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August 14, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I don’t have a lot to add to what I’ve already said to the recent spate of articles that try and fail to understand the most obvious of things. Here’s the latest such (Boston Globe, 8/10/15). The various articles and the studies they refer to are all desperately trying to explain why, when people become parents, they tend to adopt traditional sex roles. These are people who, when asked their attitudes about gender roles, tend to swear allegiance to more recent norms.

These articles have certain things in common. They look askance at men/fathers for spending more time at work than they earlier said, they don’t ask why women/mothers have plugged into the traditional mother role and they search in the wrong place for the answer to what they consider a conundrum. The Globe article is more of the same.

Millennial dads want to play an equal role in child rearing. Really, they do.

They just aren’t.

The New York Times recently highlighted a study published in the American Sociological Review that found most men and women ages 18 to 32 have egalitarian attitudes about gender roles, across education and income levels. But these ideals come up against a hard reality when men actually have kids, the study found, with many fathers saying they’d be stigmatized for cutting back at work.

See what I mean? When there’s a child, there’s usually both a mother and a father who produced it, and they usually have some sort of relationship. And for every man who opts for doing the lion’s share of the paid work for the couple, there’s a woman who emphasizes motherhood over earning. They both fall into traditional sex roles, but articles like the Globe piece only look at what the men are doing.

That’s odd, since it’s usually mothers who make the choices about domestic affairs (another aspect of the matter these articles are happy to ignore) and dads who fit themselves to their partners’ desires. Couples usually act in tandem, even when they don’t realize they are, so to scrutinize only one person’s behavior is a virtual guarantee of coming up with a faulty conclusion about why they do what they do. Competent mental health professionals are well aware of this. But the people writing the articles uniformly look only at one side of a two-sided coin.

And, like the previous pieces, the Globe article wants readers to conclude that, if we just make a few changes to public policy, then finally, men will start acting like women and women like men. Just why we’d want to do that is anyone’s guess, but the last article on this subject I wrote about declared that we must. So there it is, I suppose.

Unsurprisingly, men are at fault for doing more to support their families, but women aren’t at fault for doing more childcare and less paid work.

“I can safely can say that fathers’ aspirations to be more involved in caregiving have increased in recent years, but their actions are not quite aligned with their aspirations yet,” said Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family.

The most recent study from Families and Work Institute, a national organization, highlighted the convergence of work-life ideals for men and women. Only 35 percent of employed millennial men without kids said they thought men should be the breadwinners while women should “take care of the home and children.”

But once men actually have kids, the study found their attitudes shift, with 53 percent of millennial men with children saying it was best for men and women to take traditional roles. Why the change in opinion?

“One reaction is, ‘Yeah, it figures. Men talk a good game,’” Harrington said.

Again, see what I mean? The article mentions that men do slightly less childcare than do women.

The Families and Work Institute study also found that millennial fathers spend an average of 4.1 hours per workday with their children, compared to the 2.4 hours dads in 1977 spent. Mothers under 29 spend an average of 5.4 hours per workday with their kids.

But it makes no mention of the fact that women do far fewer hours of paid work than do men.

And, like the other articles, the Globe piece has a villain, so we don’t have to blame men entirely. It seems that we live in a culture that requires men to spend too much time at paid work. Part of that culture shorts men when it comes to parental leave.

Some studies suggest men feel they will be stigmatized at work if they take parental leave or cut back on hours after having children…

The [Boston College Center for Work and Family]’s 2011 research showed 16 percent of men took no time off following the birth of a child, while 96 percent took two weeks or less. Gender stereotypes and the short duration of men’s parental leave patterns caused 99 percent of working fathers to say they felt their supervisor expected “no change to occur to their working patterns as the result of their becoming parents.”

That’s all true enough. But, like all the other articles, it ignores the obvious reasons why men are so dedicated to work and women to children. That reason is millions of years of evolution. The idea that sex roles are created out of whole cloth by a culture that’s determined to keep women barefoot and pregnant has been demonstrated to be false numerous times. Indeed, studies that have looked at dozens of cultures worldwide find the same patterns of behavior in each – women tend to be the primary caregivers to children and men tend to be the primary resource providers. It’s true from hunter-gatherer cultures in New Guinea to that of the good old U.S. of A.

Men’s opting for paid work over childcare and the relative lack of parental leave for them simply reflect those all too human traits.

Having completely missed the biological underpinning of our gendered behavior, it comes as no surprise that the article also misses the fact that the evolution of these roles is mostly female-driven. For millions of years, women have chosen to mate with males who looked to be good resource providers and shunned the others. The result? Men tend to try to be good resource providers. And their doing so permits women to spend as much time as possible with their kids, which is the role most women prefer due to their powerful hormonal attachment to their offspring.

The idea that offering fathers more parental leave will put a serious dent in the evolved behavior that’s made humans such a successful species verges on the delusional.

Of course there are countervailing forces at work too. As I’ve said many times, humans are a bi-parental species. That means, as recent research is demonstrating, that fathers are also hormonally attached to their children. Human children are cared for by both parents and attach to both. Human fathers have the neurological equipment to be primary caregivers to children, just like mothers are. But in society after society women have always been the primary caregivers and men the secondary ones. That’s not the way it has to be, but it’s the way it is. Fathers’ neuronal makeup is flexible; it allows them to adapt to the parental role at hand.

So it’s no surprise that people who adopt the current thinking on sex roles (there shouldn’t be any) move immediately into those roles when their kids are born. The urgings of the biological and biophysical apparatus in each of us is hard to resist. Anyone who sees the issue as primarily one of cultural oppression of one sex or the other is bound to be confused. Overwhelmingly, people are just doing what they’ve always done, and for the soundest of reasons – it’s worked; the species has survived and thrived.

The answer to all the recent hand-wringing is much simpler than most seem to realize. There is nothing in the world wrong with traditional sex roles. The only problem we need to solve is how to ensure that neither of those roles – primary caregiver, primary earner – is socially or legally stigmatized. It should be acceptable for a woman to be the main earner and a man to do most of the childcare. And it should also be acceptable for a woman to do most of the childcare and the man to do most of the earning. Each is a legitimate choice and neither should be penalized by the law.

Once we get there, we’ll be alright. And when we do, we shouldn’t be surprised to find most people opting for traditional sex roles, the same ones that got us here in the first place.

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Comments   

0 #1 Hmmm...jstiles 2015-08-19 14:54
"That’s all true enough. But, like all the other articles, it ignores the obvious reasons why men are so dedicated to work and women to children. That reason is millions of years of evolution."

I'm not going to say there aren't any biological reasons why we so often end up in traditional roles. I don't know. If you could, please cite me ANY study that shows there is ANY proven link at all between biology and parental roles.

It's much more likely that parental roles are mostly driven by economic considerations. That is people are just doing what makes sense financially so they can live optimally or even just survive. Throughout most of history, given the hard scrabble life of most and the difficulty of planning for children, the traditional roles were really the only practical way to live. That's not biology. That's economics.

Today in America, financial incentives, like "child" support, are likely the main drivers of the stickiness of traditional roles.

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