Thursday, July 08, 2010

Who changes the diapers in your house?

In The Daddy Shift, Jeremy Adam Smith explores the ways in which perceptions of parental roles and responsibilities are changing and argues that gender is becoming less of a factor in the fundamental decisions families make about raising children.  The broad scope of Smith's project is alluded to in the book's subtitle, How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family.

Many aspects of Smith's argument resonate with me as a novice stay-at-home dad, and one thread in particular corroborates a hunch I had based on the logistics of my own household.  Smith cites research that suggests an increasingly equitable division of "unpaid family work" within American families; however, he cautions that this doesn't signify an inexorable move toward an egalitarian utopia.

Although he characterizes the trend of men taking on more family work as "tenuous," Smith's profiles of non-traditional families serve as models for a much more balanced distribution of household labor than in the "traditional," male breadwinner/female caregiver home.  (Although the single-income household is a rarity these days, the legacy of the "traditional" family often manifests in women doing the bulk of the housework and caregiving even when they work outside the home.)  He suggests that in "reverse-traditional" (i.e., caregiver dad and breadwinner mom) and same-sex parent families, there tends to be less specialization, so that the breadwinner is likely to participate more in caregiving, and the caregiver may dabble in breadwinning--thus the workload is shared more equitably.  

This pattern became obvious to me when my wife returned to work after spending the first four months of our twin girls' lives at home with them.  At that point I became the primary caregiver (who occasionally gets paid to build something or teach a class); but contrary to what the term "reverse-traditional" may imply, my wife didn't suddenly transform into a disengaged patriarch.

I often receive more credit than I am due--and rarely try to deflect it--for the amount of work people assume is involved in taking care of two toddlers.  And it would be a lot of work for just one person.  But when my wife, a family practice doctor at a non-profit community clinic, comes home from work, she wants to spend every minute that she can with the babies.  There's no time for reclining with a pipe and the evening edition of the Mayfield Press for her--it's all about feeding, bathing, reading to, and playing with the kids.  But people tend to expect that from a mom, regardless of how much work she does or money she makes outside the home.

I know breadwinning fathers who likewise come home from work and immediately engage in as much caregiving as they can in the few hours before bedtime.  But I also know fathers who try to squeeze in as much time away from their families as possible.  This is unfathomable to me for a number of reasons (but who knows--maybe I'll develop an interest in golf and multi-day fishing trips in the next couple of years).

As much as I am philosophically down with the notion that work is work, and certain things need to be done to keep a family as healthy and happy as possible, and it's all equally important, I have to admit that there are times when I feel like the archetypal frustrated housewife.  When I'm just finishing cleaning up the mess from lunch in time to start making dinner, for instance, it's hard for me not to dwell on the Sisyphean nature of my labors.

But there are two things that assuage my frustration.  First, I have worked for decades outside of the home as a carpenter, contractor, and more recently as a teacher; and I know that any job can at times be tedious and seem endless and thankless.  When I grouse about rinsing out diapers (we use cloth as penance for the environmental havoc wreaked by raising kids) or washing bottles, I only have to remind myself that my wife could very well be gritting her teeth while doing her tenth pelvic exam before lunchtime instead of playing with her babies.  Would I rather be building a deck than scraping poop?  Probably.  But on the other hand, I would rather feed a baby than grade a stack of essays.   

Secondly, I receive plenty of recognition for my housework.  Not only from my wife, who notices my domestic achievements (and if she doesn't, I point them out), but also from acquaintances and strangers.  Unlike many of the caregiver fathers profiled in The Daddy Shift, I have not heard any withering comments or noticed any sideways glances about my domesticity (of course, this could be due to my self-preserving oblivion).  Instead, I am lauded almost universally for my willingness to face not only the supposedly daunting task of raising twins, but also the censure (yet to be felt) of our sexist culture.

