A Few Good Men

Successful revolutions, by their nature, can never remain confined to one social group. For the last 30 years, as women of all ages and family statuses have streamed into the workplace, rearranging the balance of their ties to employment and child rearing, men have been experiencing a quiet revolution of their own. While men who provide the sole or major economic support to their families have not disappeared, their ranks have dwindled. Even generous estimates suggest that no more than a third of American households now depend solely or primarily on a male earner.

Today men are facing new expectations and new choices about their commitments to society, family, and work. No longer certain what goals they should pursue, much less how they should pursue them, many men have found themselves in a no-man's land, searching for new meanings and definitions of maturity. Amid these social upheavals, some men have held steadfastly to traditional definitions of manhood while others have sought greater autonomy and freedom from family commitments, a pattern that social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has called the male "flight from commitment." In interviews I conducted with 138 men from diverse social and economic backgrounds, 36 percent defined their family and work commitments in terms of primary breadwinning, and 30 percent chose to eschew parenthood or to avoid involvement with children they had brought into the world.

However, about 33 percent had moved toward more rather than less family involve ment over the course of their lives. These men developed an outlook on parenthood that included caretaking as well as economic support. They represent a growing group of fathers, most of whom are married to work-committed women and have an egalitarian approach toward marriage and family commitments, who are changing diapers, pushing strollers, cuddling their children, and generally sharing in the pleasures and burdens of child rearing. Such men, whom I call "involved fathers," are demonstrating a capacity, a willingness, and an enthusiasm for parenting not seen in their fathers' and grandfathers' generations.

An involved father, however, is not necessarily an equal father. Though men's domestic participation has increased in recent years, this involvement has not kept pace with women's rapidly rising commitment to paid employment. A persistent "housework gap" has left most women with more work and less leisure time than their male counterparts. According to some estimates, women average two to three fewer hours of leisure per day than do married men. When the time spent performing paid work, housework, and child care is added together, men work an average of 88 fewer hours a year than do women.

Why do only some become involved fathers, men who participate in domestic and childrearing duties but still see themselves as "mothers' helpers" rather than as full partners? Why do even fewer become equal partners, men who share in family duties and responsibilities fully and without reservation? In my interviews with these men, I discovered that the convergence of forces that led them toward a more equal sharing of breadwinning and caretaking was not obvious to them. Rather, they generally perceived this unexpected outcome as a matter of chance. Yet although the outcome may not have been planned, the process was not random. It resulted from an array of labor market and interpersonal experiences, a combination of constraints and opportunities, that converged in different ways for men who made other choices.

It may be tempting to focus on the fact that, even among men who support equality, their involvement as fathers remains a far distance from what most women want and most children need. Yet it is also important to acknowledge how far and how fast many men have moved toward a pattern that not long ago virtually all men considered anathema. One recent survey found that 73 percent of a group of randomly selected fathers agreed strongly that "their families are the most important facet of their lives"; 87 percent agreed that "dad is as vital as mom in raising kids." The challenge is to create the social and cultural arrangements that would enable men to uphold these beliefs more easily.


Turning Toward Family Involvement

Like most of the men who shared their life histories with me, involved fathers had once expected to become either primary breadwinners or to remain single and childless. Since the culture of their childhood stressed the virtues of breadwinning and the pleasures of bachelorhood, it is not surprising that these men did not aspire to a nurturing vision of manhood. But they were pushed by personal events toward the decision to share the burdens and joys of child rearing.

At home, involved fathers became committed to a nondomestic woman and developed an egalitarian outlook toward domestic and child-rearing duties. At work, involved fathers were pushed and pulled toward either intrinsically satisfying or less demanding work, even at the expense of lower pay and prestige. While those with college degrees had the luxury of searching for personally fulfilling work, men without degrees were more likely to become enmeshed in jobs that disappointed.

Among college graduates who became oriented toward family involvement, 58 percent ultimately chose careers that stressed intrinsic job characteristics, such as service to society and personal satisfaction, over extrinsic rewards, such as money and prestige. An additional 23 percent turned away from demanding, high-pressure careers in search of a looser commitment to work. In both instances, these men became disillusioned with traditional male professions and attracted to less lucrative but more gratifying lines of work.


