Tuesday, January 15, 2008

One Utopia

In my ideal world, mothers, rich and poor, will be able to take at least the first year of their child's life off of work. Affluent mothers will have their professional jobs held for them. Lower income mothers will receive state support.

At the end of the first year, it will be dad's turn. The transition will be marked with a rite of passage. There will be a party at the office; that night, the dad's buddies will throw him a celebration that very much resembles a bachelor's party. Beer and liquor will flow, joints will be smoked, and ribald jokes will be told.

The next morning, Dad will wake up to a new life. His partner will go back to work and he will be alone with the baby. His life will be hard at first; no utopia can ease the passage to full-time parenthood. He'll struggle with juggling a hundred tasks and losing time for himself. He'll start out as an incompetent slob, like most new parents, but he will learn.

In this utopia, he won't be lonely. The playgrounds will have at least as many dads as moms. Their will be playgroups, support groups, and places for him to go if he really needs help. Relatives will provide what support they can, and no one will give him a hard time: In fact, the stage of his caregiving will be validated and valorized.

In this egalitarian utopia, parents might still sort themselves according to gender. Some moms will prefer to hang with moms, some dads will want male company, but there will also be mixed-gender groups of parents who aren't that hung up on sexual differences--groups that will almost certainly include many gay and lesbian parents. There will be flirting: sex and sexual difference will not disappear, only inequality based on differences. People will just have to deal with it.

At the same time, Mom will also get the support she needs as new breadwinner. She'll be welcomed back to the office with a reverse rite of passage, and there will be procedures in place to help her get up to speed. Just as her partner is struggling with his new role, she will probably struggle with feelings of guilt and separation. Her need for flexibility will be informally understood by colleagues and formally supported by a combination of workplace and government policy. Violations will occur, but in this utopia, the state will be on the side of parents, not employers.

This will be equally true for men: policies will be gender neutral and defined by an understanding that both parents will serve as caregivers at some point, and the working parent ought to make time for children and provide support to partners who are currently caregiving. Of course, many couples will prefer to split paid work and childcare fifty-fifty from the beginning. Others will prefer more traditional and reverse-traditional arrangements where one parent specializes, especially when they have more than one child. Choice and negotiation will define a world where the division of labor is not gendered.

No utopia can guarantee a happy partnership. Some relationships will decline and dissolve. But in this world, fathers will rarely abandon their children, because they will have developed a deep attachment during the year or two in which they served as primary caregivers. Mothers will not be condemned to poverty by divorce. In a context of gender equality, the post-divorce couple will be able to build new, cooperative relationship as co-parents. New families will form, and be understood as a kind of extended family.

Girls will be raised to one day serve as breadwinners as well as caregivers. Boys will be psychologically and practically prepared to one day take care of children. Even so, individual preferences and proclivities will emerge. As these girls and boys grow up and start dating and contemplate parenthood, the division of labor will be negotiated, not imposed.

What do you think? Would you want to live in this world?


Amy said...

Sign me up! What a great vision - not sugar-coated, and not impossible. To get there, we have to work from both ends - political/societal/workplace change and personal change. Thanks for painting a picture of the prize we'll win for all our hard work ahead.

KC said...

That's some utopia pal. I'd rather it just be easy for people to ask for time off without the hassle and suspicious, etc.

chicago pop said...

I see dim outlines of much of this -- at least the cultural part, if not the policy/workplace part -- already. I'm especially looking forward to the mixed-gender groups of parents who aren't that hung up on sexual differences--groups that will almost certainly include many gay and lesbian parents.

And I take pride in the fact that you were undoubtedly referring to me when you spoke of the beginning dad as an incompetent slob. I'm honored.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I'm sure many dads (and moms) thought I was somehow thinking of them, Chicago pop.

And I think you're right to point out that the outlines already exist--dim in some places, stark in others.

KC, this piece was inspired by researching family history and seeing how much we've changed in just a few decades--some of the changes have been so incremental that we've hardly noticed. Family life today is radically different than it was even twenty years ago, when, for example, the number of stay-at-home dads was barely worth counting. And fifty years ago? Forget it.

And so it felt natural to ask what family life might look like fifty years from now, if current trends continue. Fifty years ago, the vast majority of mothers didn't work. Fifty years from now, perhaps the vast majority of fathers will put in at least some time as primary caregivers. Fifty years ago, workplace discrimination was legal and commonplace; fifty years from now, the government could very well provide support and protection for gender-neutral parenting.

Viewed in this light, it's exciting to think about how our society will continue to evolve. And it's worth thinking about, because it suggests new directions for advocacy and life choices.

Christopher Pepper said...

This is a terrific vision. Have you seen Michael Moore's "Sicko"? There's a segment in it about all of the things France does to make raising children easier and less stressful for families, many of which would make a vision like this easier to achieve.

