Father Load

Editor's Note: On Wednesday, Linda Hirshman panned many of the stories in our current "Mother Load" special report. Below, some of the authors respond to her criticism, particularly about the role of fathers.

March 14: Linda Hirshman

March 15: Kathleen Gerson
March 16: Courtney E. Martin
March 16: Brad Reid
March 19: Linda Hirshman

Kathleen Gerson responds:

It's good to see that the special report on the growing crisis of work-family conflicts has sparked discussion, although Linda Hirshman's remarks seem more like a manufactured controversy. Since we agree on far more than we disagree, let's bypass the combative tone of her remarks and get to the substance.

Hirshman says my discussion of the fact that young men and women have "fallback" positions that are less progressive than their "preferred" positions is a form of "sugarcoating" that "allows women to delude themselves." This is a seemingly deliberate misreading of my findings. While many young adults say they wish they could create a relationship that involves sharing work and parenting in a more egalitarian way, my discussion makes it crystal clear that these hopes exist alongside a deep skepticism about the opportunities available to achieve them. Far from deluding themselves, my study shows that most women see economic self-reliance as a necessary protection against the uncertainties of relationships (which Hirshman is advocating). They certainly aren't giving men "a free pass."

As for men, it is not surprising that they would like to fall back on patterns that historically bestowed certain privileges. That is not to say, however, that those men who say they would like to integrate work and parenting are just spouting so much hot air, as Hirshman seems to believe. Many of today's young men see real costs in holding onto the "breadwinner ethic," but they also face real workplace demands and pressures that limit their ability to change. It is neither good social science nor wise politics to reduce men to the enemy or ignore their concerns and obstacles. And it is just as shortsighted to reduce women to dupes. Let's stop blaming individuals, whatever their gender, and get on with difficult task of restructuring our work and child care institutions.

When it comes to policy, Hirshman's prescriptions are more or less the same as those outlined in the special issue. So it's not clear why Hirshman is picking a fight. Everyone agrees that changing the current system requires arduous, long-term work. Discussing "what could be" does not mean that we are sugarcoating "what we are stuck with." It's part of what we need to do as we go about making change happen. The young adults I interviewed recognize that achieving more egalitarian options for work and parenting always costs something, but we can take solace in the fact that a growing number really do worry that continuing the present patterns may cost more.

Courtney E. Martin responds:

Linda Hirshman writes, "Why won't the men sacrifice their own ambitions, independence, earning power, and success in the interest of equal treatment for the women they purport to love? Because they understand the value of their work prospects."

Many of them also understand the value of their family prospects -- things that don't fit in spreadsheets like love, joy, wellbeing, a sense of purpose. This understanding will be their primary motivation for shedding the skins of their absent fathers and reinventing what it means to be a whole man. Though Hirshman seems to think I dreamed these men up, I know them. I grew up with one. I share a bed with one. I have beers and intimate conversations with lots of others.

I wish Hirshman could meet them, because maybe she wouldn't be so cynical about man and his motivations. She seems to have forgotten that a new generation -- raised on feminism and Oprah -- is coming of age.

Further, Hirshman writes about equality within relationships as if it were something easily measured when, in fact, it is a long and arduous journey of negotiations, sacrifice, caring. What my generation must strive to do is have integrity, balance self-protection with the inevitable compromises of partnership, be realistic about the unrealistic desire to have it all at once, own our sacrifices instead of letting them rot inside and make us bitter. And again, though Hirshman calls me an idealist (a label I am proud to carry), I am convinced that there is no way to have a family without losing some of your autonomy. Women and men lose. And that's fair. It is also quite beautiful.

Brian Reid responds:

I am a Gen X father. I took almost four months of paternity leave when my first was born. I did the at-home dad thing for a while. And I've experimented with just about every form of part-time work and flexible work arrangement out there. This has, no doubt, come at an economic cost to my household in terms of lost wages and lost future earnings potential. It has also been worth every moment.

I am not alone. By every conceivable measure, men are now bigger participants in family life than at any time in American history. The amount of housework performed by men has doubled since Linda Hirshman was my age. The amount of time spent with the kids has doubled over the same time period, including a 62 percent rise in just the last five years. The number of at-home dads in 2004 -- the most recent year for which data is available -- is up more than 50 percent over the 2003 numbers. Gen X and Gen Y dads are more likely to report being family-focused than their boomer elders.

This will come as a shock, no doubt, to Linda Hirshman, whose recent essay paints young American men as either blissfully naïve or intentionally unscrupulous when it comes to work-life balance. According to Hirshman, my peers promise equality in marriage and then immediately sacrifice that ideal on the altar of workaholism.

To be sure, Hirshman is right in that we are not at -- or even near -- equality when it comes to kids and housework, and there is a tremendous amount of work to be done before we get there. Women's career advancement (but not that of their male peers) continues to be severely hampered by the prevailing assumptions about work and family. And I dare not argue against the idea that young couples need to talk sooner and with more depth about what happens when work and family collide.

But to change the political agenda, workplace culture and assumptions about gender roles, we're going to have to find a way for involved fathers to share their perspective, as Courtney E. Marin and Kathleen Gerson aptly point out, rather than demonizing a new generation of dads by assuming they'll follow the Ward Cleaver model of fatherhood. Any successful campaign for these changes needs leverage the passion of that small but growing core of men -- mostly young fathers -- who understand there is more to work-life choices than maximizing economic benefit. Because while economics is often a powerful tool to explain decision-making, more and more new fathers understand that the invisible hand can't push the swing.

Brian Reid is author of the blog Rebel Dad and a contributor to the Washington Post's On Balance blog.

Linda Hirshman responds:

"Rebel Dad" Brian Reid thinks, at 62, I'm too old to understand young men. My error? I said that Reid's "peers promise equality in marriage and then immediately sacrifice that ideal on the altar of workaholism" -- something I also said in my book, Get to Work.

Maybe Rebel Dad is the cutting edge of a new social movement, one I missed here in my senior citizen center. Here's his description of his "rebellion:" "I've written on the subject of work-family balance in the past . . . largely from the point of view of an at-home dad with a bad freelance journalism habit, a juggling act I performed, with varied success, for the better part of three years [italics mine]. . . But both work and family have shifted radically for me in the past three months, and I'm suddenly coming at the challenges of balance as the primary breadwinner [italics mine]." I've jumped into a new career in public relations, and I hope to make a mark on that industry and remain close enough to my daughters -- one newborn, the other about to start kindergarten -- to see all of the tiny leaps that constitute growing up."

Exactly as I said in my book, just as the second baby arrives, Rebel Dad's wife, who I think was a successful Washington lawyer, is "homeward bound." I have nothing against Rebel Mom, who recently commented on her husband's blog that "Much to Rebel Dad's ire I think many of [Hirshman's] points, though polemic, have merit (hence a heated debate at RebelHouse today)." Rebel Mom particularly liked my lower level of "faith in the typical man and typical marriage than, say, RebelDad."

I wish my old-fashioned brand of feminism did not predict the behavior of the next generation so accurately. But, as I said about Kathleen Gerson's unduly optimistic headline and Courtney Martin's sample of two men she knows, politics only matters where there are scarce resources. Even women who marry rebels wind up at home with the kids eventually. That is why stay-at-home-moms outnumber the rebel dads by 56 to 1.

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