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Most found that the traditional, profit-oriented professions, whatever their advantages, provided a poor fit for their particular talents. This happened to Rick, a high school teacher who had once considered a legal career:

I thought I'd be a lawyer. I knew a number of lawyers and was appointed to be a page in the state assembly. . . . I found it not to be my cup of tea at all. Most of that work was really boring. I didn't like that type of thinking. . . . So I just very rationally said, "Forget that."

Others veered away from the fast track because they refused to make the moral and lifestyle compromises many high-powered careers demand. Ernie, a physical therapist, resigned from a managerial position in a large private firm when he discovered his job was damaging his family relationships:

I was working from six-thirty in the morning to seven at night without breaks. I wasn't eating. I was irritable. I couldn't deal with anybody. . . . The job took control of me. I was possessed. I didn't feel patient with my daughter anymore. It was taking a big toll on me, and I didn't like it at all. I decided it wasn't worth it and the only way to stop it was to leave.

A sense of having options, even if they involved trade-offs, made it easier for college-educated men to absorb the economic and social sacrifices their choices entailed. Only 19 percent of this group felt blocked in their careers or expressed disappointment with their occupational paths. Men without college degrees, however, were more likely to encounter workplace roadblocks that they could not overcome or escape. Thus 82 percent of those in working-class jobs who moved toward involved fatherhood experienced downward or blocked mobility and general disappointment at the workplace.

Most of these men had chosen work they expected to find fulfilling, but being stuck on a low rung produced alienation from work itself. Harvey, an off-track-betting clerk, decided it was "too late" to leave by the time he realized he had hit a dead end:

I had expectations for the job, that it was going to lead somewhere, and I got sold a bill of goods. I trained two people that are managers today, and I'm still just a clerk.

Despite their discontent, these men became captives of job security, pensions, and health plans. As Lloyd, a sewage worker, told me, "You can't help but not be satisfied. But where could I go? I'd love to do something else, but how can I turn away from that kind of money?"

Unsuccessful attempts to enter or stay in preferred occupations forced some to settle for less. Bureaucratic politics, rigid seniority systems, and a lack of credentials dashed the hopes of others. Whatever the route, hitting a dead end at work undermined an earlier belief that merit and hard work would be recognized and rewarded, which in turn engendered declining aspirations and rising estrangement from paid work.

As these men looked for commitments beyond the workplace and became involved with women who desired and expected help in child rearing, they found unexpected pleasure in parenting. Spending time with their children became as important to them as contributing money. Becoming an involved father, however, meant trading some historically male advantages for the chance to ease some historically male burdens. As Carl, a utilities worker, explains:

Work's a necessity, but the things that really matter are spending time with my family. If I didn't have a family, I don't know what I would have turned to. . . . I look at my daughter and think, "My family is everything."

Indeed, it is a man's participation in caring for his children, not the shared breadwinning that typically accompanies it, that determines whether a man is an involved father. The type and degree of activity varied greatly among the involved fathers, but they all emphasized sharing and flexibility in parenting and domestic tasks. Lou, a sewage worker and father of a young girl, and Theodore, a planner who is married but not yet a father, sound remarkably similar despite differences in class and life stage:

Patricia and I know how the other works. If one of us has a bad day, the other person will pick up the slack. If it's getting Hannah ready, teaching her writing, spelling, or such, it's whoever is in a better frame of mind that day that handles it. We feed off each other's vibes. If we both have bad days, then whoever had the better day takes care of her.

One thing I learned: you can't take domestic jobs and say, "You do this, and I do that . . . . I think the same way with children. It's not going to be, "You're the one who changes the diapers while I burp the child." You do it together. If she's too tired, then I'll do it; and if I'm too tired, then she'll do it.

Autonomous men could make work choices without taking the economic needs of children into account. Primary breadwinners faced pressure to maximize their economic contribution, but they could also make choices about work without concern for spending time at home. Men who wished to care for their children, however, faced hard choices between freedom and commitment, career and parenthood, time spent with children, and time spent making money or pursuing leisure. In the past, such trade-offs appeared to be the dilemma of employed mothers; today they confront any adult who tries to be both a committed parent and a committed worker.