One place I've noticed a slow cultural shift is in the high school health classes I teach, where the expection now is that young men will be in the lives of children they father. While having sex with multiple women is still celebrated, irresponsible baby making is most definitely not.

Also, as you point out, some relationships do end. I'm glad there are new movements like collaborative divorce developing to provide examples for how to split up sanely.

Anonymous said...

all of the colors that go to paint your utopian picture involve a restructuring of our society so that business supports the lives of people rather than the other way around. it really involves putting a rein on unchecked capitalist corporatism, which interestingly enough is also the only way we're going to stave off ecological disaster. so it's less like utopia in my mind and more like an emergency prescription for human survival. whether we're going to be smart enough to figure out how to make it work before everything falls apart - only time will tell.

Naptime Girl said...

I wonder how many fathers would take advantage of their year away from paid work to care for their child? I notice now that while some larger companies offer paid paternity leave, it is rarely taken.

A one year maternity leave seems to be about the perfect length of time. Many babies are weaned by that point, and many moms are feeling physically and mentally ready to juggle work and home. And anything less than 3 months is shameful.

If all fathers spent (at least) a year home caring for their children, I deeply believe there would be fewer divorces and that relationships would be strengthened tremendously.

Unknown said...

hm. I think I'd prefer a year off for both parents, if there are in fact two parents. Imagine if both aprents got to see that first year up close and personal. Course, in my utopia, work and family would be so differently structured that family leave becomes irrelevant...anyway, i think this is a good suggestion, even something to strive for, but not quite *utopian*

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"I think I'd prefer a year off for both parents, if there are in fact two parents."

This is a good point; I flat out overlooked what an ideal parental leave arrangement would be for the breadwinning, non-biological parent. A year? Sure, sounds great. Hard to argue with.

And yet I confess that I have trouble imagining any industrial or post-industrial society supporting both parents to drop out of the workforce for one year, and then supporting one parent for at least an additional year. As for completely restructuring society so that parental leave is irrelevant (as it was prior to the Industrial Revolution)...well, I don't see our society and economy heading in that direction. I guess there are limits to my utopian imagination.

From naptime girl: "I wonder how many fathers would take advantage of their year away from paid work to care for their child? I notice now that while some larger companies offer paid paternity leave, it is rarely taken."

This is a very tough call. Men feel intense pressure to go to work when they become fathers. I know that conservatives and some feminists choose to see this as a natural male aversion to childcare, but I believe this response is conditioned by centuries of capitalist development and that fathers are simply very anxious in their new role as providers--and I think the pressure is actually more intense for formerly dual-income couples. When you have a man and a woman making roughly the same amount of money and living large on that, and then one of the incomes vanishes, the guy can feel driven to make up the difference...or risk being called a bad provider. Whatever its drawbacks--and there are many--it's a role that many men have been prepared to take on. They understand it. They know what is expected of them. (This is partially what makes the stay-at-home dad such a rebel.)

This was actually revealed to me when I started interviewing breadwinning moms. Most--not all, but most--of these moms are very uncomfortable with the burdens of breadwinning, and they live in fear that something will go wrong at work. Rather than wishing they had their partner's presence and help at home--the standard complaint of many a stay-at-home mom--they wish they had more help making money. In my interviews, I've found that breadwinning dads, breadwinning moms, and breadwinning gay and lesbian parents all sound very similar when they describe what keeps them up at night. This casts the dilemma of the working dad in a different light: the roots are situational and economic, not biological.

In short, I don't think it's enough to offer parental leave to men and leave it at that. Other things need to change as well, and those things will not change overnight. It took centuries to establish; it'll take centuries to establish something new.

Unknown said...

I'm all for this vision, or one like it anyway. Sign me up. I like to think that as more parents, particularly dads, start saying "no" to the demands of the workplace a little more often, we can move towards this kind of life. And if politicians want to prove that they're truly pro-family, they'll support these kinds of trends.

ND said...

This is an interesting idea; I definitely like it. I imagine that breastfeeding is the reason you say one year for moms, then one year for dads?

I can understand this, but I worry that men just won't take the second year and it will fall on women?

I think that there is more flexibility in FMLA than people realize in terms of allowing parents to alternate days or weeks off (if they can negotiate this with their employer, who may actually like this for the employer's own reasons).

I think FMLA is too short, though. We probably need at least a 180-day unpaid leave for each child as a basic concept, with encouragement to take in pieces? Also, a tax credit if parents took equal amounts of leave would be good (I think you can make the case that there are fewer costs to taxpayers and government under equal parenting than under the traditional structure).

And to pay for the leave, I favor a savings plan that people can contribute to prior to the leave, and that employers can contribute to. I think this is important because I think it might help people understand how much children cost. I worry that a paid leave program might make for some skewy incentives.

Anyway, as always, thanks for your blog (I know this is an old post but I just discovered it.)