No More Leave it to Beaver

In the lively “Room for Debate” series in this week’s New York Times, provocatively entitled “Motherhood vs. Feminism,” the piece I like best is the one by Annie Urban, who reminds us that “it’s about parenting, not mothering.”

“Too often the discussion about women’s choices (stay at home, go back to work) ignores the role of fathers. To achieve meaningful equality, we need to push for a society that values fathers who strike a balance between their career and their family life too. Women shouldn’t have to be equally uninvolved parents to reach their goals; they should be able to ask their spouses to step up too.”

Hear hear, Annie!

Amazingly, she was the only one of the seven women columnists commenting on Elisabeth Badinter’s slamming indictment of “attachment mothering” who thought to look to the fathers.

Is it because for the six other women, the fathers are so absent from the parenting landscape that their input is immaterial?

Erica Jong, who describes herself as a “zipless gran,” is the only one to point out that the intensive, at-home parenting required of the “attachment” model “takes resources”: “An affluent mom who doesn’t need to earn can afford co-sleeping, making pure food, using cloth diapers and being perfectly ecological,” Jong rightly observes.

She doesn’t say, but it’s easy to assume, that such a mom is supported by a hardworking spouse.  The unspoken assumption about fathers, unchanged since the Leave it to Beaver days, rears its head: the primary function of a father is to pull in the bucks.

But times have changed. For mothers who must work to keep our kids in food and shelter, short-cuts are necessary, and juggling too many responsibilities becomes a fine art. Should I miss the cocktail party after work today, where all the important networking takes place, or should I pick my kid up from day care in time for dinner and a relaxed bedtime story?

How about calling dad to pitch in here? Why can’t he do the bedtime story so mom can go to her cocktail party and chat up the boss?

In my experience, the answer to such a query is too often a flat no—you handle it, honey.  And so she will, making those tough choices day after day, doing the best she can.

It is no accident that women still earn 77 cents on the male dollar.  The other 23 cents go to our unpaid, unsung attention to mothering and family care of all kinds.

Elisabeth Badinter says we should get over our obsession with the “voluntary servitude” of mothering and go play the career game with the boys, giving it all we’ve got.

I’d rather see a kinder, gentler scenario, in which parents, both male and female, work together to balance the conflicting demands of work and child care.

As a society, we could encourage this in a material way by acknowledging the value of parenting via Social Security and other benefits.

By dint of hard struggle we have enshrined the concept of family leave and parental leave in law, but we could do a lot more to support parents through the difficult years when so much is demanded of them on the home front while they are also in their prime career-building years.

Instead, our society seems to be pushing women back into the unpaid homemaker roles, by sinking our efforts to balance career and mothering under the weight of guilt, frustration and sheer exhaustion.

Do we really want to focus the bright minds and creative spirits of 50% of our population exclusively on issues of breast-feeding, diaper rash and what to have for dinner?

Do young men really want to return to the good old days of being the sole provider for a houseful of dependents?

Feminism needs to demand that fathers fully engage in the struggle to make parenting a joyful, cooperative stage of life, rather than a gendered minefield.

And mothers and fathers need to insist on the social support they deserve for the valuable labor they perform every day, both in the home and outside of it.

%d bloggers like this: