxic to them and their friends. On Jan 11, 2019 Jim Farber for the NYT wrote, “The New Angry Young Men: Rockers Who Rail Against ‘Toxic Masculinity.” In addition to talking about Sam Fender, the article reviewed other musicians who are speaking up about the need for change:
“The new album by the brutalist British band Idles, “Joy as an Act of Resistance,” uses toxic masculinity as a sustained theme. It was a top 5 hit in Britain and has garnered some of the most awed reviews of the year.”
“As It Is, a neo-emo band from Brighton, England, released a single last June, “The Stigma (Boys Don’t Cry),” that attacks traditional male restrictions.”
“And Henry Jamison, a singer-songwriter in Vermont, addresses what Rolling Stone magazine calls “violent interpretations of masculinity” in “Gloria Duplex,” an album due out next month.”
Jordan Stevens from Rizzle Kicks found himself confronting the rules of masculinity when he was unable to grieve the death of his stillborn daughter. In an interview with TME he said,
“This idea that male vulnerability is undesirable – it covers up the pain of so many troubled boys who wanted more hugs from their mum or have missed the company of their dad, or were victims of abuse or loneliness or just generally felt as though they had no time, space, company or even the words to describe how they felt.”
He went on to say,
“What’s even more upsetting is that often when men allow themselves to feel this pain, it’s so new to them that they kill themselves. We live in a society where men feel safer killing themselves than acknowledging pain.”
“Toxic masculinity is everywhere. It’s up to us men to fix this”
So, our angry young men are speaking out about toxic masculinity, losing friends to suicide, and wanting a different male standard for themselves and their children. And in my mind this is one of the issues standing in the way of gender equality in parental division of labor.
In addition, we need to continue the efforts that work to promote family life before corporate life. When men only gain status thru the work world or with machismo posturing then how can we expect them to build their sense of worth and masculinity around meeting family caregiver needs.
So, with new parenthood we have:
- Huge life changing transitions for both mom and dad that is full of unexpected loss and revival of old emotional baggage.
- Mothers have an ideal for the New Fatherhood that involves a “Professional Co-parent.” But fathers can’t see that role and feel pressured to be family providers in a working world that does not allow them to commit time to family.
- A persistence of repressive ideals of masculinity restrict many men from learning the joys of caregiving.
But I realized while writing this and speaking with other parents that there more than 3 issues. There’s also:
- The overwhelming quantity of parenting skills to learn while sleep deprived. Would be nice if we valued this enough to teach it in school…!!
- No family or community safety net. If both parents work then who takes care of the kids?
- No governmental funding for good childcare. Like I said, If both parents work then who takes care of the kids becomes a conflict.
- No societal expectations or provisions for fathers to take extended time off work for early childcare. Sweden made some parental leave designated as for father’s only. This has resulted in businesses expecting all employees to take extended parental leave at some point. Sweden also now has “Latte Dads” who gather in parks pushing strollers.
- We have expectations of prolonged work hours for professionals and hourly workers are often expected to be “on-call” for additional work as needed. In addition, part-time workers are often dealing with work schedules that change weekly making childcare arrangements impossible. If ALL adult time is committed to work then working parents can’t parent. Apparently, the Danes all leave work at 4:30! They are not expected to devote every waking hour to work.
- We have a culture which is really focused on work, profit, capitalism, and business needs to such an extent that NO space exists for the family. We do NOT have “family values.” We have “business values.”
- The Legislature is dominated by men who continue to build institutions and spend money on a “business values” culture. Whereas women might be more inclined to spend money on institutions that create space for families within our culture.
- Women’s expectations and contributions have changed but society has not figured out how to redistribute all the unpaid work they have traditionally done. This leaves a fulltime vacuum of home and childcare needs that women feel obliged to pick up along with their other full-time job.
