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Money Alone Won’t Make Men Better Parents

Recently, I argued that it was time for a “Daddy Wars” to complement the wide-ranging debate among women about how to be working parents. I called for us to confront the cultural expectation that fathers be career-oriented, and to demand that men include themselves in a conversation that heretofore has been dominated by women. And this conversation, I said, should involve both economic and policy issues like paternity leave and social issues like what kind of dads we expect fathers to be.

Two articles have since appeared arguing otherwise—that gender dynamics and cultural norms are a distraction from the real issue in the parenting debate, which is money. “The central conflict of domestic life right now is not men versus women, mothers versus fathers,” Stephen Marche writes in “Home Economics,” in The Atlantic. “It is family versus money.” In The American Prospect, E.J. Graff argues, “These are not gendered problemsThe conflict between work and family is not gender-specific at all. There will be no specific solutions for guys. There will be no specific solutions for gals. These are American family problems. And until we see them that way, we will not solve them.”1

Both pieces correctly note that without wealth or free social services, it is almost impossible to be an available parent who is also professionally successful and career-oriented. And both enthusiastically cite Jonathan Cohn’s New Republic cover story advocating universal day care, saying that such a policy, because it alters the underlying economic reality and empowers mothers and fathers to parent and work more easily, is the closest thing to a panacea.

Economics ought to be a huge part of the parenting conversation, of course. But Marche’s and Graff’s almost vulgar-Marxist assertion—that the key to solving this societal problem lies entirely in economics—is wrong. The evidence is overwhelming that establishing more equitable gender norms when it comes to parenting is going to require more than just free day care (though that would certainly help!). And one of the things it is going to require is a conversation among men about what sort of fathers they should expect themselves to be, and one that takes place before they actually are faced with a crying baby that somebody needs to take care of.

Marche and Graff are right that no man or woman without wealth is likely to come close to “having it all”—Anne-Marie Slaughter’s now-famous term for balancing a rewarding career with a rewarding home life—without extensive government support. But they offer little evidence that, should such a utopia be achieved, men and women will suddenly break free of millennia-old, deeply ingrained gender roles—roles that take their most basic cues from none other than biology itself. The best such a utopia could hope for would be to enable widespread equality in parenthood (it might also reduce the number of single mothers). It will take additional, non-economic incentives—different expectations, stronger social pressures—to achieve it.

I also worry that Graff is too optimistic when she concludes of young men, “They may not call themselves feminists, but they see women, home, work, and family very differently than their fathers did.” This may be true, but it will only benefit these young men and their partners up to a point. If we do not encourage young men to talk about being fathers well before they actually are fathers, then as they progress in their careers (control over fertility and the continued trend of later marriages means they can progress further and further), they may find themselves unprepared, from a professional perspective, to organize their lives in such a way that will allow them to become the kinds of fathers they would like to be.

Marche is perceptive in noting that our “hollow patriarchy”—a fine phrase—was brought on by economic trends that favor equality between the sexes, and in some cases actually favor women. “The edifice is patriarchal,” he writes, “while the majority of its occupants approach egalitarianism.” Yet I wish he had asked himself: If the patriarchy is so hollow, then why does it persist? The answer, of course, is that economics aren’t everything. The patriarchy is reinforced by television and movies, by sports and entertainment, and by family and friends; and therefore taking down that patriarchy will require more than dollars and cents.

A couple weeks ago, I attended a New America Foundation panel on “Working Parenthood,” and it further convinced me not only that men are not talking about this issue—“working parenthood”—enough, but that such a conversation is eventually necessary. All four panelists were women, as were the vast majority of attendees; when I raised my hand to ask a question, one of the panelists said, jocularly and welcomingly, “Ah! A male voice!” They discussed economics and other material circumstances such as the availability of maternity and paternity leave. But cultural factors were also a topic. One panelist quoted a French friend of hers saying, “We need the state to be feminist because our husbands won’t be,” which hints that the interplay between state support and culture is more sophisticated than Marche and Graff take it to be.

Jessica Grose, a writer at Slate’s XX Factor and the panel’s moderator, admitted of the parenting discussion that even after years of working in “women’s magazines” as well as having gotten married, “I wasn’t clued into it until I became pregnant, which I think is part of the problem.” If she wasn’t clued in, imagine how clued in your average unmarried young man must be. Petitioning the government for a redress of our grievances will not solve that.

A recent article in The Daily Beast by Conor P. Williams went beyond economics and examined the raft of mockery and disbelief he endures as a father who is also his children’s primary caretaker. “Improved professional opportunities for women won’t happen in a vacuum,” Williams argued. “If men are part of the problem, they must also be part of the solution. Professional flexibility for women rests upon a more flexible view of masculinity.” Part of the solution, he readily notes, is policy presciptions: better maternity and paternity leave; better day care options. But part of it is social: The people in our lives—he cites a friend, a neighbor, an old boss, and colleagues—shouldn’t chastise or poke fun at him. In fact, they should probably support his and his wife’s decision.

Williams is already on the other side, though. How we discuss these issues (and whether we discuss these issues) before we become parents is crucial for establishing an underlying apparatus for parenthood when the time comes. I’m still in the process of figuring out what that apparatus should look like: where to live, and what kind of job to have. I lack answers, but asking the questions earlier is better than putting them off. Similarly to the Mommy Wars, the Daddy Wars can’t take place just among people who are already daddies.

  1. Graff’s piece is an explicit, friendly rebuke to my Daddy Wars post. I think she elides one of my points, which is that the Daddy Wars aren’t only about equality, feminism, and better child-rearing from the child’s standpoint. It’s also about making it easier for men who want to be active fathers. In other words, I’m much more selfish than she gives me credit for!