First, involved fathers felt torn between an ideal of good parenting that stresses providing emotional sustenance and one that stresses providing economic support. Michael, a therapist, had become the custodial parent of his adolescent son and daughter after a divorce. He worried about how to meet both his emotional and economic obligations:

It's tough to maintain a standard of living in today's world--to live in a nice place and be able to send your kids to college or take vacations. And nobody pays you for doing nothing. They don't pay you unless you bust your neck. So it's difficult for me to make a choice, to spend the time I think I should with them. It makes the choices complicated, because you frequently are in situations where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

A second dilemma for involved fathers revolves around the contrasting demands of nurturing a family and nurturing a career. Unlike the previous problem, this one concerns how these men can meet their own needs as well as their children's. Ernie, the physical therapist, explained how:

You always feel like you have to make a choice between a career versus family, and that's so unfair. I want a higher position where I can grow and be financially okay, but I don't want to have to travel or be away on weekends. I don't want to sacrifice time with my family; it isn't worth it.

Third, even in the absence of a perceived conflict between family and career, involved fathers faced trade-offs between freedom and commitment, privilege and participation, the ability to pursue personal interests and the demands of family involvement. Neil, a graduate student, anticipated that he would have to sacrifice many treasured leisure activities when he became a father:

I think I can balance my career and a child, but it's the other personal things that will obviously suffer--leisure time, political activity. That's definitely starting to concern me.

Involved fathers felt these conflicts more acutely than other men precisely because they defined "good fathering" in terms of active involvement. Flexible about what they would do, their commitment not to rule anything out did not necessarily include a commitment to rule everything explicitly in. The stress on fluid, interchangeable responsibilities left unresolved the question of how much time they would commit and how much responsibility they would assume. They could use this vagueness to avoid certain tasks. Indeed, most were able to limit or pass on some of the costs of child rearing.

One way to limit the demands of parenthood and still play a significant role in child rearing is to keep the family small. Many involved fathers pushed for this, sometimes amid a wife's ambivalence. In addition, most (over three-fourths) of these households relied on paid or unpaid help from an additional caretaker. Involved fathers knew this help was essential for their own well-being, but they tended to view paid baby-sitters, housekeepers, and even relatives as substitutes for their wives (or, in some cases, ex-wives) and not for themselves. Since even the most involved fathers did not consider their responsibilities at work to be negotiable, the wife's decision to remain employed (or her absence from the home altogether) triggered the search for a "substitute mother." Frank, a bank vice president, pointed out how he "helped" his wife, a public relations officer, in caring for their young daughter:

My participation is very extensive. I thoroughly enjoy my daughter's company. I regularly take her out on my own to allow Sharon time without the interruptions of a young child. And when she has got to go out of town on business--often for as much as a week or ten days at a time--I'm perfectly capable of stepping into her shoes.

Some fathers, however, became genuinely equal--and, in rare cases, primary-- parents. Nearly 40 percent of involved fathers (or 13 percent of my entire sample) went beyond being mothers' helpers, reflecting a limited but growing trend. Although it is not possible to know exactly what proportion of couples share equally, even conservative estimates suggest that it is on the rise. In her study of dual-earning couples, for example, Arlie Hochschild found that about 20 percent shared what she called the "second shift" equally.

While involved fathers faced trade-offs that other men do not, the degree and consequently the price of parental involvement varies. Why and how did some men become equal, or even primary, parents, while most remained mothers' helpers? As we shall see, most mothers' helpers faced social, economic, and ideological barriers that suppress equality and lacked the necessary social conditions that foster equal or primary parenting in men.


Resisting Full Equality: The Strategies of Mothers' Helpers

Many men still consider themselves mothers' helpers--secondary caregivers. Mothers' helpers devoted much time and energy to their children, but they avoided those activities that they deemed least attractive. Although Howard, a financial manager, spent his evenings and weekends sharing child care with his employed wife, he let himself off the hook when it came to certain responsibilities:

I wouldn't say either of us expends ourselves greater in time or emotion. We have a baby-sitter who comes in full-time, but when she's not there maybe Marcia does a little bit more physically. She'll probably get up at night more than I will. I sleep heavier. I don't even hear the baby, and she's up in a snap, and I won't even know it in the morning.

What is deemed fun and what is deemed work is, of course, subjective. But the option to choose between desirable and undesirable tasks, which their wives did not possess, allowed most of these mothers' helpers to pass to someone else much of what they preferred not to do.

When they did share child care equally, these men did not share housework in the same way. As Charles, a lawyer married to a professor, put it:

It's much more equal in what I do with Pete than in the house. I enjoy looking after him; it's more fun than washing dishes or even than putting them in the dishwasher, which I'm still not very good at. I'm lazy about housework and stuff like that, and Rachel is compulsive enough that if it doesn't get done, she'll do it. And I take advantage of that.

