Back in the distant past of last year sometime, I began thinking and reading and studying about the conundrum that is the intersection of gender, work, parenting, and life. I approached it the way most people do, I think, by looking at the family and how the adults—usually a married couple—make decisions about who does what. On an individual family level, it’s all about the personal. You look at the resources you have available to you (resources include each partner’s skills and earning potential and interests and experience as well as all the external forms of help that are available, like grandparents and trust funds), you look at each partner’s needs and wishes, and you look at what has to be done. Then you divvy up the work accordingly. It’s all very sensible and rational and if it turns out that the vast majority of families assign the bulk of the domestic work to the female partner and the bulk of the paying work to the male partner, well, they made those choices freely. Maybe biology really is destiny.
Where’s the problem, anyway? People can do what they want, right?
This is what concerns me. In a family in which the adults adopt traditional gender roles, both partners lose something important. Women, by focusing their efforts on the kids and downsizing or eliminating their participation in paid labor, lose economic security. I don’t think I can overstate this. Taking time out of the labor market and engaging in the low-paid, part-time jobs that mothers do so they can take care of their kids severely curtails their lifetime earning potential. Their skills degrade and their lack of experience, relative to other workers their age, may put lucrative work out of reach. Factor in the bias against women with children (studies show that identical resumes from mothers and non-mothers result in more job offers and higher pay for the non-mothers) and you have the reality we see: if a woman loses the support of the breadwinner through death or divorce or the loss of his job, she is screwed. Women in traditional gender roles also lose the less tangible rewards associated with paid work—prestige, the rewards of promotion and recognition, intellectual stimulation, the esteem of peers. Nobody gets more phony respect and less real respect than the at-home mom.
Men practicing traditional gender roles lose too, in ways that are harder to anticipate. Forever relegated to secondary parent status, a father’s relationships with his children may be weak. When the toddler always runs to mom and not to dad for comfort, that has to hurt. That cycle perpetuates itself, too. If children do not seek nurturing from the usually-absent dad, the dad will not bother to offer it. I can’t back this up at the moment, but my sense is that many men feel like they are working their butts off to support family members with whom they feel little connection. And while men get the economic and intangible rewards of paid work, they also shoulder what may be a crushing burden—sole responsibility for the family’s financial well-being. We all watched the economy sink into the black pit. Thousands upon thousands of men who used to support their families are now out of work with no jobs in sight. Relying entirely on one worker’s wages is poor resource management. One disastrous job loss can mean poverty for the household.
Of course, many families these days use a different model. Sometimes both parents work full time. Maybe one works full time and one works part time. There are lots of ways to do it. Nevertheless, it seems in the majority of families the mom has the major childcare burden and makes the necessary career sacrifices to manage it.
Well, no family exists in a vacuum, and our beliefs, assumptions, and actions are all guided by the environment in which we live. I turned my attention to the many ways that prevailing cultural demands, expectations, and mores shape our decision-making about family roles. These ruminations tend to get me into arguments. Everyone wants to see themselves as independent and rational and unswayed by the opinions of others. No one wants to be told that they’re a cog in the wheel, following the cog in front of them and leading the cog behind them without any room for maneuvering. Especially, no one wants to be attacked for the choices they’ve made. So when I talk about this stuff, nearly everyone wishes I would shut up. I apologize in advance and assure you I am not attacking anyone for arranging their families along traditional gender lines. If you are reading this and you don’t know me very well, let me state this unambiguously: I’m an underemployed suburban mom who performs nearly all of the domestic work and lives with a breadwinning husband. You’ll get no hate from me, just a thoughtful examination of the pressures that act upon all of us.
Clearly, it all begins with biology. There’s no getting around it. Women carry babies in their bodies, give birth, and feed babies with their breasts. One can easily imagine the lives of our early ancestors: the women would have been pregnant or toting nursing babies pretty much all the time. If someone had to go off for days chasing the wild whatever, it would have to be the men. One can see modern versions of this scenario everywhere. Dad goes off on business trips. Mom stays home with the kids. Our collective history, from the cavepeople days on forward, makes it seem so natural and normal and expected. Sure, we have families in which dad and mom go on business trips and take turns watching the kids. We have families in which moms win the bread and dads do all the laundry. Nevertheless, the old archetype holds. Just the other night I went to a PTA meeting attended by about a dozen people. Anyone care to guess how many of those people were male?
So we have a strong cultural sense of how it ought to be, even here in liberal latte land. The effect increases the closer you get to the bible belt. Organized religion is an enthusiastic perpetuator of traditional gender norms. Indeed, there are sects in which “choice,” even of the illusionary variety, doesn’t enter the picture at all. Women do ABC and men do XYZ and that is that. For individuals who live in regions where that line of thought is common, other choices are exponentially harder to make, even if they don’t adhere to the religion in question.
Even if we stick with coastal culture, the paradigm barely budges. Relentless advocacy by and for women has brought us to the point where all fields of endeavor are open to women, but life at home hasn’t changed in decades. Many writers have referred to this as the “half-changed world” or the “stalled revolution.” Here’s the sad fact, documented by many studies: men don’t do an equal share of the work at home. This is true of men whose wives stay home, it is true of men whose wives work full time, and it is true of men with every family arrangement in between. It is only not true of men who are the designated stay-at-home parent. But that’s a teeny, tiny fraction. Which leads to another fact: women, who find themselves doing most of the work at home, often walk away from their careers because there just aren’t enough hours in the day for both jobs.
