Last week, the New York Times ran a symposium titled “How Can We Get Men to Do More at Home?” The series was prompted because of a recent study showing that German and other European women are making strides in education and in the workplace, but their careers stall once they have children. Why? The Times cites “child care” and “hard-to-quantify traditional ideas about parenting,” among other reasons. They ask, “If greater equality between men and women in the work force has not led to greater equality in child-rearing and other domestic responsibilities, what will?”
Seven experts weigh in on this supposed “problem,” but the very question obscures the reality of the role of women and men in two ways:
First, mothers who stay home have not drawn the shorter straw. The Times treats child-rearing as a career-interrupting inconvenience that complicates the “real work” that evidently occurs in an office building. The truth is that staying home with the kids is a privilege, a short-term job that lasts a few fleeting — yet formative — years. The real question is why more mothers don’t stay home with the children, instead of demanding a two-income lifestyle, business attire, and the way-overvalued “adult conversation.”
Second, men and women are different. What the New York Times really wants to do is challenge gender roles generally. After all, why don’t men take off work to stay home, instead of their over-worked, stressed-out wives? Well, it feels silly to point this out to a panel of experts, but men and women are different. We have complementary skills and abilities. Women, for example, are the ones with stretch marks and breasts that nourish. Men cannot gestate a baby, no matter how manicured, effeminized, and metrosexual society tries to make them. This means that childbirth is harder on women than it is on men. For example, my first two children did not practice “nipple diversity,” meaning I couldn’t drop them off at a sitter with a freezer full of frozen breast milk and a cabinet of bottles. I had to be with them — literally within reach — for the majority of their breastfeeding time. For us, this was 14 months per kid, a definite career-stunter had I been invested in a job that required travel, clothes not stained with breast milk, and regular bathing. It was a challenging time of life, but one that I’ll always remember with fondness. (We adopted our third child — no nursing required!)
Of course, sometimes in a challenging economy, moms need to work to put food on the table. Many women, however, work to ensure yearly vacations, drive the best SUVs, or serve some sort of “self-fulfillment.” This causes parents to strain against nature’s order of things by hiring out child-care, breast pumping, using formula, and sometimes asking men to trade their jobs for aprons. No matter how you try to manipulate it, having children is hard on the mother … and it’s not the fault of the father.
“How can we get men to do more at home?” the New York Times asks. They might as well ask, “How can we get men to be women?” Because raising and feeding young children is not a 50/50 proposition — no matter how many experts weigh in on the issue.
— Nancy French is the co-author of Bristol Palin’s Not Afraid of Life and the upcoming Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War.