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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

May 13, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Judith Shulevitz has a way of writing things that don’t need to be written. Here’s my take on one she wrote back in December of 2012. There she fretted about a non-problem — women giving birth after their 40th birthday — which she “solved” with a non-solution — the government paying people to have children earlier in life. As I pointed out then, about 2.6% of births are to mothers over 40, the vast majority of which produce children with none of the physical and mental problems that occur more frequently in children with mothers of that age. The sensible solution would be to educate women in ways that encourage them to bear children earlier in life. But, quixotically, Shulevitz opted for tax incentives for earlier childbearing. But because the overwhelming majority of women having children over 40 are affluent, tax incentives would benefit women who don’t need them while not affecting the behavior of the ones who do, i.e. the less well-to-do women who already give birth in their 20s.

In short, Shulevitz was unnecessarily anxious, and wanted everyone else to be too.

This piece has some of the same characteristics, but is mainly just odd (New York Times, 5/8/15).

This time her complaint is that mothers worry too much. Or maybe that fathers don’t worry enough. Or maybe that mothers overschedule their children in order to ramp up their level of worry, worry being its own reward. Or something. Shulevitz is a capable thinker and writer, so the fact that her piece is such a muddle gets my attention. Again, she’s anxious and seems to be searching for something about which to fret.

What she finds is the fact that mothers tend to worry more about kids and how to structure their lives than fathers do. Generally speaking, that’s true.

THERE’S a story my daughter loves to hear me tell: The day after I came home from the hospital with her big brother, my first child, I was seized by the certainty that I was about to die. I sobbed; I asked my husband: “But who will keep him in socks? Who’ll make sure he’s wearing his little socks?”

“Didn’t you think Daddy could put the socks on?” my daughter exclaims, delighted that I’d been so ridiculous.

“I wasn’t sure he’d remember,” I say, “or have enough on hand.”

Yes, that’s quite a problem; fathers don’t know kids need socks. Thank goodness most of them have a mom around to tell them. Shoes too, and food. Dads are completely incompetent that way. Right.

And, although Shulevitz knows that her husband is perfectly competent, that doesn’t stop her from worrying about the kids.

I should state for the record that my husband is perfectly handy with socks. Still, the parent more obsessed with the children’s hosiery is the one who’ll make sure it’s in stock. And the shouldering of that one task can cascade into responsibility for the whole assembly line of childhood. She who buys the bootees will surely buy the bottle washer, just as she’ll probably find the babysitter and pencil in the class trips. I don’t mean to say that she’ll be the one to do everything, just that she’ll make sure that most everything gets done.

That too is generally true. Parents are usually smart enough to allow one to take the lead in matters related to the children, and that person is usually the mother. That division of labor makes more sense than both of them doing the scheduling, making the lists, remembering what needs to be bought, what activities signed up for, etc. Two parents doing all that would only mean conflict and confusion. Most people understand this, so one person tends to take up the planning and relies on the other to do part of the implementation. It’s vastly more efficient that way.

More to the point, it corresponds to male/female sex roles that are far, far more ancient and deeply ingrained than many people seem to grasp. They’re also a direct product of our human biology that, to a great degree, governs the behavior of the sexes, particularly related to children and childcare.

The simple facts are that, although humans are one of the 5% - 10% of mammals in which both parents take part in caring for children, our hormones go a long way toward dictating which parent does most of the childcare and which takes an involved but secondary role. Those hormones have produced human parental sex roles for many thousands of years and they’re a good reason why the species has survived.

It’s only been within the past 150 years or so that circumstances have militated in favor of doing things differently, of behaving politically instead of biologically. Abundance brought about by advancing technology and capitalist incentives, an expanding population, vastly improved medical care, democracy, etc. all now tell us that our traditional sex roles are no longer necessary, and so we’re trying to change. But our biology has changed little and we know what’s worked for us over the millennia, so every day we demonstrate our hesitation to alter our age-old behavior.