- The glorification and near holyification of the utterly self-sacrificing mother has created a twisted and dysfunctional ideal of motherhood that many women still feel obliged to attain. This can result in women who are unwilling to stand for their own needs or let go their sacrifice to allow fathers and others in.
So how do we fix this? I have some ideas on both the political-social justice scale and also on the practical “we are having a baby now” relationship scale.
Let’s start with the “we can do right now in our relationship” things. Some of these may feel strangely radical but I’m quite serious about you actually doing them.
- Both parents or parents-to-be should change their last name to a combined last name. You can flip a coin over who’s name comes first. Marriage is a partnership and families are teams. Build your team’s new name by combining both names. We are not surprised if a woman changes her last name “as a sacrifice for the team.” But somehow feel that is asking “too much” for a man. It’s not. Nor is it somehow emasculating. It’s a commitment to active participation in the new team you are building together. You can combine the names any way you want. You can hyphenate or take part of each name and make a new one. Give the kids the same combined last name. Now you are a team and you’ve both joined with equal commitment.
2. Before the baby arrives, sit down and start brainstorming separate lists of homecare work and childcare work. Dads-to-be must participate in this list developing process! Do a google search. Read a book or two. Ask your friends with kids about all the things that need to go on those lists including all the mental work of family life. It doesn’t matter if this list changes over time. It will. Now, go over your lists together and just talk about the tasks that are there and what they include.
3. Next, work together to make a realistic assessment of the childcare resources that are available to you. Start talking, out loud with each other, about how you each imagine things working on a nitty, gritty scale.
4. This one is going to sound crazy radical…but it’s really not. Plan on bottle feeding your first child. (Gasp! Did she really just say that?! Yes. I did.) You may pump and feed breastmilk or use formula or both. And by the time your second child rolls around your parental division of childcare labor will be fairly well established so breastfeed all you want. But on that first child, consider bottle feeding as a priority. Don’t worry, you’re not depriving them of some sacrosanct, holy, experience that’s going to ensure their eternal happiness. You’re just giving them a different experience with many of its own benefits…including a deeper connection to daddy.
Here’s why. Breast feeding can become a major impediment to a father who is trying to figure out how to be a co-professional parent. If both partners are equally capable of nourishing the baby then you can both sit down and learn how to bottle feed. And after they eat they poop, and they need burping, and they spit up, and these all become skills that daddyo masters too. If the baby is crying…well either parent can respond because either can feed or change or comfort the child. Furthermore, if both parents are learning together it can pull you together.
There are statistical benefits to breast feeding. (Most of which you can get with pumping and bottle feeding.) However, I truly believe that at this point in our culture, the benefits of drawing a new father into a more active parenting role far out weigh those of breast feeding. I know, I know. You’re shocked. Gasp! I have blasphemed breastfeeding the holy of holys.
Nevertheless, some possible, non-scientific benefits include: more equable sharing of parenting work, improved martial happiness with less divorce, less depression and suicide in men, a new healthier model of masculinity to raise our kids around, happier more content mothers, happier more content fathers, (You’re both still gonna be fried in the first few years but at least you won’t feel alone!) more employed mothers with less poverty in later years. Perhaps even better father and child relationships.
Wow! All that just from not breast feeding your first kid! And frankly, you have so much other stuff to learn on your first kid that saving breastfeeding for your second kid might ease things a bit…okay, not a lot, but maybe a bit.
5. Continuing on with our development of co-professional parents, I recommend that new mothers leave the house for 2 consecutive days and overnight every week for the first month…or two. Stay with family. Stay with friends. Stay in a hotel and get room service. Let your friends take you out to lunch.
Consider this rest and recovery time. Consider this an important establishment of emotional and mental boundaries that clearly state that mothers have a separate life and identity as women. And, that time away from your children is 1. possible 2. Okay and even 3. healthy.
Sigh. I know I’m going to hear all about how horrible it is to encourage mothers to “abandon” their children. The baby is not abandoned if it’s home with its father! We don’t accuse fathers traveling for work of abandoning their babies so we need not accuse mothers who are recovering from pregnancy and childbirth of abandoning their babies.
