Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.
Simplistic social analysis too often emerges from studies of people exactly like us, and more specifically when the research focuses on a microcosm of people who may not be that relevant for the rest of us. In Steven E. Rhoads’ IFS article, “Lean In’s Biggest Hurdle: What Most Moms Want,” he picks academia as the place to make big statements about women’s supposed innate desire to work part time and be full-time mothers, and projects those too far. The problem is that research or analysis that looks only at the rarefied air of the corporate sector or of university professors informs us about, well, corporations and university professors. Following are two myths in Rhoads’ article that need to be addressed.
Myth 1: Nurturing and caregiving are biologically female. If nurturing and caregiving were maternal instincts, as Rhoads argues, why has there been so much change and variation around the world? Over the past 30 years, American men have increased their time spent with children during the workday by 65%. In a 2007 survey, 50% of fathers with young children reported diapering and feeding their children more than once per day, 56% reported bathing their children a few times or more per week, and 39% reported getting up always or often with their children at night. The conclusion from these trends is that men react to changes in the workplace, most households in the US need two incomes, women are working outside the home more, and men can and are doing more caregiving. If women have an evolutionary, ingrained, biological urge to curtail their paid work lives to do more caregiving, it seems men have caught that same bug—or maybe they always had it, too.
To be sure, pregnancy and childbirth are biological and take a toll on women’s bodies, particularly if they breastfeed. But—and we need a technology check here—not all women breastfeed. Many mothers and fathers also bottle feed. That detail aside, men’s bodies also change hormonally if they are hands-on caregivers, making them receptive to the needs of young children. The neural-network and brain-hormone changes displayed by primary-caregiving fathers are similar to those found in primary-caregiving mothers. Multiple studies confirm that men who are in close physical contact with their infant children show changes in body chemistry similar to women’s—hormonal changes that promote or facilitate adult-infant bonding. The bottom line is that apart from childbirth and breastfeeding, important as those are, men can care for children in every way that women can once children are born.
And a careful read of our human evolutionary history suggests that “normal” for humans is all kinds of caregivers participating to help children survive. In present day as well, there are more than a few anthropological accounts of human groups where men do as much caregiving as women, or very close to it. Biology may set us on a course but social context makes all the difference. You can take either the Aka Pygmies of central Africa, where men lend their nipples to their babies to soothe them and have as much daily physical contact with their children as mothers do. Or you can take the Scandinavian countries where men’s caregiving is approaching the time women spend. Both these examples confirm that given the right social circumstances, men and women can share caregiving in equal or near equal ways, if their societies are constructed around being egalitarian and valuing care work as much as paid work. In Scandinavia, this typically means publicly-funded child care, and ample and non-transferable paid parental leave, work flexibility, more emphasis on income equality (and ample, publicly-funded services for families so they don’t have to worry about their household income at all costs), along with widely held social norms that support women and men in doing equitable shares of caregiving. Perhaps egalitarian caregiving is difficult in academia and the corporate sector not because women are the innate caregivers but because these equality-supporting conditions seldom exist in these two spaces.
Myth 2: Women want to work part time and men love working full time. Our studies from the U.S. and around the world suggest that men want to work part time as much as women do if it allows them to spend more time with their children. In survey research that we and others have carried out in the U.S. and elsewhere, men experience as much anguish about juggling caregiving and work lives as women. In 1977, 35% of U.S fathers in dual-earner families reported work-life conflict. By 2008, that number had increased to 60%. As fathers want to do more and are being pushed to do more—because, yes, their wives want to work—they are experiencing the same challenges of “wanting it all” that women experience.
When asked—which we and others have done—most American women and men today support sharing household work and childcare between men and women. New data from the National Study of the Changing Workforce show that the majority of American men and women across all age categories disagree with the outdated notion that “it is best if men work and women take care of the home and children.” The data simply doesn’t support the idea that women are always or innately desirous of part-time work and would prefer to let men be the sole or majority breadwinners.
The bottom line, from research that speaks about all of us and not just some of us, is that patterns of caring for children are more socially constructed than they are biologically determined. Another case in point: Sweden’s long maternity leave has been found to have a detrimental effect on equality with women using that long leave and not returning to work as often as some neighboring countries where maternity leave is shorter. In other words, mothers, like fathers, react to opportunities available to them rather than innately desiring to be stay-at-home-mothers.
Yes, of course, when incomes permit, either or both women or men would often prefer not to work full time to spend more time with their young children. That is why so many families, in fact, use the longer, more equitable paid parental leave that most Scandinavian countries offer. And they use it more equally when it is offered in ways to promote women and men taking it equally. And they return to the workforce in more equitable rates when the world around them encourages them to do that. Due to the inertia emerging from decades (centuries) of men’s higher income compared to women, most families opt for the women to step out of the workplace or become a part-time worker if they can because their incomes are on average lower. Biology? Not quite: when women’s incomes are more equal to men’s and paid leave is made nontransferable, the working hours of men and women tend to converge, along with their caregiving hours.
Perhaps the answer to encourage publish-or-perish academics and hyper-driven corporate executive fathers to do their share of care work and use paid leave for actual caregiving is to include an evaluation of their participation in the dirty, daily, glorious mess of caring for young children in their performance reviews. I’m only partly kidding.
Gary Barker, Ph.D., is President and CEO of Promundo-US.