May 18, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Amazingly, the American news media still struggle with the most basic concepts about fathers, children, families and work/family balance. For how long do so many of us have to know basic facts before the mainstream media figure them out too? This article is far from bad; it gets a lot right (Washington Post, 5/7/15). But writer Chad Prevost can’t seem to set aside questionable ideas that often came to him via the very popular culture he criticizes.
Prevost isn’t an authority on fathers, child custody, family courts, popular culture or the direction our culture is headed regarding those things. He’s a dad and a writer of fiction. To his credit though, he grasps his subject pretty well. His basic point goes something like this: as demonstrated by the decline in “bad dad” depictions in pop culture, we’re at last moving into an era of greater equality in the workplace and in domestic matters, including childcare.
Indeed we are. Just how far that thrust carries us remains to be seen. Many, many commentators mistake people’s stated attitudes about gender equality in paid work and childcare for the reality of what people do. Time and again we see surveys of (particularly young) people’s attitudes on those subjects and they invariably show an embrace of equality, i.e. interchangeability, of the sexes in paid and domestic work.
That’s all fine and dandy; we may well see those young people 20 years from now practicing what they’re preaching today. Or we may not. The simple truth is that, over the past 45 years or so, we’ve sent and received a tidal wave of messages to the effect that men and women are equal in all things, that women can do anything men can and, much more recently, vice versa.
And yet, to an astonishing degree, people’s actual behavior has changed far less than their stated attitudes. Much is made of the fact that there are something like three times the number of stay-at-home dads now as there were just a few years ago. But few notice that there are still 33 stay-at-home moms for every SAHD.
A couple of years ago, we learned that some 40% of households had a woman as the primary breadwinner. This too was ballyhooed far and wide for the proposition that women were rapidly gaining equality with men in earnings. Wrong. The dramatic increase in households with a woman as primary earner is a result almost entirely of the increase in single parent households. Only 13% of American households with an adult male and female have the woman as the primary earner. In 1960, the figure was 8%. In the great majority of those 40% of households, the woman is not just the primary breadwinner, she’s the only one. The rest of the members are her kids.
Meanwhile though, Prevost is right to celebrate the passing of the bad dad era in pop culture.
For generations, those bumbling oafs set a subconscious example for the rest of us, giving us implicit permission to leave household duties to our wives because — obviously — we just weren’t that good at them, anyway. But now the disconnected father who exits stage left for the better part of the week and washes his hands at the door of competence or emotional engagement is starting to fade into pop-culture history.
But oddly, Prevost himself has been victimized by a popular culture that’s long peddled a false narrative of fathers, mothers and the work/family balance.
It was about time all this changed. A generation of women had been spending eight hours (at least) at the office, followed by a “second shift” of housework that amounts to an estimated extra month of work per year.
Ah yes, the “second shift.” As much data showed, the image in the popular imagination of Mom who worked full-time and then came home to her second job — cooking, cleaning and caring for the children of whom her husband appeared to be one — was never a reality in any general way. The facts have always been that men’s paid and unpaid work hours are equal to women’s. For every quarter hour more of childcare done by a woman, her male partner did a quarter hour more of paid work. Yes, women did more domestic tasks, but men spent more time at the office, the plant, etc. The idea of a “second shift” for women was always purely an artifact of popular culture abetted by feminist victimology. It seems Prevost’s awareness of false pop culture narratives only goes so far.
Prevost himself is a stay-at-home dad. He cares for his kids while his wife works for a technology start-up. He’s also writing his novel. This he describes as challenging, humbling and rewarding.
But as I’ve learned in the five years I’ve been a part-time writer and full-time stay-at-home dad while my wife builds a technology company, that image is neither accurate (except when it comes to wrapping gifts, where I’m still hopeless) nor particularly satisfying. No, the domestic hemisphere is not for the faint of heart. Not just because it’s hard. It is definitely another job, but it’s also often humble work, tending to others and scheduling your life around their schedules, while remaining engaged enough to be emotionally present for your kids. There’s little external reward, and for many smart and driven people, even when you do it well, it’s not enough.
For me, the chance to quit my teaching job and try my hand at writing, while raising our kids, sounded like a dream. I can say now that both novel writing and domestic duties have proven to be far more challenging than anything I could have imagined — and yet I wouldn’t trade what I’m experiencing, and what we as a family have grown into.
Good for him. I’m glad he has a domestic situation in which he can find satisfaction as a father and writer. I’m glad his wife supports his decisions and he hers.
But amid the happy talk of a Brave New World of interchangeable sexes who easily cast aside roles the human race has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, Prevost neglects a good many things. He fails to notice that, whatever the expressed values of the young, the overwhelming majority of those opting out of work and into childcare are women and those earning the family’s daily bread are men. Across the English-speaking world and all the countries of the OECD, women still do far more childcare than men and far less paid work. And, speaking of attitudes, women who work are far more likely than men to say they’d prefer to work less than they already do.
And then there’s the whole system of family courts and family law that Prevost ignores completely. I hope he and his wife never divorce, that they’re happy and prosperous and their kids grow up with two parents actively involved in their lives.
But should they divorce, as almost 50% of married couples do, Prevost may be in for a rude awakening. That’s because, however much TV sitcoms and advertising may have discovered the virtue of fathers, courts and legislatures have not. Should they divorce, Prevost, as the stay-at-home parent should receive primary custody of the children, substantial spousal support and child support. But many are the dads who, if the courts weren’t biased against fathers would have received much the same things, but found themselves consigned to mere visitor status and walking wallets in the lives of their kids. I hope that doesn’t happen to Prevost, but it easily could and, if it does, I wonder what his thoughts about the Brave New World of gender equality will be.
Forces far more powerful than popular culture work against the gender-neutral world Prevost imagines. They work against children’s welfare by keeping one child separate from one of its parents, usually the father. They see mothers as natural caregivers and fathers as largely irrelevant except as sources of cash. And so far they’ve resisted almost all efforts at change, regardless of how reasonable or how modest.
I hope Prevost is right. I hope we’re poised on the threshold of a new era in which fathers are valued for the many benefits they provide children and mothers. By all that’s good, right and just, we should be. But Prevost is young and believes that profound change comes more easily than it does.
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