Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Fallen Breadwinner

Oh, boys and girls, women and men, and everything in between.  It's so tricky working together, isn't it?  Please excuse the heteronormitivity (and middle-classness) of the following - especially on this most colourful of weekends - but I want to talk about issues of male/female power dynamics here in a long round-about way.

Several things I've read and arguments I've mediated lately have to do with gender.  Which one wins?  How do we prop up the losers?  Why do we even care about helping the losers?  That sort of thing.

Most popular is the article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic:  "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."  It suggests men are winning in boardrooms and politics because dads don't do enough at home.  When push comes to shove, women have to step back from their careers to care for their little ones - and not-so-little ones as the author took a breather to get her teenager back on track.  This is not a new idea.  But it's one that just isn't substantially budging!  To fix the problem, men have to step up, but also our entire culture has to change to be geared towards helping women work by, basically, taking a greater hand in helping us raise our kids.

Margaret Wente wrote about the article today with the counter that "No one has it all": Men don't get to be great, involved fathers and CEOs, but more of them are just better able to ignore guilt's pull towards home and get 'er done.  Interesting juxtaposed with a previous article she wrote, "What if women don't need guys any more," in which she claims, "Men are thrilled to marry women they regard as equals. But women who are far more successful than they are can make them feel demoralized and inadequate."  Whatever is an intelligent, successful, powerful woman to do without a man to marry her?

I'd counter Wente that it's not entirely the case that women and men have an equal choice to ignore the home and focus on work because, from what I see in the my corner of the world, most women do a better job of home stuff.  I think it's less likely (but obviously still sometimes the case) for dads to look at their children's lives with mom and think, "I should be home because I would do a much better job helping with homework and getting them to pick up their things. The kids can't manage without my help."

As much as I abhor essentialism, the ability of women to organize their own lives and the lives of many others (children and often her partner too) seems too prevalent to just be a cultural invention.  And some scientific studies suggest the average woman really is significantly better at that kind of multi-tasking than the average man.  If it's the case that women are superior performers at home, then we're back at Slaughter's view, that they can't stay in office because dads aren't doing enough.  BUT, perhaps it's not the case that dads are unwilling to do enough for cultural reasons, but that they're unable to do enough for biological reasons. They just can't remember to do all the many little things involved in raising children.  So it might be the case that if you're a woman, and you want to move up in the world, you need a kind, loving, multi-tasking nanny to help you out at home.

This brings me to another article I dug up recently.  Roger Ebert wrote on Mother's Day that "Women are better than men."  He says women are kinder and therefore we need more of them in public office:
Women are not wired to see disagreement as a challenge to themselves. Women value common welfare above singular success. Women are more open to cooperation than competition. Women have evolved to focus more on prudent long-term survival, and less on immediate gains. When women give birth and spend months suckling an infant, they understand better that we all depend on each other. They're programmed to nurture the defenseless, plan for the future, value others for their qualities rather than for their externals. Yes, these are generalizations. I am more right than wrong.
When you read this, did you picture Margaret Thatcher too?  Or Karla Homolka?  Or remember the time your sisters almost killed one another over a hair brush?  I'm not sure women are kinder even generally speaking, but I do think moms will, on average, work harder for the benefit of their own children than dads will.  And I think it's because we're programmed that way.  Most women just can't as easily ignore that guilty feeling when kids need their time.

If it's the case, that women can do everything, if they no longer need men to own property, have children legitimately, or earn a decent living, and if men aren't particularly helpful with childrearing, what role is left for men except the powerhouse in the boardroom?

It's no longer enough for men to just earn a good living if he's no longer the primary breadwinner.  Over the past fifty years, with increased freedom, women's roles have changed dramatically.  Men have started changing diapers and want accolades for it.  But it seems it's really not nearly enough of a shift to keep up.  Where a man was once allowed to be a demanding child who can make all the rules because he brings home the bacon and who could expect to come home from work to relax, dammit,  now he has to share the workload more, help with homework, control his temper, and compromise.  There is no more relaxing until the kids are tucked in bed, and you gently fall into a coma.  But is that possible across the board?  Is it a realistic expectation of the average male of our species?  Some men are definitely doing it with relish, but the fact that Slaughter's article is making the rounds so noisily, suggests that many more aren't.

And a final article from today's paper:  Leah McLaren questions why we still think being part of a couple is the final resting place of our lives instead of recognizing the joys of being single for keeps.  I wonder if it's precisely because of the different rates of change in our lives that choosing a single livestyle is become more popular long after financial freedom was accessible for many women - middle class women.  Cash-strapped women have been managing as single moms for decades.    

This is all very timely for me as the conversation adds to three recent events I've been contemplating.

