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