The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

WaPo & This Women’s Work

I’m not sure why this Washington Post article on “Mommy Guilt” bugged me a little bit when I read it, but it set something off in the back of my mind. And then I realized what it was. They were talking about me and didn’t seem to know it.

According to a University of Maryland study, today’s mothers spend more hours focused on their children than their own mothers did 40 years ago, often imagined as the golden era of June Cleaver, television’s ever-cheerful, cookie-baking mom.

In 1965, mothers spent 10.2 hours a week tending primarily to their children — feeding them, reading with them or playing games, for example — according to the study’s analysis of detailed time diaries kept by thousands of Americans. That number dipped in the 1970s and 1980s, rose in the 1990s and now is higher than ever, at nearly 14.1 hours a week.

This is especially striking because it is at odds with how today’s mothers view their own lives: Roughly half of those interviewed said they did not have enough time with their children.

I admit, being a gay dad, I’m in such a narrow demographic that much of the time we’re not going to factor into articles like the above. Then again, being a gay dad and partnered makes my experience somewhat similar to the women in the article.

The research offers a look into a generation of great change for mothers. Fewer women lead the kind of life romanticized in the 1950s and 1960s — with a breadwinner father and homemaker mother. Yet while mothers’ hours of direct time with children have increased, so, too, have their expectations.

They have given up hours in other parts of their lives to make more time with their children — cutting back markedly on housework, which was down more than 40 percent over 38 years. They also trimmed their free time — and to some extent their sleep — as they increasingly multi-tasked. Multi-tasking hours roughly doubled.

“This is part of the burden of this generation of parents: enormously high expectations for how children develop, how they feel about themselves, how they achieve and how successful they are in the world,” said William Doherty, a family studies professor at the University of Minnesota.

Noteworthy for both its conclusions and comprehensiveness, the time diaries also show dramatic changes for fathers, who have nearly tripled the hours they spend focused primarily on their children. “They’re doing more but still dwarfed by what mothers are doing,” said co-author Melissa A. Milkie.

Giving up hours in other parts of my life? Check. Cutting back on free time? Check. Sleeping less? Check. More multitasking? Check. Still feeling like it’s not enough? Check. There are things I used to do, or would like to do more of that have become less of a priority. (My blogging activity, for one, has slowed down because during the time that I have with Parker, he needs to see more of me than the back of my head as I sit at the computer.)

The only difference is that, in our house, we don’t have the added pressure of gender-based expectations about who’s does what or who plays what role in our household. Instead, it has more to do with our individual interests, talents and — quite often — which of us happens to be available or have a free hand at the moment. Instead, the hubby and I are pretty much in constant communication (not always verbal or even visible to anyone who doesn’t know “the dance,” as we call it) because we don’t have those old assumptions to fall back on.

Of course, that’s also where we differ from the mom’s in the article; we don’t have the added burden of those old gender-based assumptions as we go about being a family. That’s something we can chalk up to male privilege. Items ten through twelve, to be specific.

10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.

11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent.

12. If I have children and pursue a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.

Thus, no article on “Daddy Guilt.” Though fathers also had a dramatic increase in time spent with their kids, they were “dwarfed by what mothers are doing,” according to the WaPo article. And while I haven’t done a study, my personal observations tend to bear that out.

One of the many ways being a gay dad has changed my life is that it’s changed my milieu. We no longer reside in the “gay-borhood.” Most of my social interactions with adults, outside of work, take place at children’s birthday parties or similar events, with other parents. Heterosexual parents, that is. And we’re most likely to end up talking about our kids.

For me, that often means that — because for some reason the heterosexual couples spit off into gender groups at these affairs — half the time I end up talking with the mom’s in the group. (Depending on the gathering, there’s a limit to how much I might have to discuss with the other dads. Particularly when talk turns to football or other sports.) It’s kind of amusing, because I usually just listen, occasionally chiming in on shared experience. It’s kind of amusing because there’s almost always a pause in the conversation, a couple of the moms look at me for a minute, and then I see the look of recognition play across their faces: “Oh, right! You’re a guy, but you get it because you do ‘Mom Stuff’ too!”

This women’s work — well, minus pregnancy, labor, hormones, and episiotomy — is, by necessity, ours too.

But what’s struck me in all of those exchanges is how much, even in the most progressive couples, the lion’s share of child care and related activities, still falls to the women. Even if the fathers do more, and surveys suggest they do more than their fathers or grandfathers did, it’s still considered “gravy” or “extra.” Not to take anything away from what the fathers who are spending more time with their kids than did their forebears. They are, in fact — both the fathers and mothers in these families — consciously (and perhaps out of necessity) bucking against a couple of centuries of tradition and never-really-attainable ideals. That’s something I can relate to.

