Before my wife married me, she was a globe-trotting superstar. She earned her Masters in Public Health and worked in international development, helping to establish health centers in war zones like Afghanistan, Liberia and Eritrea. But once we had our first child, she faced a difficult decision: to pursue her professional career, or raise our daughter at home. Both choices were of very high importance to her, but she ultimately decided to focus on raising our children. The decision was not at all an easy one, and one that she still revisits time to time.
This issue is hardly a new one, but has been recently fanned to a fever pitch by an article in The Atlantic entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, as well as the recent news that the new CEO of Yahoo is six months pregnant, raising fears that she will not be able to adequately raise the fortunes of that flailing site. Heated and eloquent opinions on the topic have filled internet forums and blogs, most of them forged from the intensely personal experiences of women everywhere.
But I’m actually not writing to weigh in the topic of professional women who are also mothers. I do not believe that my point of view on that subject is particularly insightful, and neither do I have any interest in putting myself into the crossfire of this debate. I would rather opine on less charged issues, like theology, or race.
Instead, I want to point out a strange inconsistency: I never have read anything similarly focused on men, something entitled, “Why Men Can’t Have It All”. How strange that although males also fulfill the role of professionals and parents as women do, there is almost no debate as to whether they are able to balance these two roles adequately. As the father of four children and a pastor, I have given the issue considerable thought, and believe there is only one real explanation:
It’s that no one expects men to be as involved in parenting as women.
The reason that women struggle over the question of being both a mother and a professional is because they have such a high view of both. For women, being a good mother and a capable professional are both roles that require incredible amounts of commitment and sacrifice, so much so that it becomes nearly impossible for the average women to fulfill both roles adequately. And hence, intense debate results.
The reason no one ever asks the same question of men is because we don’t expect very much out of fathers. If a man is somewhat engaged with his children, and makes some attempt to be present and active in their lives, he is considered a good father. And fortunately, that level of participation in a child’s life still allows a man enough time and energy to fully devote themselves to another calling, that of their professional lives. This is why men are better able to balance these two roles—not because of the enhanced abilities of men, but because the role of father is culturally diminished and relatively lightweight. A man can throw himself into his career, and dabble in fatherhood, and still win the approval of all.
Perfect example of this: go to Costco, and look for a parent taking care of multiple children. If you see a woman towing three children along while grabbing cases of bottled water, you don’t give her a second look (except out of pity) because that’s normal, and expected. But if you see a single man taking care of three children at Costco, doing the exact same thing as a mother, you will find old people clucking in approval and married women looking on in envy. Because they have seen a rare thing: a man taking care of children! Bravo, sir, bravo.
Now at this point, you might expect me to attack this mentality from the point of view that it is a negative double standard, and is unfair to women. Well, it is. I think that’s obvious. But as a male, that’s not really how I look at this issue.
This double standard is unfair to men.
When someone tells you or implies that you can’t do something well, that’s not a cause for celebration. Men should not feel emancipated because everyone believes they are only mildly competent as caregivers. That’s an insult. That means that people assume you can’t do a good job, that you aren’t as capable or committed or loving and patient as your spouse. It diminishes the importance of fatherhood, and ridicules the abilities of fathers.
This perception is further perpetuated by the media, which consistently portrays fathers as utter domestic fools. I recently saw a commercial for a new comedy where three men struggled to give a baby a bottle, a modern take on the old joke, “How many incompetent ______ does it take to screw in a light bulb?” This may seem harmless, but in reality, is a terribly destructive stereotype. Many men buy into this mentality or stereotype without thought, and assume that they are not good caregivers, that not much is expected from them as fathers, that they are bumbling fools when it comes to family. We tell ourselves, “Sure, we can be good CEO’s, but we’re not cut out to be fathers.”
Now, tell me how that is any different or less insulting than telling a women the opposite: “Sure, you’re a good mother, but you’re not cut out to be a CEO.”
I wish someone would write articles questioning whether men could have it all because that would mean that we are finally taking fatherhood seriously, and seeing it as a role that requires such commitment that there is a very real chance that it cannot be balanced with professional ambition. I wish men would fill online blogs with their anguished attempts at living both callings, because that would mean that we are giving fatherhood the time and attention that it deserves, and are no longer selling ourselves short. God knows that there are so many communities where fatherhood needs to be taken far more seriously, not less.
There is much debate and strong opinion on the issue of women, working, and motherhood. But believe it or not, this is a good thing because struggle doesn’t always indicate that something is wrong, but sometimes, that something is right. I would prefer that fatherhood be viewed in that same sober light, rather than remain fodder for bad sitcoms.