Granted the moms would be abandoning the dads in these most difficult of early days. But mothers around the world have managed this for more than just a day or two. So, daddyos here’s where you really learn how to be fully responsible and how to do things your own way.
Frankly, I don’t believe this exercise will be easy for either parent. But it may be really good for both.
6. I recommend fathers make a written commitment to cultivating situational awareness of the needs of others.
7. I recommend both parents agree in writing to sacrifice some of their own needs for the needs of the family. (Like it or not this is reality.)
8. I recommend that mothers ditch the idea that “men can’t multi-task.” I’ve practiced medicine for 18 years, and I assure you that all medical staff must multi-task…all day long. Any ER is an excellent display of multi-tasking in fast paced, high stress, high risk situations. Male or female all ER staff are consummate jugglers of conflicting needs. That doesn’t mean that everyone is good at multi-tasking. But it is not a blanket excuse for fathers who aren’t behaving like co-professionals.
9. I recommend mothers learn to pause before jumping to attend to their babies and children. Studies have shown that women respond faster to distress from their kids. But fathers do respond just a few seconds later…if given the chance. So, moms, pause, look at daddyo and if it’s his turn say, “Your turn, sweetie.” Then let them do it their way. If you’re running into trouble with this then get out of the house and leave the child with daddy early and often. He can do it! And…AND…he will be very proud of himself when he masters these skills.
10. Set up a bank or IRA account for any stay-at-home parent. Even if right now all you can add to it is $20 per pay check. It matters. It is a financial acknowledgement of the fact that stay-at-home parenting has value. And a recognition of the risks and losses an at home parent takes in forgoing paid work for unpaid work.
11. Finally, remember that the transition from adult to parent is often a hard one. Neither parent will be able to “rescue” the other from the fact that it is often difficult. So, practice praise and compassion with your partner.
12. When your first child is 6 months old, repeat steps 2, 3, 5-11.
I believe that who is and isn’t working outside the home is less important than whether a true co-professional-parenting relationship is built. I am currently a stay-at-home parent and also a kind of work-at-home parent who hasn’t yet made money on her writing. (Mid-life career change and all that.) If you looked at our relationship from the outside, you might think that my husband and I have a traditional arrangement. But in fact, we don’t. Kevin is deeply involved in our kid’s lives and actively participates in both housework and childcare.
What was surprising to me was to discover that younger friends whose parenting relationships I’d assumed were fairly egalitarian were sometimes not even close. As I interviewed some of my friends, I actually had to go back and rewrite parts of my book. I found highly educated, intelligent, professional working mothers who were also doing ALL the childcare and ALL the housework and making ALL the sacrifices! Frankly, I was stunned. How did these educated, liberal, supposedly progressive and even feminist men justify their passivity and avoidance of parental engagement?
(Interviews with dad’s coming here.)
So, what about the social-cultural-political changes that could help us create a more just country for women and a kinder more livable version of manhood? Well if men want to be freed from the tyranny of toxic masculinity and the stereotyped role of sole provider then they need to join with women in creating and protecting space for family within our politics and culture. This could mean things such as:
- Federal funding of payments to stay-at-home parents for all children under 3 years old.
- Federal funding of social security payments to stay-at-home parents.
- Protection of paid parental leave from work with requirements that both partners use some of the time.
- Raising the educational standards for early childhood care givers while also funding schooling for these positions.
- Subsidizing daycare, nanny care, pre-school, and after school care.
- Funding healthcare for all.
- Supporting both hourly and salaried worker’s rights to a reasonable work week without corporate intrusion into personal time.
- Incorporating and funding a child bearer benefit into social security payments.
- Supporting a strong government that "secures the rights" of citizens and protects them from exploitation by businesses, Wall Street, corporations, and the powers of the very rich.