The pattern of men's avoiding housework while participating in child care appears to be widespread. In one study, men's share of child care was shown to be substantially higher than their share of housework. Another found that women do 70 percent of the housework in dual-earner families (with no significant differences between classes).

Mothers' helpers were also reluctant to take responsibility even though they participated. Dean, a driver for the park service, conceded that despite his extensive involvement in domestic work, he relied on his wife to assign the tasks: "Joan does a little more of the housework. We never actually sat down and said who should do what, but if she asks me to do something, I'll pretty much gladly do it."

Warren, an engineer, relied on his employed wife to make last-minute arrangements during unexpected emergencies, even when caused by his job:

Sometimes, like if I get stuck working overtime, she'll have to make arrangements for getting a baby-sitter. She always complains to me that I'm working the overtime and she gets stuck finding the baby-sitter because she has to go to work that night. So the pressure is put on her.

The husband who remained a helper placed limits on his wife's ability to secure equality. Ultimately, he decided if and when to participate, knowing that she would make up for his absence. The struggle to secure domestic equality became her job, not his. While few of these men denied that their partners bore the larger share of family responsibilities, they attributed the gap to situational pressures more than personal preferences.

Because a man's participation emerges from fragile social contexts rather than an "inherent" ability or desire, he may become an equal father in one situation and a mother's helper, a breadwinner, or even an estranged father in another. If some fathers did become equal participants in child rearing, it is because they faced stronger incentives and met fewer obstacles than others.


Beyond Helping: What Leads to Equal Parenting?

If most involved fathers resisted equal participation, a substantial minority did not. These "equal parents" shared what mothers' helpers eschewed. Ernie shared responsibility for making arrangements for the care of his young daughter:

I wanted to be there for the good times and the bad times. I wanted to share in making decisions, which was good for my wife, too. I don't want her to decide on a nursery school; let's decide together. . . . How can I say I want children and not take that kind of responsibility?

Equal fathers also shared the "dirty work" of child care and housework. Lloyd, had three children and drew few boundaries in dividing daily tasks with his wife, a chiropractor:

We've always shared breadwinning and caretaking right down the middle. That's from washing the floor, changing diapers, washing clothes, cleaning the house. I don't draw any lines as to what is men's work and women's work; work is work.

In rare but significant cases, a father's contribution exceeded his partner's. Rick, the teacher, assumed the lion's share of caretaking when his wife, a librarian, returned to a more highly structured, nine-to-five job shortly after the birth of their first daughter:

For those first five years, I got the kids dressed and fed and everything. I always got up in the night with the first one. Always. It was 99 percent me with the older one. With the second one, it was shared. We have experimented and continued to do so--not really much thinking of it as an experiment anymore.

By rejecting the path of least resistance, these men illuminate the unusual circumstances that allow and promote equality and even primary parenting for men. They also underscore what deters most involved fathers from choosing full equality even when they might wish to do so.

When Mothers Are More Committed Than Fathers to Work. Among most dual-earner couples, men enjoy higher earnings, better prospects for occupational mobility, and a wider range of career opportunities than do women. Most fathers thus believe their employment should and must take precedence over their partners'. They also conclude that it is both practical and fair to rely on their wives or partners as primary caretakers. For most dual-earning parents, including men who became mothers' helpers, inequality in career and economic opportunities constricts the options of both parents, dampens a father's incentive to become an equal parent, and provides a justification for domestic inequality. Indeed, many economists, especially those who employ a "human capital" perspective, use precisely this argument to explain domestic inequality. They argue not only that income inequality makes domestic inequality a rational choice but that economic inequality arises from differences in men's and women's tastes or preferences. This perspective assumes that men prefer to maximize their earnings while women prefer to balance domestic and paid work.

In reality, economic and occupational opportunities are far more rigidly divided by gender than are the tastes and preferences of individual men and women. Not only do a large and growing proportion of women wish to enhance their economic and occupational chances by developing their "human capital," but a significant proportion of men would clearly prefer to work less if they could. Those men whose tastes do not place unquestioned preeminence on paid work still face severe constraints on "choosing" to focus less on work and more on domestic pursuits. Although social incentives and constraints tend to push men out of the home and leave women responsible for it, both groups face conflicts between the demands of employers and the noneconomic needs of their families.

