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The “Maternal Wall” Won’t Come Down Until Dads Step Up to the Parenting Plate

dad and totMy decision to stay-at-home full-time with my son — something I’ve done now since his birth, for almost four years — was not overtly political.

For years, I resisted becoming a father, so it seemed only right that when my wife had a baby I’d stay home with him. I wanted to fully embrace that which had made me so terribly uncomfortable in the past — to be not just a dad, but a stay-at-home dad, the primary caregiver. It would build emotional muscle, I thought (correctly).

Economic factors played a role in my decision too. I had just graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Staying at home meant that I would be able to practice my craft while my son napped. (Oh, the best laid plans. He turned out not to nap so much.) Prior to my graduate studies, I taught at a private middle school, where I made about $40,000 a year. Childcare in Brooklyn would run nearly that much — in fact, a 2012 study finds it costs more than college — so if I returned to teaching I would be working only to work, and at a job I was no longer passionate about at that. Plus, my wife and I are both do-it-yourself-ers. Why pay someone to watch my child when I could do it?

Of course, as the adage goes, the personal is political, and underlying these choices was the belief, shared by my wife and me, that I could do just as good a job as she could raising our child. Not everyone feels this way, I know from experience. Strangers have never been shy sharing their advice or consternation about my parenting, comments my wife doesn’t get, since she’s not the “clueless dad.”

My wife has no second-thoughts about me staying home with our son. She’s glad, in part because it drives her a bit bonkers to spend long days with him. “How do you do this everyday?” she asks. It’s not for everyone, I tell her. So I don’t believe that women are somehow inherently better at caring for children — a silly and outdated notion that continues to have currency (see, for example, the article in this week’s issue of New York Magazine, “The Feminist Housewife: Can Women Have It All by Choosing to Stay Home?“).

My wife’s been back on the job as an educator at a non-profit cultural institution since my son reached three months, feeling secure that her son was in good hands. She faced some of the troubles that many new moms do when returning to work pumping breast milk in a staff bathroom, struggling to shine on the job after a sleep-deprived night full of multiple nursings. But, I’ve never disturbed her on the job with childcare questions or emergencies. If she needs to stay late, or has a change in schedule, it’s not usually a problem, or an added cost for nanny-overtime. Once a year she leads a weekend-long camping trip, and she never stresses as to who will watch our son. I’m there for that.

Nor do I just bail out when she arrives home. We split the work around the house, collaborating or splitting some chores — we both enjoy making dinner, for instance — and diving up others — she tackles house repairs, I handle the lion’s share of the shopping. Even in the division of labor, we don’t follow traditional gender norms. Why should we? She’s much better at using a hammer and driving a car than I am. I’d prefer to hold the nails for her, and navigate the map in the passenger’s seat. (She’s got a terrible sense of direction and hates to stop for help.)

Many moms face the infamous “Maternal Wall”: the considerations that come with having a baby that might cause them to put their domestic and childcare duties ahead of their career, the impact of being the primary (or default) caregiver dealing with a child who is sick or on school holiday, and the discrimination from bosses who feel a mother may not be able to handle the increased workload that would come with a promotion. Traveling for business as a new mom, for example, may not be attractive, or even possible. Working long hours, natch. Even pumping breast milk may seem like an impediment to being taken seriously in a corporate culture of Good Ole’ Boys. (For the sobering statistics on how motherhood negatively affects women’s paychecks, check out “Lean In Think This Doesn’t Matter to You? Think Again. on The Huffington Post by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Executive Director, CEO, and co-founder of MomsRising.org.)

For my wife, this wall hasn’t been quite as high as it is for many women, because of me. Oh, have no doubt, the wall is there, and probably always will be. Babies require a lot of care, and considerations must be made by all but the most wealthy, who may be able to afford full-time childcare while both partners work. (Likewise, families of any socio-economic level who retain a more traditional structure, where grandparents live in the house or nearby and are willing and able to put in the long hours raising their children’s children, as sometimes happens in China, for example.) What bothers me is that this wall is considered “maternal,” as opposed to being a “family” wall.

Why aren’t men slowing down in order to shoulder the load? Obviously, a man wouldn’t have to take time out of his workday to pump milk if his child is nursing, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be considerate of women who need to do so, remembering that their own partners who were, are, or might become mothers may be doing this as well. But men can certainly take time out of their schedule to come home early from work, just like a man should be contributing equally on the domestic front — cooking, cleaning, doing chores, paying bills, all in an equal partnership with his mate. By balancing the load, the wall will be smaller for all involved.

We’re in a national moment when women are discussing the Family Wall from a variety of perspectives — Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement and book asks women to take more active role in lowering the wall, while Anne Marie Slaughter, author of the powerful article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in The Atlantic, points to government policy shifts that would help lower the wall.

Dads need to be a part of this dialogue too. Really, the term “Mommy Wars” bothers me, because it’s just the kind of thing that men would mock. Women, right? Can’t even make up their minds whether they’d like to be at home or in the office they want the best of both worlds!

Let’s rebrand this discussion, focusing it more on the family, less on mothers, and asking men: what are you doing to ensure that your mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and friends are living in a world where they are seen as equals in both the home, the workplace, and the political sphere?

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