The only sexism I have encountered in discussions about my stay-at-home status is of the condescending, mildly misandristic variety; e.g., "Oh my God--you watch them every day?  I can't even leave my kids home with their dad for the weekend!"  These comments usually make me seem heroic, and may reflect more on the speaker's perception of her schlub of a husband than on men in general, so I let them slide.

Although I'm usually perfectly happy to be compared favorably to other men, a couple things irk me about the attention I get for being a competent (as far as they know) parent.  The first troubling aspect is that it's still sometimes considered noteworthy that a man can take care of children and "keep house."  The other side of that coin is that women don't get enough credit when they do the same, since to do so is considered a function of their chromosomes.  The bar is set much lower for fathers, which is unfair to all parents.

My wife is reading this over my shoulder and thinks that the fact that men are perfectly capable of, and responsible for, doing every bit as much "unpaid family work" as women is a no-brainer, hardly worth discussing.  It's true that among the progressive types we usually hang around with, it goes without saying.  But in my conversations with moms at the dog park, members of my Asian mommies group (yeah--I'm the white guy with the double stroller), and even my stay-at-home dads group (members of whom often encounter incredulity at the idea that they can be trusted with kids), the assumption that men can't or won't contribute as much as women to the glamorless aspects of family life is a common theme.  Also, on the mommyblogs I lurk around on, casual kvetching about shiftless husbands surfaces regularly, especially in reader comments.

In The Daddy Shift, in other print and electronic media, and in his appearances on TV and radio, Jeremy Adam Smith has been an advocate and spokesperson for stay-at-home dads.  But he also stresses that gender equity in the home is not a done deal, exhorting us--especially caregiving fathers--to share our stories so that we can contribute to the evolution of the American Family toward this end.

What do you think?  Is the idea and/or practice of gender equity within the family so mainstream that we don't even need to talk about it anymore?  Or is someone doing more than their fair share of dishes? 


Please visit me at Beta Dad, where I'm much less serious and tell stories about my mommy group, daddygroup, and post adorable pictures of my kids

21 comments:

Sarah R said...

My husband is a stay-at-home dad and I am the breadwinner and sometimes it's hard for me to leave them during the day. However, I wouldn't have it any other way. My kids get to bond with their dad and not a caregiver and we do share a workload. As soon as I come home, I immediately take over with the parenting, because I have missed them during the day. However, if our 2 1/2 year old is acting up, he will take him to the park to run so I can care for the 4 month old. I would imagine if he were a working dad and I stayed home, he wouldn't be AS involved as he is now. Instead, we work together as a great team, even as non-traditional as we are.

Great post -- thanks!

Anonymous said...

Like traveling at the speed of light, I don't think gender equity is attainable--no matter how close we might think we're getting. But it's nice to see the idea of "traditional" family dissolving. Everyone's just trying to do the best for their own families and really, we should just let them be.

-mxf

chicago pop said...

Welcome Beta Dad! You're the only other dad I know who does/did the cloth diaper thing. That warrants an entire post on its own.

I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of the doubts male caregiving parents may have regarding the value of work that can seem trivial, demeaning, or perhaps (cringe) "feminine". Having, like you, worked in a few other lines, I think you're right to point out that all lines of work come with their share of tedious, routine, and uninspiring tasks. That's the nature of work, and why any sensible utopia I can think of would have work abolished immediately. What's different about the hard-labor side of parenting, on the other hand, is that you get to do the dirty little jobs for someone you love, instead of doing them for a boss, a committee, or shareholders.

Can't say that about too many other lines of work.

Musical Daddy said...

Hello, Beta Dad! I'm an occasionally-stay-at-home Dad, and we also have been in cloth diapers forever. Gotta love them Bum Geniuses...

I actually question the "tenuous" nature of the growing numbers of SAHDs. Considering the following two statistics: 1) people with college degrees tend to make more money than those without; and 2) young women significantly outnumber young men in new college admissions over the past few years. Put those two things together, and you have a recipe for more SAHDs as women's salaries will soon outstrap men's salaries...