In spite of the general pattern of occupational inequality, cases in which a woman finds equal or better career opportunities than her partner's are becoming more widespread. The Census Bureau reports that the number of wives who earn more than their husbands increased from 4.1 million in 1981 to 5.3 million in 1987. The ratio of wives' mean earnings to husbands' mean earnings also increased during those years, from 0.41 to 0.45.

When a man's partner becomes more committed to a career than he does, neither parental equality nor a reversal of parental duties is assured. Social and ideological pressures to conform to a different pattern make equal parenting an unusual outcome even in conducive circumstances. Nevertheless, I found that in those rare instances when a reversal of occupational trajectories did occur among parents, a more equal arrangement became more likely. There is good reason to believe this dynamic occurs across a broad spectrum of couples. One study found, for example, that when a woman's career commitment is high, her share of domestic labor drops substantially. A comparison of nonemployed wives with those who worked 50 hours a week and earned at least $25,000 a year showed that the employed women's share of domestic labor dropped from 75 percent to 56 percent as their husbands and children took on more. While just being employed may not make much difference for married women's domestic burden, full-time employment in better paying jobs clearly does.

But the calculus of decision making involves more than money. I found that the relative degree of work commitment and satisfaction between parents was more decisive than strict economic accounting. Thus the percentage of equal fathers and mothers' helpers who earned about the same as their partners is roughly equal (44 percent to 38 percent), but equal fathers were more likely to be involved with a woman who faced better long-term career prospects (28 percent compared with only 7 percent for mothers' helpers). When a father's dissatisfaction with work combined with a mother's growing commitment to it, their job trajectories converged to make equality or primary parenting by a man more attractive-- certainly not guaranteed, but more likely.

When Fathers Take Advantage of Flexible Work. Lack of job flexibility provides a genuine reason as well as a justification for unequal participation. Whatever their desires, most fathers are constrained by rigid work schedules, which make equal parenting less attractive, easier to avoid, and often out of the question. In a recent Census study of child-care arrangements for dual-earning couples with children under five, when both parents worked during the day, only 4 percent of mothers reported that their husbands were the primary caretakers when they were at work. When both parents worked at night, however, 31 percent relied on their husbands as primary caretakers. When the father worked during the day and the mother worked at night, 32 percent relied on their husbands. And when the mother worked during the day and the father worked at night, 18 percent relied on their husbands. Caretaking by fathers is thus more likely to occur when at least one parent works an unconventional shift.

Without the motivation to become more involved with his children, a father's job flexibility bears little relation to his parenting. But I found that the proper motivation enhanced the chances that an involved father would use a flexible work schedule to become an equal parent. This was especially so when his partner's work schedule was more rigid. For Rick, the teacher, shorter hours at the workplace and summers off allowed him more family time than his wife, a librarian, could muster. For many years he was the primary parent; now that the children are in school, he and his wife share child care "about equally."

For some, flexible work schedules had the unintended consequence of promoting equality or primary caretaking by a man. Others consciously chose to reject a nine-to-five schedule so that they could be more involved. Todd, a construction worker, opted for the evening shift so that he could spend his days with his newborn daughter while his wife pursued her dancing career:

I take care of her in the morning and until I have to leave for work. I wake up with the morning ahead of me, and that's important with a little one. Even if I'm pretty tired when I get up, all I have to do is look at that little face, and I feel good.

Flexible work schedules could exact costs. They sometimes came at the expense of other work rewards, such as opportunities for advancement and a higher income. Equal fathers were willing to pay this price in order to spend more time with their children. In these cases, flexible work provided the opportunity for equal parenting, but as we shall see, more subtle psychological incentives allowed and encouraged men to take advantage of it.

When Fathers Don't Have a Woman to Rely On. Although divorce typically separates fathers from their children, fathers can become more involved if they retain joint or sole custody. Of course, men seek custody precisely because they wish to participate in rearing their children. Nevertheless, retaining custody can have unintended as well as planned consequences.

Both one-parent families headed by men and joint-custody divorces remain rare, but the size of both groups is growing. The percentage of male custodial households has grown from 1.9 percent in 1970 to 3.1 percent in 1989. The number of divorces that produce joint-custody arrangements is harder to ascertain, but it is clearly growing at a much faster pace than male custody alone. The number of divorced fathers in my study is small (only 14), but 43 percent of them retained joint or sole physical custody, albeit not always legally.

