Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Recognizing stay-at-home dads to challenge traditional gender roles

As a mother I feel disappointed when I read articles that report statistical findings suggesting that working moms are happier than stay-at-home moms or vice versa.  The first time I came across such a report was in 2012 as I was taking the light rail to work.  At the time, my child was two years old.  As a working mom, I was curious to know who was the happier group, but I couldn’t help wonder why I had not read articles about the happiness of working dads versus stay-at-home dads.  To me the lack of articles about men on the same issue reinforces the traditional notions of women as caregivers without recognizing that in many families men are also primary caregivers. 

Today, at-home dads may represent a small percentage of at-home caretakers, but statistics show more dads are staying at-home to care for their children than ever before.  The Pew Research Center’s 2014 report estimates that more than 16 percent of fathers are at-home caretakers.  Nevertheless, child rearing is still sociologically considered a woman’s role.  This prevailing attitude not only hurts women by reinforcing gender stereotypes, it is also a factor that prevents shifting to a more egalitarian view that it is acceptable for fathers to be caregivers.   

Recently I read Beth Burkstrand-Reid’s, “Dirty Harry Meets Dirty Diapers: Masculinities, At-Home Fathers, and Making the Law Work for Families.” I found her article compelling because she argues that at-home fathers may be subtly reinforcing gendered family notions of breadwinner and caregiver roles instead of subverting these stereotypes.  She based her findings on about 430 news media articles reporting on at-home fathers.  However, I disagree with Burkstrand-Reid’s conclusion that balancing work with family life is not an issue that resonates with men.   

Burkstrand-Reid’s argument is mistaken because it does not account for a recent societal shift in which many fathers are purposely working less and spending more time with their children.  For instance, the Pew Research Center reports that from 1965 to 2011, fathers reduced the number of hours they devoted to paid work from 42 to about 37 and increased the number of hours they devoted to child-care each week from 2.5 to 7.  Furthermore, a survey of 1,023 professionals by Citi and Linkedin reveals that balancing work life with family life is the number one career concern for both men and women.  Thus, to state that the issue of work-family life does not resonate with men is at odds with empirical evidence of today’s trends. 

I  believe Burkstrand-Reid’s argument is further misguided because it conflicts with my own experience where the men in my life have been just as concerned with the issue of balancing work and family life.  Five years ago, my own partner willingly took time off work to care for our son when he was born.  This permitted me to recover and return to part-time work.  My partner’s decision to take an extended work leave was not financially motivated because it was unpaid and actually prevented him from being promoted.  Growing up, my father would take time off when the occasion called for it.  To this day, my godfather takes care of his two little girls while my godmother works as a full-time teacher and spends evenings in a masters program. 
Perhaps I am biased from my own personal experience, but the men in my life have demonstrated that they are as concerned as women are about balancing work and family life.  The notion that men are “breadwinners” is quickly becoming outdated as more women are challenging the notion by becoming the breadwinners of their own households.  

Women should have the ability to take on any role they want instead of being restricted by society’s construction of appropriate roles for men and women, especially for fathers and mothers.  Therefore, I believe that for men to take on women’s traditional roles of caregivers, employers should be more accepting and encouraging of male employees who take family leave.  It is not enough that men and women alone take the initiative to defy traditional gender roles.  After all, employers can be highly influential in shaping employees’ beliefs about what is acceptable in the workplace.


Amanda said...

Given that men still hold most management and policy-setting positions, this trend seems like a huge step forward and will hopefully result in better workplace policies. Children benefit by spending more time with their parents. Men (and women) will benefit by better work-life balance environments. And women will hopefully benefit from the removal of pressures to become primary caretakers and from increased pro-caretaker workplace policies. Seems like a win win win situation.

Ari Asher said...

This post also made me think about how the idea of a woman as a breadwinner challenges notions of femininity. The Burkstrand-Reid piece was so interesting. Masculinity seems to be "salient" (at least that's what she argues). I wonder if this same thing is true about femininity -- as more and more women become breadwinners, are they (we) giving up their femininity to fit in to the working world, or is femininity equally "salient"?