Editor’s Note: This essay is a condensed version of a longer essay that appeared in Michael Wear’s “Reclaiming Hope” newsletter on June 6, 2019. You can read the full essay and subscribe to his newsletter here. This abridged version is published here with permission.
Melissa and I have been truly fortunate in these first months with our dear [daughter] Saoirse. Melissa has had paid leave from her employer. I have work that provides far more flexibility than the norm, and my organization and co-workers are beyond accommodating. We are grateful for the opportunities we’ve had with Saoirse at the very beginning of her life, opportunities that are not afforded to most babies, parents, and families in this country.
Today, Melissa’s leave came to an end, and she returned to work. I delayed taking Saoirse to day care until the work I had to do became impossible with her at home. It was dreadful.
I want to comment in two areas: policy and personal.
On the policy side, it’s important to note that my interest in family policy is longstanding and predates having a wife or child of my own. I wrote for The Atlantic about how family needed to be at the center of our political discourse. I worked on a range of family-related policies in The White House and coordinated the rollout of a platform of policies in my time with the president’s re-elect that were family-centered.
Parents and families need and deserve the flexibility to make the care decisions that they know are best for them, but we do know that real options help children and families: options of workplace flexibility, paid leave, excellent child care, and the option to stay home. The mother-child relationship is essential, but as a recent story in the New York Times suggests—and as we already know—so, too, is the relationship of father to mother and father to child.
I will write about public policy more seriously in the coming days and weeks, but for now, I just want to say that the state of the family right now is a choice we are making as a society. It is a choice we feel is made for us, but it is, in fact, a choice we are making. We have absorbed, as a given, the choice that our families must revolve around our work. We have accepted a culture that justifies an unnatural relationship between work and family. Billion-dollar companies make decisions about benefits as if it is a decision about how generous they are willing to be, when they need to understand that employing someone inherently necessitates accounting for their personhood, for the fact that people have families.
I recently heard a story of a woman who accepted a job and found out that she was pregnant a few days after. She said that she felt “guilt” and “shame” that she put her employer in such a situation. I’ve heard CEOs complain about the hardships of having staff with lives outside of work. The guilt and shame should be on us for allowing a culture where family can be openly discussed as an inconvenience.
A healthy society shares responsibility for the flourishing of families. This should be our assumption.
Ideas of work and family have not just political implications, but also social and cultural implications. Women’s lives and choices have been affected by such a narrative, of course. For many women, they have received a message of an outright idolatry of family that says they could have no other purpose other than to be a spouse and mother (Katelyn Beaty has written an excellent book on this). I am sensitive to that and want to be clear that I am not speaking to women and mothers here, who are operating under a very different set of cultural expectations and impositions, and certainly carry no judgment for any parent. We’re all just trying to make it.
It is holding Saoirse that feels like the height of my contribution to the world.
I do want to speak to the situation of men and fathers though, who have been subject to the other side of these narratives. If women of a particular era absorbed a narrative that their value could be fully summed up in their familial roles, men have absorbed the narrative that their familial role can largely be fulfilled through and justified by their work.
But I’ll tell you, this morning, after I delayed taking Saoirse to daycare at 8 AM and instead laid next to her as she woke up and transitioned to joy and smiles and noises seamlessly, as if emerging right out of a wonderful dream; after I postponed taking her to daycare at 9 AM and instead fed her and changed her and sent a picture of her in her outfit of the day to her mother; after I reasoned that she was content enough playing on the floor at 10 AM that I could get some writing done; after she seemed tired enough at 11 AM that I could let her sleep on my lap as I took a conference call; after she cried when I tried to put her in her car seat at Noon, so I took her out and fed her another bottle; after I finally arrived at the daycare and handed my child to someone else who I could hope would soothe her cries and understand her needs, but who I knew would never meet them as her parents would; after all of that, I returned to my car alone.
I tried then to recite the national masculine creed: that what I just did was for the greater good, that I was providing for her, that this is what a man does.
I do believe, really believe, that work is a gift from God. I believe that there is a dignity in and from work and that we are called to work. But our dignity does not derive from our work. Professional success has never made me feel like more of a man, though creative work felt at times like an expression of my humanity, of my dignity.
But I knew then, as I know now, that I did not feel like a man handing my child to someone else. It is holding Saoirse that feels like the height of my contribution to the world. Wiping milk off her milk-goblin face, laughing and struggling while her feet find her packed diaper as I change her, whispering in her ear and singing her to sleep—these things feel like an affirmation of my manhood, my humanness, that I do not deserve.
We all have to live in the world as it is. I am grateful for the work that I do. I am excited about projects I have on my plate and astounded that I get to do work that both allows me to earn money and feel like my work is contributing to the good of others. But there will always be a tension, and we must begin to acknowledge that the tension is one that is not wholly inevitable.
My experiences are, in light of what I know to be true for so many others, relatively trivial. I’m not sure if it’s entirely avoidable that someone else will have to watch my child for some period of time, and in the long-term, I’m not sure that avoiding such a thing is possible, appropriate, or even desirable.
What I do know is that what I felt, the unnaturalness of it, is compounded ten-fold, a hundred-fold, for the mother without the access or resources to receive essential prenatal care; for the retail worker who is expected to be back at her job within days of giving birth; for the parent whose request for leave to take care of their sick child is denied; for the lawyer whose path to becoming a partner at their firm will get derailed if they are home to put their child to bed every so often.
These are choices we’re making that set up our lives and our society this way. We can make different choices.
Michael Wear is Chief Strategist at The AND Campaign, a Christian civic education and advocacy organization. He is the founder of Public Square Strategies LLC, a consulting firm that helps businesses, non-profits, foundations, and Christian organizations at the intersection of faith, politics, and culture. Wear directed faith outreach for President Obama's historic 2012 re-election campaign and was one of the youngest White House staffers in modern American history. He is the author of the book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.