Whatever the path, retaining some form of custody held unforeseen consequences for fathers who, though involved, were formerly able to rely on a woman to do a large share of the parental work. Divorce shattered some men's belief that a woman would always be there.

The loss of a female partner may also have more felicitous consequences. It forced once-complacent fathers to confront the previously unnoticed tasks of child rearing. Fathers who did not have a woman to rely on had little choice but to develop what some call "maternal thinking." These divorced men came to realize how much their freedom and independence had depended on their former wives' presence. They learned what their ex-wives already knew: involved parenting requires personal sacrifices. Like other equal fathers, custodial fathers were likely to search for less demanding and more flexible jobs. Roger, a businessman and divorced, custodial father of two, found himself making unexpected work sacrifices to accommodate his new job as a primary parent:

The boys remained with me from the beginning, and I needed stability. I couldn't start a new job and rearrange my home schedule, so I stayed. I was making enough money, the hours fit, and it was convenient. I could be home at five-fifteen, have dinner on the table by six-fifteen. I was bored, but it was convenient for what else I was dealing with at the time. It's a seesaw. You've got to keep things balanced.


Coping with the Costs of Equality

Equal fathers are rare because it takes rare circumstances for them to emerge. The men I interviewed became equal parents only as a last resort when other alternatives were unavailable, unacceptable, or too costly. When a father's occupational prospects were dimmer than his wife's, when his job was more flexible or less demanding than hers, or when a wife was absent altogether, an involved father moved beyond helping to sharing equally or becoming the predominant parent. It took these unusual opportunities and constraints on both parents to overcome the heavy social and ideological barriers to equal participation. Since social arrangements make equal parenting both unlikely and difficult, "male mothering" emerged only when it became easier to choose it than to avoid it. When this happened, men developed parenting skills and attachments that rival those more often imputed to women. Indeed, when the opportunity arose, these men became "mothers" with apparent ease.

Just as equal and primary fathers acted and thought like caretaking mothers, they faced similar conflicts. While mothers' helpers strove to justify the inequality that remained after their participation was taken into account, equal and primary fathers had to cope with the difficulties of juggling heavy work and family demands. The similarities between equal fathers and work-committed mothers are unmistakable. While most men may not trade off between family and work as women do, those men who face similar constraints are likely to make choices in similar ways. Michael, for example, worried about the toll his working took on his children:

Probably the thing I dislike the most has to do with my being hard on myself for being so career-oriented. I am very ambitious, and it's a conflict that's still unresolved.

Equal fathers also worried about the personal costs of their choices. Like employed mothers, they could feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of all they had to do. Michael continued:

When I tell friends what I do, they say, "Oh my God, you poor guy. You must be overwhelmed." And it's true. Sometimes I feel that way.

To cope with the conflicts and the costs of their choices, fathers who became equal or primary parents focused on the benefits and discounted the costs to themselves and their children. They emphasized such personal rewards as a greater sense of domestic control, the intrinsic pleasure of being close to their children, and even the advantages of receiving credit for a job well done. Like employed mothers who struggle to be "superwomen," equal fathers tried to be "superdads" who could juggle the demands of full-time work and parenting. Their sacrifices, moreover, were rarely noticed or applauded, as Rick learned:

There was one time when one of these doyens of the junior league was sitting in her shop, and I walked in with the two kids. And she said, "Oh, I have seen you at the school many times. I always thought you were a nonworking parent, that you stayed home." At the time, I was furious because I was holding down a job and taking care of the kids and writing a dissertation, and she thought I just hung around the playground all the time.

Given that equal fathers perform a juggling act with as few social supports as employed mothers possess, it is hardly surprising that so few men choose equality. Most involved fathers concluded that being a mother's helper holds fewer drawbacks and offers enough rewards to make it the more attractive option.