It starts much earlier than that, actually. Children are carefully taught through relentless cultural demands to think, do and be in gender-specific ways that direct their interests and impact their decision making. Have you ever heard this: “Well, my husband is a doctor/lawyer/Indian chief, and I majored in art history, so he makes soooo much more money than I do. It only made sense for me to be the one who takes care of the kids.” Boys are raised with the expectation that they will be called upon to support a family. Girls are not. Even within the same profession, men typically pursue the highest-paying specialty while women are less concerned with money. Are men just greedy, or do they have “future breadwinner” tattooed on their psyches?
Gender demands and expectations act on all of us. Both men and women are largely driven by the prevailing beliefs with which they were raised and the ones they see in their adult world. We all make choices, but those choices are made in context, and the context is often much narrower than it appears.
In my meandering through the land mines of gender issues, I next turned my attention to the work world. You know the deal—if you have a full time, professional job, your employer pretty much owns you. For anywhere between 40 and 70 hours per week, you are expected to have no other obligations. Given that most people have children at some point, employers expect to have parents on the payroll. The structure of work assumes that in any given family, one adult will function as the (paid) worker while the other will act as the caregiver. What I’m saying here is that this dynamic goes both ways. Employers can demand workers unencumbered by family responsibilities because, historically, one parent performs the bulk of the caregiving. And families arrange for one parent to be unencumbered by family demands because that’s what you have to do to hold a job.
This is another point at which people get aggravated with me. “That’s just the way it IS,” they sputter. Yes, but is that the way it has to be? Are there, perhaps, other employment models that would allow all adults with children to better balance their home and work lives?
Let’s move on to the government. Public policy has an enormous impact on our lives, even if we give it little thought. Consider this notion: local governments provide affordable, accessible, high-quality care to all children, and the cultural norm is for women to use this service and work full time.
Pretty radical, huh?
I can hear the sputtering protests again. “What? Why should the taxpayers pay for childcare for your kids? You had ‘em; you raise ‘em.”
Well, it’s not as radical as all that. In some European countries, France, for example, publically provided childcare is widely available and heavily used, giving French women liberte. And here is the US, we have publically provided childcare in the form of school for children of certain ages for certain hours of the day.
Let me ask you this. Have you ever seen the yellow school buses driving around, dropping high school students on the street at 2:30 in the afternoon? Why do teens get out of school so early? Who thought this was a good idea? The structure of public school, unchanged since our rural nation days, is predicated upon the idea, now largely mythical, that there’s something productive for children to do at home in the afternoon (and in the summer) and that there’s someone there (and you know the gender of that person, right?) to supervise them. Other countries, notably all of those Asian countries that kick American ass on student achievement tests, have much longer school days and longer school years. In the US we have parents, by which I mean mothers, constantly scrambling to arrange childcare for their kids, who are inexplicably in school only six hours per day, 180 days per year, a schedule that corresponds to absolutely nothing in the adult work world. This is the primary means by which government contributes to the gender inequality that stubbornly persists, no matter how equitable our intentions.
Would it be hard to extend the school day, extend the school year, and add services for tiny kids? Would it be expensive? Yes. And yes. And it would require a dramatic shift in cultural beliefs. Americans are heavily invested in a sort of delusional individualism in which we all ignore just how completely interdependent we are and pretend we are all self-sufficient.
Let me ask you another question. Does it serve us well, as a society, to have an enormous pint-sized underclass? When the children of the poor grow up with insufficient food, insufficient health care, and an environment that fails to fully develop their thirsty sponge-like brains, what could that possibly get us but an enormous adult underclass twenty years later? If we took care of all of our children instead of just the lucky ones, wouldn’t that pay for itself down the road? And in the meantime, perhaps it would create the conditions needed for gender equality that doesn’t come screeching to a halt when the kids come along. Food for thought, eh?
Stay with me, I’m almost done. The government is not a big, bad patriarchy machine. It tries to help. Unfortunately, “helping” is not as easy as it sounds. For every well-intentioned policy that helps in some way, there’s an opposite, non-helpful consequence. Consider the effects of the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows workers to take time off to care for family members without losing their jobs. Who does the caring in this culture? Women. Who uses that leave time? Women. How do employers feel about potential employees who might take an extended leave? Not so good. Who gets the job, then? A man.
Here’s another example. Extended maternity leave sounds great, right? A woman can have a baby, spend a year or so at home giving that baby the best possible care, and be guaranteed her job will still be there. And it is great, but not without trade-offs. Employers may be reluctant to hire women of child-bearing age. Women may return to work to find they have been demoted or mommy-tracked or both. And, spending a year at home cements the woman’s identity as the primary parent, solidifying gender roles in that family in a way that may be impossible to alter.
That’s not necessarily bad. It’s just the way it is. Which brings me back to my starting point. Families work within the framework for raising children in our world as it is. They make choices that make sense and do the best they can.
People tell me that gender inequality is no longer a problem, that it is merely the result of choices women make. But I look at my own smart and talented daughters and envision their futures, and it still looks like a problem to me.
How can I solve this problem before they grow up?