We say that women can do anything men can, and, for the most part, we’re right, but our behavior doesn’t match our rhetoric. When it comes to, for example, running for public office, women do so far less than do men. Physically demanding and dangerous jobs are still held almost exclusively by men who, unsurprisingly, make up over 90% of workplace fatalities. Military ranks are about 75% male, while about 80% elementary school teachers are women. The Census Bureau calculates the ratio of female to male stay-at home parents at about 33:1. Although more women do paid work now than before, they still make up only about 37% of full-time workers, and even they work fewer hours than their male counterparts.

I could go on almost indefinitely, but the point is that our Brave New World in which men and women are supposedly interchangeable parts has been embraced by everyday people a lot less than many, including the news media, would like us to believe.

Shulevitz takes a half-hearted stab at arguing the point, but her effort actually does the opposite.

In the United States today, more than half of all women work, and women are 40 percent of the sole or primary breadwinners in households with children under 18.

The latter statistic has been much cited for the proposition that women are hot on the heels of men when it comes to supporting families. They’re not. Most commentators, like Shulevitz, cite the figure for the proposition that large numbers of families have the woman out-earning the man. But the 40% figure is about two-thirds made up of women who are not living with a man. They’re not the main breadwinners, they’re the only ones; their only competition is their kids. As Indiana University Law Professor Margarent Ryznar revealed, just 13% of households in which a man, woman and kids reside have a woman as the chief earner. That’s up from 8% in 1960, i.e. not much change in 55 years.

In short, whatever we want to believe about ourselves, our actual behavior owes far more to our biology and ancient sex roles than to any Brave New World of gender interchangeability.

Another thing that explains is the widespread practice of maternal gatekeeping whereby Mom decides Dad’s level of participation in childrearing and Dad pretty much goes along with her decisions. That sort of gatekeeping by mothers has been studied a fair amount, with the number of mothers who actively keep fathers mostly away from their kids running to some 21% of the total. Lesser forms of gatekeeping are even more common. As they have from far back into pre-history, women assert their roles as primary parents, and men mostly accede to them. That helps explain the knee-jerk opposition to shared parenting bills that would benefit everyone, but find largely irrational opposition from many quarters.

What makes her article truly weird is that Shulevitz knows and admits most of this. She knows something about the biology of parenting and parental roles and she knows a smidge about gatekeeping, even if she does define it as “eye rolling” at her husband’s parental behavior.

Evidence from other animals as well as humans makes the case that the female of the species is programmed to do more than the male to help their offspring thrive. Neurological and endocrinological changes, the production of hormones such as oxytocin and estrogen during pregnancy and after birth, exert a profound influence over mothers’ moods and regulate the depth of their attachment to their children...

I’ve definitely been guilty of “maternal gatekeeping” — rolling my eyes or making sardonic asides when my husband has been in charge but hasn’t pushed hard enough to get teeth brushed or bar mitzvah practice done. This drives my husband insane, because he’s a really good father and he knows that I know it. But I can’t help myself. I have my standards, helicopter-ish though they may be.

Does she truly not see that when she says her husband “hasn’t pushed hard enough” that for him he has, but she’s the one making the rules about how hard must be pushed? My guess is that she does. She sees, as many people do, that mothers tend strongly to be the boss when it comes to childcare, not because they’re better at it, but because it’s their biologically-determined role, one that they’ve acted for as long as humans have walked the earth.

Can we switch roles? Of course we can. Fathers prove countless times a day that children brought up by them end up just as well as kids brought up with Mom. But the truth is that there’s a deep and powerful resistance against doing anything but what we’ve always done. And when it comes to childcare, mothers are the strongest resisters anywhere.

So what exactly is Shulevitz complaining about? Mothers doing what they want to do because they’re powerfully motivated to do it? Fathers making way for mothers in the way they always have? Yes, mothers worry about the nitty-gritty of childcare more than do fathers. That’s one way they have of asserting their authority in the area of life that women generally feel to be the most important to them.

Shulevitz seems to be out of sorts because humans aren’t different from what we are, even while acknowledging that she herself wouldn’t dream of changing to answer her own complaints.

Put simply, that doesn’t make any sense. Shulevitz is a worrier looking for something to worry about. If she wants her husband to do more of the childcare planning, she should back off and let him do it and not criticize because it’s not done the way she would prefer. And in the process, she should not only work outside the home as much as he does, but earn as much as well.

But Shulevitz isn’t about to do any of those things. She’d rather complain.

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