Suppressing Fatherhood: Social and Ideological Obstacles to Equality

Given the right conditions, many men would forgo traditional jobs in favor of more control over the conditions of work and the ability to spend less time at it. For involved fathers, more flexibility and control meant more time for family life, not just more time for leisure. The right conditions rarely obtain for those who would choose to spend less time at work and more with their families, however. The obstacles that constrain men's domestic participation not only make parental equality an elusive option; they also perpetuate the belief that all men prefer it that way. Fathers and would-be fathers rarely enjoy the option to withdraw from paid work, even temporarily, to care for a child. Although full-time domesticity has declined as an option for women, it has not emerged as an option for men. Involved fathers were keenly aware that others frowned on the choice not to pursue a career. Carlos, a social worker, imagined the disapproval he would face if he quit working:

Personally, if I had an independent source of money and didn't have to work, I would enjoy it. But at the same time, a lot of people associate who they are through their jobs. When I wasn't working and met other people, it seemed very difficult to tell people who you were if you couldn't talk about what type of work you did.

Even more important than social disapproval, however, are personal circumstances that put domesticity or part-time work out of reach. The systematic depression of women's earnings and the gender gap between men's and women's incomes make it impractical and, indeed, impossible for most men to consider staying home while their wives go to work. Even if social change has made switching places more ideologically palatable, the persistence of economic inequality renders it a largely hypothetical option.

Economic inequalities between women and men underlie and reinforce cultural measures of manhood that stress work and earnings over parental dedication. However devoted, few fathers have the option to give their undivided attention to their children. Choosing domesticity requires extraordinary economic circumstances and the strength to resist prevailing ideologies.

Social disapproval and economic inequality put full-time domesticity out of reach for almost all men. Yet most of the involved fathers also discovered that economic necessity and employer intransigence make anything less than full-time work an equally distant possibility. Few employers offered the option of part-time work, especially in male-dominated fields. Yet even if part-time work were available, involved fathers still needed the earnings that only full-time and overtime work can offer. Lou, the sewage worker who worked the night shift in order to spend days with his young daughter, could not accept lower wages or fewer benefits:

If I knew that financially everything would be set, I'd stay home. I'd like to stay more with my daughter. It's a lot of fun to be with a very nice three-year-old girl. But if I work less, I would equate it to less money and then I wouldn't be taking care of my family. If it meant less work and the same or more money, I'd say, "Sure!" I'd be dumb if I didn't.

Since involved fathers tried to nurture as well as support their children, they made an especially hard choice between money and time. Like many mothers, they had to add caretaking onto full-time workplace obligations. Yet employers are generally reluctant to recognize male (or female) parental responsibility as a legitimate right or need. Worse yet, paternal leaves are rarely considered an appropriate option for men even if they formally exist. Involved fathers wished to take time off for parenting, but like most men they were reluctant to do so for fear of imperiling their careers. And even though most employers allow health-related leaves with impunity, they have not been so flexible when it comes to the job of parenting. Workers receive the message that illness is unavoidable, but parenting is voluntary--an indication of a lack of job commitment. Our current corporate culture thus makes parenting hazardous to anyone's career, and choosing a "daddy track" can be just as dangerous as the much-publicized "mommy track."

Domestic arrangements also impede full equality. Child rearing remains an undervalued, isolating, and largely invisible accomplishment for all parents. This has fueled women's flight from domesticity and also dampened men's motivation to choose it. Child rearing can be invisible as well as undervalued. Unlike the size of a paycheck or the title one holds at work, there are few socially recognized rewards for the time a parent devotes to raising a child or the results it produces. This made only the most dedicated willing to consider full-time parenting.

The forces pulling women out of the home are stronger than the forces pulling men into it. Since the social value of public pursuits outstrips the power and prestige of private ones, men are likely to resist full-time domesticity even as women move toward full-time employment. This process is similar to the one pulling women into male-dominated occupations while leaving men less inclined to enter female-dominated ones. In addition, just as women in male-dominated occupations face prejudice and discrimination, fathers who become equal or primary parents are stigmatized--treated as "tokens" in a female-dominated world.

In the face of such disincentives, most involved fathers rejected staying home for the same reasons many women do and more. Female breadwinning and male home making did not seem acceptable even when they made economic sense. Robin, a stockbroker, rejected domesticity precisely because his poor work prospects left him in no state to bear the additional stigma of being a househusband. Although he was making far less money than his wife was, he felt too "demoralized" to consider staying home. "I'm not secure enough, I guess, to stay home and be a househusband."

As the supports for homemaking mothers erode, supports for equal and primary fathers have not emerged to offset the growing imbalance between children's needs and families' resources. Fathers have had to depend on paid help, relatives, and already overburdened wives even when they did not wish to do so.