My son commented on a list of the greatest achievements of all time, and couldn't help noticing that they were all achieved by men.  Doesn't that clearly show that men really are smarter than women?  And it leads me to wonder what multi-tasking women could have achieved if they didn't have a portion of their brains and time focused on making sure that science project gets done and submitted on time and making sure the kids took their clean laundry off the line and making sure there's something tasty in the fridge for them to make lunches with tomorrow.  As Slaughter relates, in the U.S. Supreme Court, 100% of male justices have a family, but almost 70% of female justices are single with no children.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Then for my civics summative, kids had to promote a charity by designing a website.  Nobody had any issues with charities that focused exclusively on animals:  WWF or PETA even.  But the shit hit the fan when one group presented on a charity that focuses on girls, helping the many girls worldwide who are prevented from going to school.  A few guys in the class vehemently argued that, since there are boys sent to war, and that this organization doesn't help those boys, then it's sexist, and we shouldn't support it.

Oh, where to begin?!  Does it matter that Zero Force and War Child focus exclusively on children taken into war?  Does it make a difference that in many places where children aren't being forced into war at all, girls are still denied education, must eat last if there's any food left at all, and are sometimes even murdered for being seen as worthless?  Why such a backlash over the idea that we raise the status of girls to match that of the boys in the same area?  Why is it expected that if we want to help some girls go to school, we must, at the same time, help stop boys everywhere from becoming child soldiers when it's clearly not expected of WWF to help humans as well as animals?

And the reality is that in countries where women have a better quality of life, everyone benefits.  Similarly when we help animals and protect habitat, we're really helping ourselves to a healthier world.  It benefits everyone when the most vulnerable are protected and given rights - everyone, that is, except the wealthiest few.  Many people don't see the way it all connects - that if women have more rights, if women get more help with the drudgery that can be childcare, then everyone benefits from the increased pool of intelligence in the boardroom and parliament.

Finally, in my careers class, I invited guest speakers to talk about their careers.  Nine of eleven speakers who could come over the course of the semester were women.  One of the speakers brought her kids and the necessary trappings of snacks and crafts to keep them occupied during a thirty minute talk.  Of course nothing is distracting enough to keep the under-four set from being the centre of attention whenever possible.  They jumped and danced and sang.  As a mom, I had no problem tuning them out in order to listen to the speaker, but my students didn't have that focussing ability.  And I realized later that I should have gotten a student volunteer from another class to play with the kids in the hallway while their mum chatted with us.

And it occurred to me that that's something we need everywhere, that we once had, and that we've sorrily lost in our quest for progress.  We don't have teenagers or young adults clamouring to show off how good they are with kids.  It's not a skill we praise.  It's seen as a lesser skill - something everyone can do.  There's an unspoken bias that if you're good with kids, you're likely not very smart.  You can't be both.  So to appear intelligent, we hide these skills, and then the next generation starts to devalue them.  And then we have fewer options when we need help with the kids.  Of course caring for children has been seen as a lesser skill for centuries, but there was once a core of women who would happily take up the very necessary task largely because nothing else was open to them beyond being prostitutes or housewives, which, according to Wollstonecraft, was the same thing.

Wente argues, "But some work environments will always be inherently unfair to people who put family first.  You can't run the White House like a daycare centre."  Maybe not like a daycare centre, but maybe with a daycare centre.  Why is that such a stretch?

And we're stuck with this problem:  If we want men to help more, women have to do less, but then kids suffer until it all gets sorted out - which could take many more decades.  But if women slip back into doing it all for the sake of the kids, then they lose the struggle to use more of their brains for other stuff.

We could play Tom Sawyer with this and insist that raising children is the most exciting, most fulfilling thing to do in all the land, and don't you wish you could get flex-time and on-site daycares in your corporation so you could do more of it!!  Then watch the men shift their schedules and priorities for this most incredible opportunity of a lifetime.  Because it really is.

And it's a damn good thing that somebody takes it up for the good of the future.  Does it really matter which gender that is?  Maybe it would help if, on that list of greatest achievements, it listed people who best managed to raise many children on to be healthy, happy, conscientious adults - or even just included all the mothers of those achieving men.  Every day that Thoreau was writing about being a manly man who built his cabin with his bear hands in the wild, his mom made him lunch.  Maybe the greatest achievements list only has men on it because making sandwiches isn't on the list!  (Oh, to take that line out of context!)

Now, before I waste another minute reading, pondering, and writing, I should really sort through all the school stuff to keep the treasures and recycle the rest, sort through some laundry, get the kids up and fed, help one kid get a membership at the gym, help another wade through OSAP forms, help the littlest clean pet cages, fix the bathroom door so we can regain some privacy, pick up the rental car and pack it up for a camping trip, water all the plants, and maybe buy some food so they don't all live on bagels and apples.  And I will do all that before dinner.  Go!   

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