The other day Alisha and I were watching The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. We read the book (I recommend) and thought we’d enjoy the film. I did, up until the mom was interrupted in some task to clean up the poop her toddler had smeared all over the living room. Too real.
I was (and still am) in the midst of potty-training my 3 year-old and have a toddler in diapers. I’ve got housework that kids are always interrupting. It simply was not enjoyable for me to watch a film about someone dealing with the same things.
Of course, no one’s going to write a book or make a film about my life. Alisha isn’t a deadbeat alcoholic spending all her earnings before she gets home. I have an advanced degree, meaning I don’t have to resort to the whims of contest judges to support my kids, should the need arise.
What about that advanced degree, though?
Let me bring you back to ten years ago this month. Alisha and I arrived in Austin, ready for the next big step in our lives. I had dreams of clerking for a judge and maybe becoming a judge myself someday. Whatever the end, law school was about to start and I was excited for this step that I had worked toward for years. Alisha had a good job and would work through law school to cut down on our debt load.
A few times during law school and since, some decision points have come in which I made a decision many men do not make. I prioritized caregiving. Now, I never planned to be the primary caregiver for my children. If I’d had different job opportunities, there’s a good chance my daily schedule would look very different than it does now. But life worked out the way it did and I’ve learned some powerful lessons because of that.
At the core is this: for the sake of women, children, families, and men, we need men to step up in the home.
Men belong in the home
I grew up in a conservative community, yet my parents modeled a non-conservative partnership. My parents each worked full-time. Even though this was my day-to-day reality, I perceived our family as a sort of aberration. The ideal was 1950s America – the father should be the sole breadwinner and the mother should be the caregiver and homemaker. But because my mother worked as a nurse, my dad would cook, clean, and take care of kids when he was able. Of course, since he commuted for hours everyday, in reality my siblings and I did a lot of that work.
This equal partnership in my parents marriage – sharing the burden of housework, meals, and childcare – modeled behavior that is healthier for everyone. My mother has lived a fulfilling life because she has pursued the dream she had since she was 9 – to be a nurse. My siblings and I have a healthy relationship with my father because he was present and involved in our lives. My father never was under the illusion that it was ok to come home from work and sit down in front of the tv while there were dishes to be done or floors that needed cleaning. I attribute a lot of the success my siblings and I have had to my father present in our home.
I’m not saying that I think women should all have careers outside the home. What I am saying is that being present at home should be automatic for men the way it is for many women.
A father is a father first
We often think of women as mothers first and if they have a career, that’s a nice bonus. Men, on the other hand, have a career first and are fathers second. If the man doesn’t have a career, he’s falling short. This is wrong! I often grew up hearing the phrase, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” If only we truly believed that! If it were so, we would be less judgmental of men who truly prioritize their children.
Now, I will point out that I personally have received nothing but support. No one has, that I am aware of, ever accused me of being lazy or somehow neglecting my duties as a man. But years of cultural indoctrination have made it difficult for me to fully accept my current role in life, free of guilt. Maybe this is a me problem. But if you happen to share this problem, welcome to the club! You and I, we’re still doing our part! Our work at home is just as important to society as any work we could do in an office.
If we do believe this, it should reflect in our legal and corporate policies. Paternal leave should be just as common as maternal. Fathers should be expected to scale back their work when they have young children. Peter Panning from Hook should be the exception, not the rule. No corporation should demand that workers put the company first. There are certainly some moves toward this, but we have a lot of work left to do.
Men need to share the mental burden
While I was still in law school I learned first hand some of the cultural norms I’d internalized, despite the household I grew up in. We had our first child in the middle of my second year. When it was time for Alisha to return to work, she spent a great deal of time thinking about childcare for our daughter. I gave some input, but largely left it up to her. She eventually brought up that we had never discussed who should be in charge of childcare. I’d simply assumed she would take care of it. There is a little personality at play here – Alisha is more of a planner than I am. But enough women have written about this topic in the years since that I know there’s more to it than just our individual quirks.
To have a truly equal partnership, men and women need to share the mental burden. That doesn’t mean that men should always be picking the daycare. It does mean that parents need to discuss it and figure out who will take the lead. I’ve tried to be better about this since those early childcare days. I still have room for improvement, but I think I’ve gotten better over the years, more often considering questions about childcare, child-rearing, and other traditionally women-led topics.
My parents never set out to defy tradition or to be revolutionary. Neither did I. We simply did what we needed to so that we had enough to eat and a place to sleep. The result actually looks a lot like most of history – men and women doing what is necessary to provide for the family, care for the children, and maintain their house. While the sole breadwinner nuclear family can be an incredible privilege, it is exactly that – a privilege. For most people, it is out-of-reach. A healthier, more universally obtainable approach is for the adults in the home to discuss how they will earn an income and divide the housework and childcare.
The ideal American family should be one in which the couple communicate openly and often about how they will share their roles as providers, parents, and homemakers. For many people, that may look a lot more like Leave it to Beaver than my childhood and current home. The exact division of labor isn’t what’s important. What matters is that men are involved in the lives of their spouses and their children and are truly living the reality that success in the home is the greatest contribution to society they can make.
Now I better stop neglecting my children…