How We Think About Care Hurts Fathers Too

By Valerie Young and Riane Eisler

Mark is a married father of five small children in San Diego, California. His wife practices law while he stays home, running the household and serving as the children’s primary caregiver. He is one of about 209,000 full-time stay at home dads, according to the US Census Bureau data, caring for an estimated 392,000 American children under age 15.

Economics pushed Mark into his current caregiving role. In California, the average annual cost of care for one preschooler is about $18,000 according to The Care Index, released by New America last year. Sending five kids to a care center is simply financially impossible. So Mark supports his wife’s career by manning the home front, assuming most care and household obligations and occasionally hosting firm social events at their home. His wife’s career is flourishing.

When women achieve professional success and status equal to men in the US, it will be due in great part to fathers like Mark. Sharing the work traditionally done by women is necessary to realize gender equality. The migration of women into the workforce was the major demographic shift in the last half of the 20th century, and women’s roles have expanded dramatically. Men, on the other hand, have not picked up a proportionate share of housework and childcare. This explains in large part why the rate of women’s labor force attachment has stalled and the gender pay gap has stopped closing. Even with some dads doing more at home and both parents employed, women do more unpaid work and care for family as men spend more time on paid work, leisure and entertainment.

Care, it turns out, is still a very gendered behavior. It is mostly performed by women, poorly paid when paid at all, and lowly regarded. Even though some of the fastest growing job sectors are now in the service industry, such as health aides, men are slow to sign on. Why? Stigma, a fear of being thought “less than.”

According to the New York Times, “Much of men’s resistance to pink-collar jobs is tied up in the culture of masculinity, say people who study the issue. Women are assumed to be empathetic and caring; men are supposed to be strong, tough and able to support a family.”

Mark knows he is an outlier. He describes himself as both the disciplinarian and the go-to parent for comfort, or a hug after a child’s fall or fright. His primary caregiver role is often cause for comment, “largely by people who work full-time and don’t believe that I have anything valuable to say in a conversation, probably because I don’t have a separate income.  Little remarks, put downs, things like that, are very common, even if only made in jest.” In spite of being happy with his situation most of the time, he’s troubled by the realization that “you are dependent upon your spouse and becoming even more so. It often doesn’t feel right and makes me feel weak.”

Limiting acceptable male behavior impacts more than the experiences of individual men in a handful of families. There are economic and political consequences too. The Harvard Business Review found: “In addition, there is stigma around doing “women’s work,” with men being reluctant to take jobs that require tasks that are associated with femaleness, such as hands-on care for an elderly person or child. In many ways, the election of Donald Trump brought this reluctance to the forefront; it is far more appealing to be promised manufacturing jobs than it is to be told you have to do ‘women’s work.’”

Unlearning what we think we know about the difference between men and women is an essential first step forward. Women can be successful lawyers, and men can thrive at home. Changing our expectations and attitudes is painfully slow, but it will happen because of men like Mark.

“I feel as though in many ways I am going against cultural norms … there are a number of … family and friends…who are disturbed by what I do. I think though that some of them are changing their minds as time goes on.”

For all fathers, and mothers and kids and families of every description, let’s hope so.

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