Beta Dad said...

Sarah,

Thanks! Sounds like you and your husband have it dialed in. I think it would benefit every dad (and mom) to have a chance to stay home with the kids for at least a few months when they're little. Then they would appreciate the amount of work involved, as well as the rewards of doing that work.

Chicago Pop,

Thanks for the welcome! I'm glad to be here. And thanks for the idea for a cloth diaper post. We're out of town right now, with the kids, and using disposables. It sure is convenient--but really expensive. Excellent point about working for your loved ones instead of the company.

Anonymous said...

I suggested in a recent New York Times blog that we may eventually move to a more egalitarian model of marriage as the norm, including fathers doing 1/2 the unpaid work, and received this reply from a 54-year-old male personal injury lawyer:

"As to the egalitarian argument made in the highlighted comment, I wouldn't count too much on men becoming all soft and cushy towards children and equally sharing chores. If you think that is in the cards for most men, you don't know men very well. If that is what a woman must have to marry, she will remain single. Moreover, when a woman makes more than the man she lives with, the potential for marital success is greatly reduced. Biology and DNA will trump education and enlightenment every time."

This comment was "recommended" by 5 people, which is exactly the number of people who "recommended" my comment suggesting that egalitarian marriage might become more prevalent. I noted in my comment that I sensed that many men might like this model because of the better relationships it gave them with their children and their wives (including better sex lives) and because it gave them the chance to play more of a role in their child's life.

So, there does seem to be some hostility out there to men doing this?

I would love to know other men's thoughts on this.

chicago pop said...

54-year old personal injury lawyer is mired in the mentality of a certain era during which some of his assumptions may have seemed more valid. But they aren't any more. Sure, certain cohorts of men may not want to become "all soft and cushy towards children and equally" share the chores (no privileged group ever wants to relinquish its perks). All this means is that their sensibilities were conditioned by a reality that is less economically functional (to say nothing of ethically justifiable) every day.

The number of stable working class jobs that allowed men to have these attitudes in the past has evaporated, and the remunerative white collar jobs that remain are increasingly open to competition from all the women who are now outpacing men in college enrollments, academic performance, and rates of graduation for BAs and MAs. It's only a matter of time before the most exclusively testosterone-driven domains of the economy crack open to women (finance, Wall Street), and the results of that may be some of the most salutary in recent US history. Men can do better, of course, but according to 54 year old personal injury lawyer's DNA-based argument, they are doomed to perish in the Darwinian struggle.

So yes, there is hostility out there to such simple and benign domestic arrangements as men doing 50% of housework, or caring for a baby full time while mom gets out there and earns a paycheck. That such hostility is trussed up with bogus biological arguments is not surprising, given the way that every other prejudice has always relied upon what Stephen Jay Gould labeled "the mismeasure of man."

So I would argue that the most likely future outcome is exactly the reverse of 54 year old personal injury lawyer's prediction. The unemployed or low-earning male who cannot adapt to the 21st century knowledge economy, who graduates from institutions of higher education at increasingly lower rates than the women he expects to marry and bear his children can afford to have such attitudes as long as he doesn't mind be single, childless, and passed over in favor of men who don't have these preconceptions.

chicago pop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

chicagopop-

Thanks for your reply. I agree with what you said, and I think I would add to it that I think even men with higher ed (such as 54-year-old personal injury lawyer) who hold these attitudes may find themselves "single, childless, and passed over in favor of men who don't have these preconceptions."

I think even if one wants to talk Darwinian concepts, the extinction of "grandiose, angry, patriarchal man" makes sense because it often traumatizes children and makes them unsuccessful.

If you look at the benefits to children from having two engaged parents, including having a good quality father, such as Jeremy discussed in "The Astonishing Science of Father Involvement" then it seems a no-brainer to me that this change in men's psychology will likely become more prevalent.

I think it would be good if it became more the norm for both parents to work and both parents to do parenting. I hate to see SAHDs possibly suffering the same marketplace issues that SAHMs do.