These obstacles leave mothers giving up more. They also make involved fathers appear heroic about whatever they do. Many involved fathers thus used comparisons with other men to ward off complaints and resist further change. Ernie maintained:

Sometimes she didn't think I did enough. I couldn't stand that because I thought I was doing too much. I really felt I was doing more than I should, whatever that means. I told her to go talk to some of her friends and see what their husbands are doing.

The answer to this predicament is not to stifle or condemn women's fight for individual rights but to hold men equally responsible for the moral work of caring for others. This, of course, means giving them more opportunities for family involvement. The decline of male breadwinning raises many dilemmas, but it also offers an unprecedented opportunity to bring greater equality to family and work life while expanding men's and women's range of choice and enhancing the well-being of children.


Men's Parenting and Social Policy

Since men's choices are shaped by social circumstances, the challenge is to build social institutions that support the best aspects of change (such as the expansion of equality, choice, and family involvement) and discourage the worst (such as the abandonment of children and the overburdening of women). We need to build policies that respect diversity, encourage responsibility, and create equal opportunity.

Women's movement into the labor force has made it clear that the home and the workplace are interacting rather than separate spheres. Yet conflicts between work and family have typically been viewed as a woman's problem. The current organization of the workplace makes it difficult for any parent, regardless of gender, to combine employment and parenting. Work poses obstacles to men's family involvement too, and to ignore these obstacles is to leave the problem unfairly resting on women's shoulders.

In addition, the historical bargain between employers and families has broken down. When employers paid their male workers enough to support a homemaking wife, they could argue that children's needs were not their concern. Since employers are now less likely to pay men a family wage that subsidizes female caretakers, the time has come to admit that most families depend on either two earners or one parent. What does this mean in practical terms? At the least, it means no longer penalizing employed fathers or mothers for providing the care and attention children need. Even more, it means offering workers greater flexibility in how they choose to balance work and family contributions over the course of the week, the year, and the career. Caretaking demands ebb and flow in unpredictable ways that cannot be addressed via rigid work schedules and career tracks. We need to create a more flexible boundary between family and work.

If involved parenting remains a formal option that few feel entitled to take without great sacrifice to their careers, the most ambitious or work-committed among us--women as well as men--will resist involved parenthood and reject the programs that exist on paper but punish those who utilize them.

Creating genuine family support policies to replace the patchwork of company-initiated programs that now exist will require political and legislative action. The federal family leave law that requires larger firms to offer their workers three months of unpaid leave in the event of a child's birth or a family medical emergency is certainly an important start, but it needs to become the floor on which we build more fundamental programs rather than the ceiling above which family policies cannot rise. Sweden, for example, guarantees all workers six weeks of paid vacation each year, three months paid leave when children are sick, the right to work part-time without losing one's job until one's children are seven years old, and 18 months of paid parental leave to fathers as well as mothers. A quarter of Swedish fathers take paternity leave. To move beyond short-term (and unpaid) family leave to secure the broader range of parental rights that many Europeans now take for granted may ultimately depend on a "parents' movement" comparable to the movements for workers' rights that once secured limits on the length of the workweek, safer working conditions, and minimum-wage guarantees. This means bringing men into the fight that women have pioneered in pursuit of a more family-supportive workplace.

Men's family involvement also depends on equal economic opportunities for women. Women's economic resources give them the leverage to insist that men parent more. They also make it possible for men to work less. A father's involvement depends on economic opportunities for his female partner. Thus, policies that promote economic opportunity for women also promote men's parental involvement.

Of course, economic opportunity and family obligation are related. Women cannot enjoy equal employment opportunities until men shoulder equal family obligations, and men are not likely to become equal parents until women enjoy equal economic opportunities. Indeed, when parenthood becomes as costly to men's work careers as it is to women's, then men, too, will have a stake in reducing the economic and social penalties for taking care of children.

Why should men support institutional changes that respect diversity and promote responsibility and equality? Because policies that offer men an equal opportunity to parent and offer women an equal opportunity to support their families will reduce the dilemmas and expand the range of choices for all. Even more important, the long-run fates of men, women, and especially children will depend on how our political and social institutions respond to the spreading dilemmas of family life that have been created in no small measure by changes in the lives of men.


Adapted from No Man's Land: Men's Changing Commitments to Family and Work by Kathleen Gerson. Copyright (c) 1993 by Basic Books. Published by arrangement with Basic Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

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