Now we’re talking like we want to change something

February 24, 2009

Much better, Chronicle: Mary Ann Mason’s “Men and Mothering” is a terrific example of how talking about the challenges of combining an academic career and parenthood in gender inclusive terms works to transform the conversation.  Instead of having one more rehearsal of how tough it is to be a woman, this is the start of a genuine discussion of how the status quo works against the happiness and success of men and women.

She begins with recent surveys indicating that women continue to put in longer hours at home than men do. Graduate students who are mothers, for example, work 101 hours per week and spend half that time on parenting and house duties, while graduate student fathers work 89 hours per week and spend 37% of their time on domestic work. This is not news, but unlike most writers, who use those types of statistics to prove that men just don’t want to change, Mason uses them to ask what we can do to make it easier for men to take on equal responsibility in parenting: “Before we point fingers at fathers, let’s acknowledge that they are, in fact, contributing a significant number of hours to child care and housework. Let’s also acknowledge the social and institutional barriers that may prevent them from doing more.”

Mason goes on to examine fathers’ takes on being primary caregivers in academia, culled from comments to past Chronicle stories and a recent book by Andrea Doucet that examines the lives of 100 fathers who consider themselves the primary parent. Many of the men described have confronted outright discrimination (e.g. when special consideration for class scheduling is given to the mother of a special needs child but not a father who is a primary caregiver) and the lack of social support (as one father puts it, “I’ve been out to the library, and I’ve seen a guy pushing a baby carriage. But it’s just not so easy for a guy to go up to another guy and say, ‘Hey, how old is she? Do you want to be friends?'”). Talk about cultural invisibility–we never talk about this stuff, and it is rarely represented in serious contexts. Or if it is, it’s considered a one-off situation. Kramer v. Kramer came out in 1979. I don’t know what the reception for that was like (was it seen as some kind of cautionary tale about men who become attached to their children?) but whatever conversation it could have sparked about how the automatic connection of women with primary parenthood could work against fathers who held the same role doesn’t seem to have happened. But after reading this piece, I’m hopeful that this discussion can take off if we start to expand our attention to include challenges men face in being equal partners. I know plenty of men who wouldn’t have it any other way, and helping them helps me and other women, too.

I also appreciated that Mason said exactly what it took me several years to recognize and articulate after I got married–that my husband and I were not getting the same message from our culture and our families when it came to the choices we made for lives. In subtle and less subtle ways, I learned that it always going to be okay for me to walk away from whatever education or opportunities I had if I was doing it in the name of family, but it would never be okay for D to do the same thing. Talk about unfair to both of us. Changing this message means that we need to encourage women to take their work seriously and make it possible for them to do so, and likewise, as Mason concludes: “If we want fathers to become equal participants in child raising, we must encourage them to do so. Family-friendly policies must include fathers as well as mothers. Cultural change occurs with participation; only then will the strongly held gender stereotypes against men as committed caregivers dissipate.” That statement gives us something to do, which is a lot more helpful than ticking off all the reasons why being a “faculty wife” is not so bad.

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