One other thing struck me, as I thought about our son growing up in a home without a gender-base division of labor. Given that there’s at least a 90% chance he’ll grow up to be heterosexual, and a 100% chance that he won’t grow up in a home with even a vaguely gender-based division of labor, maybe his future spouse and kids will benefit from having two fathers-in-law or two granddads.

6 Comments

  1. Yep, could have described me.

    Haven’t kept a diary, but I suspect we each spend about 14-15 hours a week in ‘primary’ time.

    and I’d still check off all those things you did.

  2. I was disturbed by the article as well. For the reasons you list and more.

    You are so my new boy crush!

  3. We just had this discussion today in my sexuality class because I am of the opinion that many same sex couples do replicate traditional gender ideologies. I know of cases where the lesbian partner who gives birth to a child ends up engaging in the mommy role or I know of cases where one male partner in a gay relationship ends up being the stay at home parent and replicates a mommy role. A small child may not be sophisticated enough to see this as anything related to traditional gender ideology.

    However, even a child in the most nontraditional family is going to be exposed to the dominant gender ideology through friends, pop culture, the educational system, and other nonfamily institutions.

    I know I sound really pessimistic, but I do think same sex couples are generally more egalitarian.

  4. I know of cases where the lesbian partner who gives birth to a child ends up engaging in the mommy role or I know of cases where one male partner in a gay relationship ends up being the stay at home parent and replicates a mommy role.

    I thought about that after I wrote the post, and saw one article describing the same thing you mentioned in lesbian families. That’s probably more likely in families where the child has a biological connection to one parent and not the other. And I know of one or two examples of what you described in gay male households. It kind of makes me wonder.

    You have a point, though. Just as we all grow up in a society steeped racism, we grow up in a society tinged with sexism and soaked with “traditional gender ideologies.” not to mention homophobia. So, we can’t help but absorb some of it.

    However, I’d like to think that gay & lesbian parents are at least more likely to be aware of their own conditioning on some level. I know some of us are, and consciously work not to pass that on to our children.

    For example, Parker went through a period when one of his favorite colors was pink. If had a particular item came in more than one color, and one of them was pink, he’d chose the pink one. (If it was pink and red, that was even better.)

    A lot of parents, especially dads, might have been disturbed with that and tried to encourage him to pick something else. But we didn’t. We don’t want to teach him that it’s “wrong” for him to like pink. He’ll get that soon enough, but his home should be a place where he isn’t judged for liking a “girl’s” color. There are no “girl’s colors” in our house. If he wanted to play with Barbie dolls, that’d be fine with me too. (I’d probably help him pick one out, and join in on the play.)

    So, if nothing else, I think there’s a greater chance that kids with same-sex parents are less likely to grow up with traditional gender roles reinforced at home. Maybe they’ll absorb that there’s more than one right way to “be a man” or “be a woman.” (In fact, there are as many right ways to be both as there are men and women in the world.)

    At least, that’s what I hope.

  5. I think it’s important not to assume that a family with one working parent and one at-home parent is replicating traditional gender roles. Why assume that it’s the “woman” in the relationship who stays home? My partner carried our child, gave birth, and is breastfeeding. She’s also going back to work in a few weeks, while I will be staying at home to provide child care. Is she the “woman” or the “man” in our family? Assuming she has to be either is silly. We are both women. We are both mothers. Our son will grow up with an in-house example of the varied choices women can make.

  6. Susan,
    I think you have a fair point, but I feel like you are essentializing gender too much with this statement, “Assuming she has to be either is silly. We are both women. We are both mothers. Our son will grow up with an in-house example of the varied choices women can make.”

    Personally, I don’t think mothering is inherently female. I think men can mother, and women can father. To me mothering and fathering are sets of behaviors, that stem from traditional gender roles. I don’t think one achieves the status of mother just because she is female.

    Of course, in an ideal world we would talk about parenting not mothering and fathering. We would not divide family roles like this, but unfortunately many people still do. While same sex couples challenge some of these norms, they are also products of this gendered society just like everyone else, and those norms are so powerful and pervasive it is impossible to totally shun them.

    My point really wasn’t the old tired stereotype that every relationship has a “male role” and “female role.” I agree with you on that point, but my concern is about behaviors not so much individual gender identities.

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