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What to expectJoey
Image courtesy of Ruddy Bits

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about motherhood, dadhood, co-parenting, and the work/home/family ratio that we all struggle with.  (And why is “motherhood” a word, but “dadhood” isn’t?  Seriously?)  I just changed positions here at work, and in my new slot I have to go into the office, well, pretty much all the time.  Now, in this regard I’m no different from the huge majority of the rest of the planet, but I had been blessed over the last 13-14 years or so to be able to spend a lot of my work time in my home office, so this is a huge change for me and my family.  So I’ve been thinking about it.

Then at the urging of Rebecca Traister after I sent her a few thoughts on her column in the New Republic on this very topic, I thought I might share some of my observations from the point of view of a man who has been, largely, a stay-at-home or work-at-home dad for most of my kids’ lives.  (My daughter is now 19; my son 16.)

A key point that Rebecca touched on, and that my experience validates, is that even for your new-aged, fully-evolved, committed-to-co-parenting, sensitive, post-Feminist-era guy, our society is so overtly geared toward motherhood rather than dadhood or (much preferably) parenting that a guy practically has to be rapped in the teeth before he “gets it”, before he understands at a visceral level (that many women seem to understand without any coaching on the delivery table, if not sooner) the huge commitment involved in parenting.  For Rebecca, it happened right away:

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.

For me, it took longer.  I was determined to be a “co-parent”, and am pretty damn stubborn.  I was very much brought up in the Ms. Magazine, “women are equal”, “No means no!”, “Our bodies, our selves”, “Free to be you and me” 70s liberated mom environment, and I was not going to be one of those typical dads.  (Quite aside from the fact that, while I can set up a home network, configure a router, keep all the house gadgetry working, etc., I’m incompetent when it comes to, say, fixing a leaky faucet.)

But that being said, it still was very difficult for me to get myself in the mindset of being a full participant.  My job urged me to come back to work immediately, half-time for six months rather than take 3 months of no-pay family leave.  And because I did, while I was definitely a full participant for the time I was at home—changing diapers, dealing with the diaper service, sterilizing milk bottles, feeding the new baby, splitting the midnight-six shift as much as possible, the fact was I wasn’t a full participant.  And I certainly didn’t get it at a visceral level.

But then we adopted my son, and because my partner made more money than me, and had a better stock option plan, we decided that I would quit my job and stay home with our new son.  I was the primary care-giver for him and my daughter—driving them to and from preschool and kindergarten, doctor’s appointments, Gymboree, etc.; shopping and making dinner; doing the laundry; dealing with the home upkeep; and everything else so that Sami could simply work and not have to worry about anything.  After that year, I worked at home for the next 8 years.  As far as Joseph was concerned, Dad never went to the office until he was 11.  At which point, some health issues on my partner’s part forced her to stop working and I had to take whatever job I could to keep us afloat, forcing me to actually commute to California from Austin on a regular basis.

Now I’m pretty sure my partner would agree I (and this is how she puts it, not me) do “more than my fair share”.  Laundry, dishes, grocery shopping, bill paying, kid shuttling, etc.  This is not to brag, but just to say that I am a very full participant.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it?  Any time a guy says, “Hey, I’m a full participant!” he’s either not believed, or treated as a braggart.  But the truth is in my job in high tech, it’s damn hard to juggle the work responsibilities against the family ones.  And it’s even harder, given that our two kids have special needs.

And unfortunately, work is not structured to encourage and support parents who want to work at home, even in jobs (I am a technical writer, so working at home–as I’ve demonstrated off and on for nearly 15 years now–is absolutely a workable option) where it is doable.  Editing, for example.  Coding.  Many phone support positions.  There are lots of them.  But the business world, and management, simply is not comfortable with this.  (Look at Marissa Mayer of Yahoo–a high tech company that deals in virtual products!–who decided she wanted everyone on site, for example.)

The other part of the problem is society and social norms.  The unspoken (and in some cases, like mine after my daughter was born) overt pressure for the man to leave parenting to the mom–particularly in the very early stages–in huge.  There’s pressure on women, too, no question, not to mention discrimination both subtle and overt–a reluctance to hire child-bearing-age women because you might “lose them” to motherhood after training them, pressure on new moms to be back at work as quickly as possible and not take the full legal guaranteed family leave time off, the unspoken criticism by co-workers when a woman disappears for 3 months because she had a child (companies usually try to “absorb” the extra work using the existing team rather than, say, hire temporary contractors to cover the absence–saves money, you see), and on and on.

Our society wants you to work at the expense of the family, but the guy in the relationship is expected to not be as interested, not be as involved, not be as engaged, and believe me, you feel it.  And even if you’re determined to not let it effect you, as I was, too often you have to be rapped in the teeth with a hard fact before you change your perspective.

I’m writing about this because, like Rebecca says, the more guys who speak out, the more chance we have to change the situation.  I can’t change reality so that only guys get pregnant–wouldn’t that cause a rapid change to family-related work issues!–but I can speak out.  So I am.  Now it’s your turn, other guys.