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The Parent Track

It 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 my partners.

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 less.

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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