Men, Just Take Paternity Leave Already

Look around, look around at how lucky you are to be alive right now

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There is a viral Tik Tok meme that shows women answering questions from their husbands, while the lines from the song from Hamilton play. “Look at where you are. Look at where you started. The fact that you’re alive is a miracle.”

There are a lot of these videos, which are both a sendup and a celebration of the helplessness of men in heterosexual relationships. But this male helplessness is more than just a punchline in the heteronormative misery of our culture. It’s actually a huge barrier to true equality.

Last week on The Daily podcast, host Michael Barbaro and his guest, both men, were shocked and surprised at how much it cost to take care of children and how little childcare workers make. As if this topic hasn’t been the foundation of most of feminist theory and writing and study for the past 60 years. And while sometimes foundational information is helpful, if we are going to be eternally shocked by the work women do for the next century, we will never move the conversation or the culture forward. 

It’s been a week for displays of helplessness. Commentators like Tucker Carlson, Matt Walsh, and Candace Owens expressed shock and outrage that head of the Department of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, took paternity leave after the birth and adoption of his twins with partner, Chasten. Of course, the outrage was performative partisanship. But it played on heteronormative expectations. Carlson noted that parental leave was for women to breastfeed. What role does a father even have in the life of an infant? they asked.

But it’s not just the constructed strawmen of the reactive right. In articles about the issue, journalists were quick to point out that fathers who do take leave worry about a reduction in pay or career setbacks. There is “a risk associated with ‘daddy time’,” Fast Company writes, as if mothers don’t risk even more. 

One of the huge reasons there is a pay gap in America is because mothers take time off work to take care of their children. It’s well documented, researched, and studied. Mothers who work earn less, are promoted less, and have more career setbacks

Even if you are not Tucker Carlson and think of yourself as a reasonable human being, consider that the average American father takes less than a week of time off to help care for a newborn. From the beginning of a child’s life, men absent themselves from the care of their children, throwing their hands up, claiming it’s the mother’s job. “She has the boobs.” Or, “She’s the one who’s good at those things.”

This isn’t just anecdotal. In heterosexual relationships, women still do more chores and more childcare than men. But this contrasts with how men perceive their contributions. A study out last year showed that 50 percent of men believed they did an equal amount of the pandemic homeschooling responsibilities. Only 3 percent of women agreed.

Oh and guess what, even after all of this, 61 percent of all men think that women have equal job opportunities. Meanwhile, according to a 2021 Gallup poll, the majority of American women are dissatisfied with how they are treated. But the majority of American men don’t see a problem.

This gap is the learned helplessness, the passive resistance, the absolute lack of understanding. It’s the men who insist that #NotAllMen are like this. It’s not just partisan, it’s every man who doesn’t help with the kids because “she’s better at it” and “women are natural nurturers.”

In her book All the Rage, Darcy Lockman reveals how it’s not actually helplessness, but resistance to the sharing of labor. In an op-ed for the Times, Lockman wrote,

 “Though many men are in denial about it, their resistance communicates a feeling of entitlement to women’s labor. Men resist because it is in their “interest to do so,” write Scott Coltrane and Michele Adams, leaders in the field of family studies, in their book, “Gender and Families.” By passively refusing to take an equal role, men are reinforcing “a separation of spheres that underpins masculine ideals and perpetuates a gender order privileging men over women.”

And this passive resistance contributes to women’s burnout and women dropping out of the workforce. After all, on the other end of the helpless dad’s meme is a woman who has to work twice as hard and be twice as competent. 

Writing in the Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone pointed out the persistent trap of the logic that mothers are the only ones vital and necessary. “Women and children are always mentioned in the same breath (‘Women and children to the forts!’). The very special tie women have with children is recognized by everyone. I submit, however, that the nature of this bond is no more than a shared oppression. And that moreover this oppression is intertwined and mutually reinforcing in such complex ways that we will be unable to speak of the liberation of women without also discussing the liberation of children, and — vice versa.”

She then systematically looks at the history of the idea of modern childhood, which she argues is a recent invention, one whose rise coincided with the increased political and cultural freedom of women and the rise of the nuclear family. Firestone concludes, “To the mystique of the glories of childbirth, the grandeur of the ‘natural’ female creativity, was now added a new mystique about the glories of childhood, and the creativity of child rearing.” Lay all of this at the feet of a mother, and the mother alone, and they are trapped, suffocated in a world that’s supposed to be the fulfillment of all she is and yet, and yet.

When forced, mothers seem to pick their children over their career. If they have that luxury. Not every mother can just not work. The number of people who have told me to simply homeschool, in response to my fears about the pandemic, is truly out of touch with the economic reality of my life. If I don’t work, I can’t feed my kids. If I can’t feed them, I lose them.

But this male helplessness is more than just a punchline in the heteronormative misery of our culture. It’s actually a huge barrier to true equality.

But why are they forced to make this choice? Because fathers don’t step in. Because, culturally, we mock parental leave, and fathers are personally resistant to do the work of child rearing. Corporations don’t offer leave to all parents. Stories about mothers and work and childcare are a constant surprise to the people tasked with covering them. And structurally, politicians refuse to see childcare as essential infrastructure. 

We aren’t helpless to do anything about it. We are just actively resistant to equality.

Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, sent on Wednesdays, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more. 

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