Here‘s Lisa Belkin again with her Motherlode blog (New York Times, 1/6/10). This time her topic is “equally shared parenting,” so of course it’s of interest to me.
I’ve complained about Belkin before. She seldom seems to do very much work, and this piece is no exception. She quotes a few comments from readers of a previous column, quotes a few writers on parenting issues and lets it go at that. So predictably, her piece is notable as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does.
Since the subject is equally shared parenting, you might think that Belkin would equally share her blog space between fathers and mothers, but she doesn’t. Indeed, she quotes seven different people (one of them being herself from a previous piece), all of them women. As I’ve pointed out before, the MSM tends to like its dads voiceless.
And that’s a problem, not just because we so rarely get a father’s perspective on whatever issue is being discussed, but also because it reflects the attitudes of the people who do get to be heard. I mean honestly, you’re a journalist and you’re working on a piece on equally shared parenting and somehow it doesn’t occur to you to ask a father for his take on the subject. That’s not just laziness, although in Belkin’s case it’s certainly that; it’s the point of view, shared by so many mothers, that fathers really are just appendages of themselves and therefore not that important. Some are reliable and some aren’t, but the notion that dads are anything but privates in the Mommy Army is hard to find.
Indeed, the quotations offered up by Belkin fairly scream “I’m the boss! Do it my way!” Did any of those mothers once sit down with their husbands and have a truly equal discussion about how clean the house should be kept and who would do what? There’s a brief reference to “negotiating” roles, which is valuable if it’s done right, i.e. equally, but I must wonder how conscious these people are about their preconceived notions of parental roles.
And of course, when discussing parenting, parenting time, parenting behavior, etc., the topic of paid work necessarily must be raised. If both parents are to do equal childcare, equal housework, etc., do they both do equal amounts of paid work? As statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tell us, the typical answer to that question is “no.” At least before this recession knocked so many men out of work, women came nowhere near to doing the same amount of paid work as did men. But surely, in terms of one’s contribution to the family, both have to be considered. If John works 40 hours per week at the office and Jane works only 30, it’s not ”equal” to expect John to work the same number of hours at home as does Jane. But neither Belkin nor her all-female cast of opiners mentions that.
But mothers’ assumption of control over children hardly stops there. Studies tell us that mothers engage in “maternal gatekeeping.” That’s an exercise of control over childcare that arrogates to itself the authority to decide what to do for the child, when and how to do it. More importantly it decides who’s to do it. So if Mom chooses to allow Dad some input into childcare, then he may do so; if not then he’s edged out, usually subtlely but sometimes illegally or even violently. If she allows him to do childcare, does it have to be her way? Does she carp at and criticize his slightest deviation from her dictates? Did she marginalize him when the child was an infant only to demand that he “step up” once the child got to be older and more of a handful?
As various social scientists have said, maternal gatekeeping tends to be a two-way street. That is, for every mother who demands control, there tends to be a father who allows her to have it. Both roles, the all-involved, all-competent mother and the uninvolved, incompetent father are much encouraged by popular culture, to everyone’s detriment.
A father’s social marginalization begins well before any child is actually born. As I said, popular culture just can’t seem to stop pushing the notion that all mothers are intuitively ideal caregivers and that fathers are at best incompetent and at worst dangerous to children. So not surprisingly, both sexes tend to fulfill their own social expectations. Of course family law actively promotes the same concepts and our educational system doggedly refuses to even attempt to teach children otherwise. So the path toward equal parenting is steep and rocky for both sexes.
Finally, abortion law also promotes the notion that fathers should have no input into decisions about children. Let me hasten to add that I support women’s abortion rights, and always have. I would never argue for a legal requirement that fathers have a “vote” about whether a pregnancy should be carried to term or not.
But no one should pretend that our formulation of abortion rights doesn’t convey the clear message to fathers – “you have no say about this child.” Argue that it can’t be any other way, and I’ll agree. Someone has to decide about whether to carry the pregnancy to term or not, and that decision is, rightly in my opinion, placed in the mother’s hands. But one of the inevitable consequences of abortion rights is to say to fathers in the most fundamental way possible, “this child is hers, not yours.” That’s a message that fathers hear time and again, from many different sources in many different situations throughtout the life of a child who is in fact theirs.
So from conception to birth and throughout childhood, we tell fathers in countless ways “you are less than equal,” while telling mothers the opposite. All of that hugely influences any discussion of equally shared parenting. Lisa Belkin missed it all. Maybe one of the reasons is that she forgot to ask a dad.