It is a major paradigm shift, though, and one that replaces 2000-5000 years of patriarchy, so I guess it is taking a while to take hold? Or maybe not, given the intense scrutiny Mel Gibson and Tiger Woods are undergoing in the press.

Anonymous said...

PS - I gather a large part of this phenomenon of the "angry, patriarchal father" still being around may derive from:

1. Some men themselves being so traumatized themselves that they do not have the emotional capacity or confidence to bond well with children (or interact with women successfully in a marriage).

2. Cultural pressures (including controlling, gatekeeping moms, and societal expectations of aggressive masculinity) getting in the way of the father experiencing the hormonal changes necessary to allow him to bond with the children.

chicago pop said...

@ Anonymous: I think that Mel Gibson's recorded Alpha-Male rantings -- to say nothing of Tiger Woods' swingin' d*ck attitudes -- are all pretty good PR for dads who are "all soft and cushy towards children" and don't mind helping out with the chores.

Enjoyed your comments!

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Vatican abuse scandal seems to be helping as well . . . . I'm all for fathers who are all "soft and cushy" toward children.

Anisa said...

Whose to say that being a SAHD requires a "soft and cushy" demeanor? What does that even mean? It has a negative connotation and suggests an unrealistic, defeatist argument that men would have to change their universal, uh, rough and firm personalities (another questionable assumption), just to be involved parents. If a man loves his children and treats them well, the right demeanor will come naturally.

And just to disprove the impossibility of affectionate dads, I offer the example of my own, who was a totally goofy, soft and cushy father with no effort at all. It was just his personality. He loved reading to me and calling me funny nicknames and pushing me on the swing in the park. To any dad out there who's worried what that the world would question him for being kind and loving, just know your children will be more grateful than they can ever fully express.

chicago pop said...

Great comment, Anisa. I used the 54-year old personal injury lawyer's phrase "soft and cushy towards children" with deliberate irony; of course the language itself is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I just checked back at the NYT blog and now my egalitarian marriage comment has 7 "recommendations" while the 54-y-o PI lawyer's still has just 5. So maybe this model will prevail in the end after all . . . .

Beta Dad said...

There's an interesting article on Slate by Stephanie Coontz today about the extent to which "working class" and "upper and middle class" dads contribute to the parenting in their families. In fact, there are a number of posts on the XXfactor blogs on Slate that have to do with domestic labor equity. Here's the link to the Coontz article

http://www.slate.com/id/2261249/

The most troublesome aspect of the Coontz piece to me is the assumption that we all know what she means by the terms that delineate class membership, and that there are clear class distinctions. Is it your job that determines your class status? Your education level? Before I became a SAHD, I was a carpenter with an MA, so I'm not sure where I fall on the spectrum. Sometimes I'm a teacher too, but my income is much lower when I teach than when I drive nails.

The data she presents seems solid, but her terms are a little mushy and need some clarification. Also her use of Levi Johnston as a cipher is a little cheesy, but definitely effective in drawing readers.

Anonymous said...

I noticed the Coontz article also. (Levi Johnston should never have volunteered for full exposure in Playgirl - I have a feeling he's going to be a punchline forever. Poor guy, he and his teenage bride are way too young to have the judgment needed for all this publicity.)

The most significant takeaway for me from the article was the distinction between dads (a) who are engaged with their children in private life and public life and (b) who are engaged with their children only in public life.

I suspect this does break down under power/class/status of the man's job, although I'm not sure where the dividing line is. The men who do the public life portion only, are disadvantaging their children, of course.

I am a Yale law grad, female, Gen-Xer, and it has been frustrating to me to watch my female classmates who married male classmates take a backseat to their husband's careers, and for those male classmates to do only "public life fathering". Several of my male classmates are running for US Senate this year, several have general counsel jobs, very highly paid and prestigious, with large corporations, several are well-regarded authors and commentators, professors, etc. By and large, their wives, even with Yale law degrees and substantial experience, are taking up the unpaid work slack at home and are also doing the daily acts of parenting.

