has always surprised me just how many people decline to use
the term “feminist.” There was a time when I assumed that
any self-respecting woman, and most of the men said women
would want to associate with, would consider themselves feminists
as a matter of course.
I came, of course, to learn about many of the weaknesses of
the feminist movement, including its early racism and classism.
But it still seemed like the main complaint I heard was “they
want women to be exactly like men.” It seemed absurd to me
that otherwise intelligent people couldn’t tell the difference
between wanting equal pay for equal work and wanting to undergo
a gender transition.
Then I became a mother.
Now it’s not like I didn’t know that there were different
gender roles in childbearing. But going through the process
made me more acutely aware of how broadly becoming a biological
mother disrupts what our society would call an ordinary working
life in ways that are difficult to shift to your partner.
It’s not limited to the actual labor/delivery/recovery. Start
with the morning sickness, which, for the record, is not limited
to the morning. Add in a pile of prenatal visits, hormone
swings, childbirth-education classes, prenatal yoga, and swollen
feet. And that’s for an uncomplicated, basically pleasant
pregnancy like mine. I don’t consider pregnancy to have been
a disability, and I happily worked through most of it, but
my experience of it was undeniably different than that of
Then there’s breastfeeding. I’ve heard of women who chose
not to nurse because they wanted to be able to make their
spouses share in the nighttime feedings. It’s an appealing
and egalitarian-sounding plan. Breastfeeding is a marvelous
power, but, especially for a baby who likes to nurse frequently,
it’s also a lot of work.
Still, what a choice to make to give it up in the name of
equality. The research is overwhelming—it’s not so much that
breastmilk is “better” for babies, as that it’s the standard,
with formula a poor second, vital and basically sufficient
in those cases where it’s needed, but likely to cause as many
health complications as smoking around the baby. Not something
to be chosen lightly. You can pump milk, and many women who
go back to outside-the-home employment do, but that too is
a major commitment—of time and energy, not to mention the
work involved in finding a private place to do it. It is still
something fathers do not have to do.
There are more subtle things to explore on that front, but
I’m already making myself nervous here. See, it’s hard not
to worry that even acknowledging such differences will appear
to support the discrimination against women—and specifically
mothers—in the workplace. In dozens of states it’s legal to
ask a woman about her marital status and number of kids in
a job interview, and legal to not only turn her down, but
offer her a lower wage, based on her answers. According to
the advocacy group Moms Rising, nonmothers still earn 10 percent
less than their male counterparts, but mothers earn 27 percent
If you start with the premise that women and men are being
treated unequally, and you want to fix that, you have two
options: (1) you do advocate for women being treated “just
like men,” ignoring the times when there are differences or
(2) you change something about how men are treated. In those
(few) contexts where there are meaningful differences, the
former doesn’t work out so well. Even if we had legislation
requiring equal pay for equal work, there would still be the
“mommy track” part of the wage gap, which punishes women for
being more likely to leave the workforce for a while.
So, in terms of parents and their relationship to the workplace,
what might the second option look like? The partners of pregnant
women would be expected to need to find time for not only
prenatal appointments, but also playing chauffer, running
out for hot-water bottles and watching older children. All
parents would be offered, and expected to take, six to eight
paid weeks off (minimum) around a birth or adoption. Provisions
would be made for employees who needed to pump breastmilk,
and allowances made for those who needed to stop home and
give their breastfeeding partners a chance at a nap. All parents
would be expected to either take a couple years off from out-of-home
employment to parent or to switch to part-time/flex-time work
for a while so they could be around when the kids got home
from school. It would be more likely that the non-breastfeeding
parents would take the time after the kids were weaned, but
it would average out over the genders more evenly than now.
There’s a lot more that would be needed to actually make our
economy fair and family-friendly. But at least in the context
of multiple-parent households, it is possible to allow for
many people’s desire for some period of stay-at-home parenting
without pretending there aren’t gendered baby-care differences
or making the mommy track inevitable.
Of course this is where attitudes about men’s roles have to
change too, on the part of everyone from employers to parents
to nosy in-laws.
In my family, after seven wonderful months of my doing full-time
parenting, we decided to have one of my partners quit his
job to stay home and be a full-time dad, leaving me able to
freelance full-time while still allowing me to pop upstairs
and nurse. It’s a wonderful arrangement—I had found myself
unexpectedly itching for more time to devote to my work-related
projects, and he had always wanted sometime to focus on just
being a parent. (He wore a tie the first day “to impress the
new boss.” She did enjoy playing with it.)
People who hear about our choice usually want to recount to
stories they’ve heard of other full-time dads. And yet, most
of the time the subtext is still “He couldn’t get a job so
at least he watched the kids so she could earn some money.”
Not what you want to being insinuated across the Thanksgiving
table, nor implied by your résumé.
Perhaps the fifth wave of feminism needs to be led by dads.