Time to give male priv­i­lege the kiss of death

Split­ting bread­win­ning and care­tak­ing be­tween sexes an ideal not yet re­alised

Pretoria News - - OPINION - DARCY LOCK­MAN

WITH good rea­son, much of the con­cern about misog­yny and the sub­ju­ga­tion of women is cur­rently fo­cused on the work­place. As the #MeToo tes­ti­mo­ni­als have shown, the pro­fes­sional world all too fre­quently tasks women with si­lent en­durance of morally un­ac­cept­able (or down­right crim­i­nal) be­hav­iour. But even those of us who have avoided the most abu­sive work­places live with ma­lig­nant gen­der dy­nam­ics in our homes – and risk pass­ing them on to our chil­dren.

Study af­ter study shows that, among het­ero­sex­ual par­ents, fa­thers – even the youngest and most the­o­ret­i­cally pro­gres­sive among them – do not gen­er­ously share the work­load at home. Em­ployed women part­nered with em­ployed men carry 65% of the fam­ily’s child-care re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, a fig­ure that has held steady since the turn of the cen­tury. Women with ba­bies en­joy half as much leisure time on week­ends as their hus­bands.

Work­ing moth­ers with preschool-age chil­dren are 2.5 times as likely to per­form mid­dle-of-the-night care as their hus­bands. And in hours not so eas­ily tal­lied, moth­ers re­main al­most solely in charge of the end­less man­age­rial care that comes with rais­ing chil­dren: se­cur­ing babysit­ters, fill­ing out school forms, sort­ing through hand-me-downs.

For the past year, I’ve been in­ter­view­ing moth­ers who work out­side the home for a book about their ex­pe­ri­ences rais­ing chil­dren with men. Too of­ten, al­though not al­ways, I hear some ver­sion of the story a woman in Port­land, Ore­gon, told me: “He’s great with the kids, and from friends I talk to, my hus­band does a lot more. But he’s on his phone or com­puter while I’m run­ning around like a crazy per­son get­ting the kids’ stuff, do­ing the laun­dry.

“He has his cof­fee in the morn­ing read­ing his phone while I’m pack­ing lunches, get­ting our daugh­ter’s clothes out, help­ing our son with his home­work. He just sits there. He doesn’t do it on pur­pose. He has no aware­ness of what’s hap­pen­ing around him. I ask him about it and he gets de­fen­sive. It’s the same in the evening. He helps with din­ner, but then I’m off to do­ing tooth-brush­ing and bed­time, and he’ll be sit­ting there on his phone.”

Em­pir­i­cal re­search shows that no do­mes­tic ar­range­ment, not even one in which mother works full time and fa­ther is un­em­ployed, re­sults in child-care par­ity be­tween het­ero­sex­ual spouses.

The story we tell our­selves, the one about great leaps to­ward the achieve­ment of gen­der equal­ity be­tween par­ents, is a glass-half-full kind of in­ter­pre­ta­tion. But the real­ity is a half-empty glass: Mod­ern men and women es­pouse egal­i­tar­ian ideals and re­port that their de­ci­sions are mu­tual, but out­comes tend to favour fa­thers’ needs and goals much more than those of moth­ers.

The re­sult of this covert power im­bal­ance is not a net zero. A grow­ing body of re­search in fam­ily and clin­i­cal stud­ies demon­strates that spousal equal­ity pro­motes mar­i­tal suc­cess and that in­equal­ity un­der­mines it. And the dis­par­ity cre­ates not only un­due emo­tional, phys­i­cal and fi­nan­cial strain on moth­ers, but also per­pet­u­ates at­ti­tudes about what is and should be ac­cept­able – or even de­sir­able – be­tween a woman and a man, with chil­dren as their ea­ger au­di­ence.

Ideals are no sub­sti­tute for be­hav­iour. What are kids to make of their fa­ther sit­ting on his phone read­ing Face­book while their mother scram­bles to prepare them for the day? It’s not hard to pre­dict which par­ent’s per­son­hood those off­spring will con­clude is more valu­able. Chil­dren are gen­der de­tec­tives, dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween the sexes from as early as 18 months and us­ing that in­for­ma­tion to guide their be­hav­iour, for ex­am­ple by choos­ing strongly stereo­typed toys. And re­search shows that men’s at­ti­tudes about mar­i­tal roles, not women’s, are ul­ti­mately in­ter­nalised by both their daugh­ters and their sons. This find­ing is a tes­ta­ment to kids’ abil­ity to iden­tify im­plicit power – whose be­liefs are more im­por­tant and there­fore worth adopt­ing as their own.

But therein, too, lies an op­por­tu­nity, an an­swer for the men who are ask­ing with great sin­cer­ity, “What can we do?”

First, ac­cept at least half the re­spon­si­bil­ity for this per­va­sive mar­i­tal dy­namic. Power is­sues are not of­ten raised be­tween cou­ples, but when they are, stud­ies show that they’re most of­ten framed not in terms of how hus­bands need to change but rather how wives do – she needs to be more as­sertive. When jux­ta­posed against a dis­cus­sion about ram­pant sex­ual ha­rass­ment, it sounds like an­other tired ver­sion of “She should’ve worn a longer skirt”.

Sec­ond, com­mit – whole­heart­edly and with­out be­ing asked – to ex­am­in­ing male priv­i­lege. Our cul­ture’s de­val­u­a­tion of “women’s work” has left men with lit­tle in­cen­tive to shift into less-tra­di­tional roles at home, even as women have be­come ever more suc­cess­ful bread­win­ners. Women are much more likely than men to re­port that the di­vi­sion of child care with their spouses is im­bal­anced, per­haps be­cause, as one study found, men per­ceive that they are do­ing their fair share when they con­trib­ute just 36% of the work at home.

With that in mind, up the ante around par­tic­i­pa­tion in the most la­bo­ri­ous and chore-like as­pects of fam­ily life. Men can pack back­packs and suit­cases, they can search for child-care al­ter­na­tives in prepa­ra­tion for up­com­ing school holidays. They can re­stock gro­ceries, plan meals, pur­chase birth­day presents, send thank you notes, sched­ule pae­di­a­tri­cian ap­point­ments, check fold­ers. Any hus­band can make the fam­ily’s lunches.

Col­lege un­der­grads, not yet cou­pled, show mixed tol­er­ance for the re­gres­sive pat­terns in daily life. In stud­ies, th­ese young men and women pre­dom­i­nantly re­port hope for a fu­ture in which they will split the plea­sures of bread­win­ning and care­tak­ing equally with their spouses – what re­searchers call their Plan A.

But when asked for a Plan B, the sexes di­vide. The men an­tic­i­pate be­ing pri­mary bread­win­ners along­side wives who are pri­mar­ily care­tak­ers. The women an­tic­i­pate divorce. This con­flict is not a road map to­ward any kind of mean­ing­fully con­nected life.

What we tol­er­ate un­easily in the work­place needs to change. What we live with more com­pla­cently in the home does as well. Nei­ther can do so in a vac­uum. Only tiny steps to­ward the lived ex­pres­sion of equal worth in both worlds can fos­ter the kind of progress that turns #MeToo from a hash­tag into an anachro­nism.

● Lock­man, a psy­chol­o­gist in New York City, is at work on a book about the gen­dered di­vi­sion of labour in child­care.

Th­ese gen­der stereo­types are per­va­sive in the work­place and home to this day, says the writer.

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