There are a number of notable exceptions, however, in that some of the women (maybe 30%?) have gotten pretty far in their careers, becoming partners in large law firms, professors, etc. Some of us have had to sacrifice marriage and children to do it, though (this is true for me, so far, anyway).

Some of the people who go to law school are preoccupied with money/power/status (some even having a neurotic need for it) and so it does make sense that some would choose power over love, unfortunately. (I am referring to Jung's quote that "where love rules there is no will to power, and where power predominates, there is no love; the one is the shadow of the other).

I suspect this is going to start to turn the corner, though, because even when I look at my classmates, there are also a lot of men who are very devoted to their children. And it is becoming more normal and "less hairy" for women to have higher status jobs.

Anonymous said...

I noticed the Coontz article also. (Levi Johnston should never have volunteered for full exposure in Playgirl - I have a feeling he's going to be a punchline forever. Poor guy, he and his teenage bride are way too young to have the judgment needed for all this publicity.)

The most significant takeaway for me from the article was the distinction between dads (a) who are engaged with their children in private life and public life and (b) who are engaged with their children only in public life.

I suspect this does break down under power/class/status of the man's job, although I'm not sure where the dividing line is. The men who do the public life portion only, are disadvantaging their children, of course.

I am a Yale law grad, female, Gen-Xer, and it has been frustrating to me to watch my female classmates who married male classmates take a backseat to their husband's careers, and for those male classmates to do only "public life fathering". Several of my male classmates are running for US Senate this year, several have general counsel jobs, very highly paid and prestigious, with large corporations, several are well-regarded authors and commentators, professors, etc. By and large, their wives, even with Yale law degrees and substantial experience, are taking up the unpaid work slack at home and are also doing the daily acts of parenting.

There are a number of notable exceptions, however, in that some of the women (maybe 30%?) have gotten pretty far in their careers, becoming partners in large law firms, professors, etc. Some of us have had to sacrifice marriage and children to do it, though (this is true for me, so far, anyway).

Some of the people who go to law school are preoccupied with money/power/status (some even having a neurotic need for it) and so it does make sense that some would choose power over love, unfortunately. (I am referring to Jung's quote that "where love rules there is no will to power, and where power predominates, there is no love; the one is the shadow of the other).

I hope someday we can all have both satisfying jobs and quality parenting roles.

chicago pop said...

@ anon: I've seen the high-power mom drop outs, too, and the consistency of the phenomenon depresses me. But these couples, in which one partner usually gets to act on their (sizeable) ambition, are not the bearers of salvation: it's everybody else who has to figure out how to run a household on two incomes that don't quite meet, as the Coontz article suggests. So while Yale law grads get to keep alive a Great Man theory of history that fell out of favor among historians some 200 years ago (what has the US Senate done to change the stays quo in our Gen-X lifetimes?), consequential innovation may be coming from other directions.

I think more men get to act on their ambition, but ambition and family probably don't go well, regardless of gender issues.

@Beta: thanks for the link. Strikes me she's thinking of class along straight income lines, more or less as does the US Government through census categories. These do correlate with education, although if you are an education professional in the humanities, as I was, you are an outlier and a freak and live in a universe where ordinary laws -- such as correlations between education and income -- don't apply.

Anonymous said...

chicagopop-

Yeah, in their "great man" fantasies, I hope these Yale Law senators don't take our country down with them.

When you say, "ambition and family probably don't go well, regardless of gender issues" I have become a fan of the "dual focus" approach. It is pretty hard to concentrate on your family and your work at the same time, but it seems if you alternate them this could work? This does require that you have a partner who's willing to switch off focusing on the family with you, though.

Anonymous said...

Poor choice of words by me in saying "focusing on the family" given the Christian group that advocates male dominance and authoritarian fathering. :)