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Men Have Every Right to Complain About Parenting

Why we need more men to speak openly about the challenges and joys of raising kids

This summer, as every summer, has seen a spate of stories about the impossible balancing act of raising children and earning wages in a country that is not built to support these joint pursuits. Blame it, perhaps, on the scramble for summer-time childcare. And, as seems true every summer, most of these stories have been told by women. Michel Martin wrote an important piece in National Journal about how the unique and amplified challenges faced by women of color are too often left out of public conversations about work-life balance. Then there was a New York Times piece by Yael Chatav Schonbrun, a clinical psychologist, grappling with her diminished research ambitions and reduced sense of professional worth after the birth of her children drew her to a more home-based career. Schonbrun, like Martin, mentions a husband in her piece, but the wrestling match—between the demands of small children and the demands of a big career—is clearly taking place very much in her own head.

The centering of conversations about work-family life on women makes sense in many respects, especially when we consider that it is women whose lives and bodies are most directly affected by family-unfriendly social policies and that in an ever-rising number of families, especially working class families, there often are no partners with whom to split the burdens and the joys of parenting. What’s more, the lopsidedly female nature of public meditations on work-family balance, coming from women who are seemingly happily partnered, is telling in itself: It reflects the degree to which one sex, though now freer to pursue economic and professional aims, is still saddled with the lion’s share of home and child-care labor.

But what of the two-parent, hetero unions in which men are full-fledged, equally-stressed-out participants? They exist! The fact that we don’t hear very much about them—all while hearing lots of valuable stuff from the women who are bearing the brunt of the pressures—means that in some way we are reinforcing this unequal set up as a norm, re-affirming an expectation that women, even those who enter socially and professionally equal partnerships, are somehow destined to wind up uniquely over-taxed, fighting the demons of guilt and overwork fundamentally on their own.

That’s why it’s so important that this week, when Max Schireson, CEO of the database company MongoDB, stepped down, he cited the desire to be a better father and husband as his reason. A Silicon Valley big-shot, Schireson has been asked about his automotive and music preferences, but no one has ever bother to ask, in his words, “how I balance the demands of being both a dad and a CEO”—the male version of the work-family balance question that he has heard posed to GM CEO Mary Barra, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, and to his own wife, a physician and professor of Obstetrics at Stanford University. So not that anyone asked, but Schireson would like the world to know: He no longer wants to do the balancing act. He would prefer to spend time with his three children, be a better husband to his busy wife, and find a way to make his job “compatible with the most important responsibilities in my life”—in his case, his family.

I believe that there are a lot more Max Schiresons in the world—or at least more men who feel uncomfortably tugged between their responsibilities to their home and professional worlds—than we’re led to believe. And that’s why we have to hear more from them and, more importantly, pay more attention to what they have to say. We’re never going to get to a place where male domestic participation is normalized until we regularly see what full male partnership can look like. Only by talking about it will we ever begin to convey to women and men that participatory unions are possible, and something that they can and should pursue as a realistic option.

We need to pay more attention to men like former NAACP head Ben Jealous, who surprised the organization that he’d led for five years by announcing he was stepping down in September of 2013 because the heavy travel schedule required by the position was taking too big a toll on his relationships with his two young children and wife, a constitutional law professor. As evidence of the close link between male support for equal participation in public and private spheres, Jealous also noted, upon his departure from his role, “I’m the 17th president of the NAACP and the 17th man. I do expect that the next president of the NAACP will be different in some way.” (Cornell Brooks was named president in May of this year).

We should also pay attention to men like Martin Ginsburg. In her interview with Katie Couric this month, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked to explain how she managed to balance her legal career and family responsibilities. Ginsburg’s immediate answer, while conceding that the mechanics of it all had sometimes been “rough,” was to credit her late husband, the tax attorney Martin Ginsburg, to whom she was married for 56 years. “If you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it,” she said. “I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me. Marty was an unusual man.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 81. Marty Ginsburgs are less unusual these days, and younger women should be encouraged to seek them out, and not to settle for more traditional models.

It’s a risk, for those of us non-Supreme-Court-Justices who benefit from full partnership, to talk or write about it at length. There is essentially no way for a woman to assert that her husband does the laundry or cooks or brushes the kids’ teeth or gets up with them in the night or values her career as much as he values his own without sounding smug and unbearable. But in part, that’s because these guys are considered such magical unicorns, and the women they’re with so specially gifted to have been lucky enough to encounter one of them, that they must never talk about them.

Except that I don’t believe that they are actually so rare. Amongst my friends in straight partnerships—some of them high-paid entertainment executives, others people who work at grocery stores and restaurants, as teachers and Legal Aid lawyers—the vast majority of women make as much or more money as their partners, and the men do as much (and in a few cases, more) of the domestic and child-care. I’d never suggest that these partnerships are in any way immune to the resentments, infidelities, drop-offs in sexual energy, or emotional drift to which all romantic alliances are vulnerable, but so far, they don’t appear any more likely to fall prey to them. In fact, a study this week from the Council on Contemporary Families showed that acceptance of women as breadwinners is higher than ever and debunked the well-worn myth that couples who share domestic duties have less sex.

But because we continue to fail to even see men as integral familial participants, there’s comparatively little research on how—in both elite climes (where, it’s important to note, people are now most likely to be wed in the first place) and in economically disadvantaged ones—they are behaving, or would like to be behaving, within their homes and relationships. The paucity of attention becomes part of the self-reinforcing cycle. 

“I wish that I could cite one of the 450 million articles on dads that have been written,” said the economist Justin Wolfers when I called to talk to him about his professional and personal views on contemporary male participation in the home, “especially since there have been 450 zillion pieces written about moms. It does seem like there is a hole in the literature.”

Wolfers sees the roots of his own very active role as a father as the product of accident: Because his partner, the economist Betsey Stevenson, was in labor with their daughter Matilda for 72 hours and then had a C-section, she was immobilized for some days, and the hospital bed next to hers happened to be free, allowing Wolfers to stay overnight. It meant that he had to figure out how to take care of the tiny new human. Stevenson, Wolfers said, “literally didn’t change a diaper. It was my job to pick up Matilda and bring her over. … By the time we took the baby home, Betsey wasn’t already the expert at nine things that I had no clue about."

A very similar thing happened to my husband and me. After a C-section, and in the midst of the rigors of breastfeeding, we made an unspoken agreement: My job was producing milk. His job was everything else: diapers, clothing, bathing, figuring out the naps and soothing and pacifier and bottles for the pumped milk. When I emerged from my post-partum cave a few weeks after the birth of our daughter, my husband, a criminal defense attorney, had to teach me how to change a diaper; he had to show me how the little flaps on the sleeves of the onesies kept our daughter from scratching herself. He was the expert; I was the novice. But because every social and cultural script pushed me, swiftly, toward equal expertise in these matters, we wound up co-parents. Had it worked in reverse, the chances that he would have felt pressure, guilt, or incentive to dive into the nitty-gritty of wipes and burping would have been extremely low.

This is part of why it’s crucial to have a loud public exchange about the role fathers play, and how immediately the specialization begins—or can begin, for those men who want to be full partners and who love women who want to have full partners. Tiny, incremental factors—a few hours in a hospital room—can have life-long impact. Wolfers pointed to how an early-in-life gendered quirk has cast a traditional shadow over one of the domestic arrangements he and Stevenson have worked out: Betsey, as a young person, was taught to cook; Justin was not. Now, Wolfers said, “at age 41, one of us has to make dinner and it just makes absolutely no sense for me to do it, and that is the product of decisions that were made when we were 16.” This is why, Wolfers suggested, that “if we want dads to be better at parenting, we’ve got to build hospital rooms designed for them to stay over that first night. It’s absolutely absurd that the first thing we do is kick dad out and send him home to sleep.”

And once we teach men how to be dads and partners, we must also allow them space to talk about it, to air their grievances and celebrate the pleasures of domesticity, to show the next generation of men and women that male participation within the family is not an aberrant pursuit, but rather a deeply rewarding, deeply taxing, deeply complicated part of life. It’s a part of life that women are prepared for through conversation, advice, and instruction throughout their lives, but that men too rarely hear anything about until they find themselves with a swaddled infant in their arms and a wiped-out wife or girlfriend at their side. Wolfers spoke of how, during the many years he and Stevenson deliberated over whether or not to have children, Stevenson benefited from the counsel of many of her female friends. It was just something women talked about. Wolfers’s male friends did not. Only after their daughter was born did he hear from other men who said, “Isn’t this awesome?” It’s a phenomenon that he calls “the secret dad’s club.”

That club cannot continue to be so secret, in part because men who are increasingly making trade-offs for family, and experiencing professional anxieties, need the same community and support that women do. Wolfers spoke with what he called extreme self-consciousness about his experiences over the past year, when his family has moved from Ann Arbor, where he and Stevenson worked as academics, to Washington, D.C., where she now works in the White House, on the Council of Economic Advisors. Wolfers, whose career as a public policy scholar and economist remains robust, has been left to do primary home-front management, with ample aid from a nanny and assistant. If anything comes up with the couple’s two young children, it is Wolfers who must put his work aside and deal with it. And when they are at dinner parties in D.C., guests lean over Wolfers to talk to Stevenson. “As someone who prides himself on being progressive on these matters,” Wolfers said, he has been “struck by how difficult it’s been, and how I have struggled in this role.” He is thrilled for and supportive of Stevenson, but feels that it’s important to acknowledge the degree to which the reversal of traditional gender roles still presents a challenge. “I am fighting 41 years of socialization!” he said. And what’s more, he said, given the amount of household help he enjoys, and the prestigious nature of his own career, “if it’s hard for me, it’s gotta be really, really hard for other people.” 

Yes, it’s so hard. It is hard for these guys who are doing this work on all fronts, just as it’s been hard for the women who have been doing it for so long. Which is why we need to raise our voices in praise of great male partners, and why those partners need to raise their own voices, and why we all need to listen to them.