There is hardly a topic that gets people quite as wound up as women’s home-work decisions. Many a Shabbat lunch has turned explosive when a strong view was deemed condescending, insensitive, or (dare I say it?) sexist. I confess to having been a copious part of this phenomenon over the years, occasionally accused of being, um, a bit opinionated.
Women, looking around at other women, are often so sensitive to being judged — whether or not the sentiment is justified. Working women feel judged as bad mothers, and stay-at-home mothers feel judged as inferior members of society at large, a society in which career often equals social status and identity. I think that much of the recent Sisterhood debate on this topic reflects this general insecurity. Mothers are so heavily judged and blamed for a whole host of societal ills. From Sigmund Freud to Robert Goren, mothers who don’t do their jobs properly are credited with smothering and emasculating young men and for causing psychosis and sociopathic behavior. No wonder women are always so insecure.
As I said in my previous post, I sometimes find the question of women’s work to be a bit tired. Not trying to dismiss real dilemmas, what I tried to say is that although the dilemmas are real, the dichotomy between “work or home” is false, and we should abandon that discussion.
Frankly, I am an advocate of parents both working and being at home. I personally work far more than 40 hours a week, but I do most of it from home. (“Lucky”, you say? It’s not luck but design, and a lot of tough negotiating and some painful choices.) My message to women is not to give up, not to abandon one or the other, but to seek out balance — and really, to stop asking for permission. That was the main point. That, and, don’t give men a free pass. Parenting is for men, too, and whatever dilemmas we have should belong to our offspring’s other parents as well.
That said, my colleague and friend Debra Nussbaum Cohen interpreted what I said to mean that my life is struggle-free. “I’m glad that it appears to be so clear to you, in every moment, what you should be doing (even if it’s five things at once). But I find it hard to believe that someone as thoughtful as you are [thank you by the way, and likewise] hasn’t felt conflicted about your competing demands.” Of course, Debra. The conflicts are constant — and I mean, constant. There are jobs I do not take because of the demands, but there are also moments when I drop it all and spend a week at a conference, for example. It’s a constant negotiation — with myself, with my family, and with the outside world. I wasn’t trying to say I’m “settled”. Rather, I was merely suggesting that we shift the conversation away from easy black-and-white divisions, stop berating ourselves, and mostly expect more of men.
It’s also not enough to say, “the man is the larger wage-earner, and so it is easier for the woman to put her career on hold to be home with their children.” Work is not just for money but also for self-development. Besides, it just reminds us that women need to be making more money.
I would also like to respond to one of my commenters, a guy I only know as “Dan”, who wrote: “I take strong issue with the blanket statement: ‘Do we find men agonizing about whether to take a job because long hours will make them a bad father?’ Yes there are some out there. And generalizations like that undermine your arguments somewhat. And we (sadly the few) who do agonize, and we who do completely believe that ‘Work is for both genders and parenting is for both genders’, and that true co-parenting is possible and are also male, are then exposed to the sad assumptions made by all and sundry (especially women) that this is not the case.”
Dan, you are absolutely right that I did not mean to sound dismissive of co-parenting men. You’re out there, and that’s exactly the point. Men who are equal parents should not be made to feel invisible. Perhaps we should find a forum where you can encourage other men. (Have you considered blogging?)
Finally, I would like to note that it seems The New York Times has been following our conversation. (I can dream, can’t I?) Coincidentally, perhaps, an article from Sunday’s paper addresses these very issues, and says it all much better than I did. They write of the “many positive effects” in families with loose gender roles: Women are happier; men are happier; divorce rates are actually lower!
The barriers, though, to gender fluidity and overall happiness are not what you might expect. It’s not just fear of men’s abandoning the bread-winning role that keeps families from changing. It is sometimes also the woman’s reluctance to “cede her role as the parent in charge. It took me awhile to get to that point where I didn’t feel like I had to be at every doctor’s appointment or supervising and laying out a specific lists of chores,’” one woman said. Interesting. It’s possible that we women are doing the damage to ourselves.
I think it’s time to let go. All of us — men and women alike — should just let go of antiquated and unhelpful gender expectations. It’s just time.