Last week, in the run-up to Father’s Day, Marc Tracy wrote at The New Republic that we are seeing the beginning of the Daddy Wars. It’s not true. It’s even more a falsehood than the “mommy wars” ever were. But while the title is wrong—and I don’t think it will stick—Tracy did rightly identify a new tenor of discussion that is a very good thing indeed—not just for dads, but for families in general.
Tracy pointed to Richard Dorment’s odd screed at Esquire titled “Why Men Still Can’t Have It All,” a reaction to the infamous Anne-Marie Slaughter article in The Atlantic. Dorment complained that he is just as torn up as women are about “work-life” conflict—i.e., having to choose between the job and the family. Dormant’s piece detailed the ways that he, too, misses his kids every minute—but then he went on to crab that men don’t whine about it the way women do, goddammit, because men are men and life is unfair and women have to stop the goddamn whiny whining.
And yet despite the fact that Dorment’s piece was shot through with Esquire’s faux-masculine anti-feminist posturing, it was chockful of important insights. And it started at least a mini-conversation about a profound truth: the issues facing working family are not women’s issues. Tracy’s piece was far smarter, noting the same problems without the attitude. So was Kurt Soller at The Cut, who got it half-right when he wrote:
"But I hope that, by the time I have kids, some five or ten years out, there are more viable role models or groups or self-help books or something that takes these very real, legitimate, and actually not-so-gendered problems, and then provides specific solutions for guys."
Stop right there. Back up. Replay: “actually not-so-gendered problems.”
Repeat after me, please: These are not gendered problems. The conflict between work and family is not gender-specific at all. There will be no specific solutions for guys. There will be no specific solutions for gals. These are American family problems. And until we see them that way, we will not solve them.
Seeing things that way wasn’t an option thirty years ago. The generation of women who cracked into the professional world had to carry everything on their padded shoulders. They couldn’t ask their employers for more flexibility; they couldn’t ask their husbands for more help. They were treated as if they were being done a favor by being allowed to have non-secretarial work at all. They really did have to solve everything, by themselves.
That time is over. The boys they raised are now in the workplace. They may not call themselves feminists, but they see women, home, work, and family very differently than their fathers did. These dudes knew that that would mean they’d have to step up a little more at home. And the good news is: They are.
Younger men really are leaning in at home—and long to do so even more, as is clear in Dorment’s long complaint. According to the most recent Pew Research Center study, sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census, men today spend three times as much time with their children as their fathers did (women are spending twice as much as their mothers did). Between work and home, “fathers and mothers are carrying an almost equal workload.” Other recent research tells us that four out of five households with children have women as the primary breadwinner; sometimes that’s as single parents, but millions are out-earning their male partners or husbands, and their incomes are family incomes that can’t be sacrificed for the dubious privilege of becoming a housewife.
And here’s what’s really new: Dads and moms are about equally divided in their dislike of the work-family juggle. As Pew puts it, “56 percent of working moms and 50 percent of working dads say they find it very or somewhat difficult to balance these responsibilities.” Twice as many dads (46 percent) as moms (23 percent) wish they could spend more time with the kids. And here’s the real war Tracy, Dorment, Soller, Dan Kois at Slate are writing about: whether or not to talk openly about how to manage this conflict.
Men are permitted a minimum of flexibility for having families: leaving to go to the kids’ soccer games or trying to get home to kiss them goodnight paints them as being good, reliable family men, whereas if women do any of that they are hit with the mommy penalty documented by Shelley Correll and other social scientists. It’s an unconscious bias that leads people to treat a “working mom” as less reliable than men with children or anyone without them. But the flip side is that if men really do try to stretch their time as much as women do, they get penalized more for escaping their gender roles and acting like … women.
So what is to be done? Tracy wants a discussion about it all:
“Every day I see smart, career-ambitious women having an intelligent, heated conversation, informed by personal experience and strewn with first principles, about what a woman’s proper roles are, and what society, men, and other women could do to realize a better world. I don’t feel as though I’ve been kept out. But I do think men have been altogether too shy about joining this conversation or, perhaps, starting their own”
But will men who dare to discuss this anguish be seen as whiny whiners? Will Dorment’s no crying in baseball shut-up-and-live-with-it attitude bleed into contempt for other men’s requests for a civilized conversation about the conflict between work and family? That would be a shame—not just for the men involved, but for all of us. Because the real problem isn’t a mommy war, or a daddy war. It’s a family war—a war of workers against the expectation of 24-hour availability. Instead of making this a battle between the sexes, or a battle within the sexes, can we make this a battle for working families?
As I’ve written elsewhere, the “mommy war” was never a war—not between women, at least. The infotainment media staged some fake battles between stay-at-home mothers (SAHMs, in the jargon) who looked down upon “working mothers” neglecting their children, while those heartless career women looked down on SAHMs for neglecting their brains. But in real life, over the past forty years, nearly everyone who could work has been, lest their families crash down through the economic crevasses opening beneath them.
The point is that each American family has tried to manage conflicts as best they could, patching things together however it was possible: keeping one parent home half-time, or taking jobs with more predictable hours, or stepping off the fast track for a couple of years, bowing to reality. We all know the stories. We’ve mostly heard complaints from the elite top-ten-percenters who have desperately tried to sneak out to see the kids while also giving everything they could on the job—answering emails until all hours, saying yes to international conference calls at dinner time—so that they could keep those jobs. But similar problems have bedeviled minimum wage earners, where one parent works the day shift and one parent works the night shift, texting each other requests to pick up milk on the way home, and handing the kids off to grandma when mandatory overtime strikes.
Americans like to think individually about social structure: individual dreams, individual efforts, individual rises and falls. At work, that’s framed as a battle to get ahead and an incessant improvisation act if you dare to imagine you could have a life beyond the job. But we forget that we are all improvising from a shared common ground. If we put down a better playground, if we built a better highway, we could all manage a little better.
The most hopeful thing I’ve seen in awhile is Jonathan Cohn’s cover article in The New Republic, The Hell of American Day Care. It was a thorough and thoughtful investigation of what it will take to actually care for our country’s children, ready to be our next workforce, paying for all our Social Security benefits. And it was written by a man.
Once men take up the work-family concerns, we’re going to be much closer to solving them. Men, please: don’t think of the work-family conflict as your private problem. Think of it as our shared American problem. All of us need a way to work, be with our families, be human beings, and make a decent living. We all need paid sick days, especially the 40 percent of the work force that doesn’t have them, We all need family and medical leave, fathers and mothers, and care-taking adult children alike. We also need public policy changes, to expand who's eligible under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and to make it affordable. Family and medical leave insurance funds like the ones established in California and New Jersey, where employees pay a small amount into an insurance pool and can then draw wages while they're out on leave, would make a huge difference in the lives of parents and children.
Research shows us that a program like this increases men's role in caregiving by making it possible for them to be involved without the family taking a big financial hit. In California, for example, fathers' leave-taking for bonding with a new child rose 12 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Every child gets routine ailments like stomach flu and pink eye—ailments that schools and child care centers cannot accommodate, but are not covered by the FMLA. Right now, about 40 percent of workers in the private sector do not earn paid time off when they or a child is sick.
These are not women’s issues. These are not feminist issues. These are workforce and public health issues. These are quality of life issues. Once upon a time unions would work on issues like this but, well, good luck with that now.
We all want to see our children, or friends, or families. We all want to have lives beyond the desk or construction site. We all need to have the next generation grow up literate, healthy, happy, and productive.
It’s not a daddy war. It’s not a mommy war. It’s a war of humans trying to stay human instead of being treated like wage-earning robots. Guys, what do you say?