Dads caring for children: is it natural?

A friend asked me the other day if I think it’s natural for dads to share care responsibilities. She was frustrated because her husband just didn’t seem to be attuned to their child’s needs and was concerned that he (the child) simply wasn’t getting cared for the way she felt he needed when he was with his dad.

The timing of her question was actually quite perfect because I am, coincidentally, just now working on a chapter on stay-at-home dads for my book on men opting out. I have mostly interviewed men who have opted out to opt in to other forms or approaches to work, but my data does also contain a few stay-at-home dads whose narratives are so interesting that I’m dedicating a whole chapter to them. It’s a very timely issue, what with initiatives to get men to share the care load and to take more parental leave when their children are young.

So the question is, is it natural for a man to be a caregiver, or even the main caregiver, of his children? One argument I sometimes hear (in addition to the one above that men just aren’t sensitive enough to children’s needs) as to why it isn’t is that in the animal kingdom it is often the female that cares for the young while the male goes off and does something else, whatever that may be, so shouldn’t it be the same with people. (Yes this is true, this is an argument I hear, although there are species where the male also cares for the offspring to different degrees. I’m no zoologist, but you can look this up.)

Let’s deal with this point first, and get one thing straight. We humans are our own species with our own social structures, rules and needs, so comparing us to other animals is not always helpful. In fact, according to Finnish child psychiatrist Jukka Mäkelä, one of the things that sets us apart form other species is that human infancy lasts much longer than it does for other species. This means that it takes much more physical, emotional and mental effort as well as time to care for human infants until they are big enough to feed themselves, actually walk, look out for themselves etc. than it does for other species’ offspring.

What this means in practice is that this is a lot to do for one person (i.e. the mother) and the work and responsibility should, in fact, be shared. Unfortunately our individualistic society with ideals like the nuclear family and mothers struggling alone to raise their children does not support this. However, our individualist ideals are not a natural human condition, they are social structures so deeply embedded in our consciousness that most of us have trouble seeing alternative ways of life. But parenting has historically not always been organized or idealized the way it is today; caring has, for example, not always been done primarily by the mother.

So just because other animals organize their family life and care responsibilities in a certain way, it doesn’t mean humans should too.

Well then what about that first point, the one about men not being attentive enough and therefore being incompetent to properly care for children and their needs? Being attuned to a child’s needs is an acquired skill. Those of you women out there who have children probably remember that when your first baby was born the learning curve was quite steep. However, after spending a lot time with your child around clock you learned to both understand and anticipate your child’s needs, it became second nature. But still, it was a skill you acquired after becoming a mother.

Now, since women do the brunt of childcare and are the ones who take most or all of the available parental leave, this usually means that the father ends up not spending as much time with the child and therefore not acquiring the same skills. Hence we have the situation where moms feel that dads really aren’t very attentive, which they often aren’t because they haven’t had the chance to learn. Also, it needs to be noted that, growing up, girls are socially conditioned and taught to be attentive towards others’ needs and feelings, which is not something we as a society generally expect of boys.

However, research has shown – and I have seen this in my data too – that when a father gets a chance to spend a lot of time with his child, especially alone without the mother around (like being on parental leave), he learns to become attentive to the child’s needs and just like the mother learns to anticipate things before they even happen. This comes automatically from spending time with the child, but it doesn’t happen over night. Time is needed, and just like mothers learn to mother over time, fathers need a chance to learn to be the nurturing fathers they are very capable of being.

The upside to this newly acquired skill to be attentive and attuned to needs, is that fathers who gain this skill are not only more attentive towards their children (and develop very warm and close relationships with them), they also become more attentive towards other people, like their partners, which has a great positive effect on their relationships. In other words, this is really very good for the whole family.

And finally, I know of no father who has taken responsibility for the care of his children, either in my data set or elsewhere, who has regretted the close relationship and bond with his children that this caring has entailed. Children who have parents who share the load typically become very close to both (or all, depending on what kind of a family we’re talking about) parents.

So the answer to the question whether it is natural for fathers to take on responsibility for their children’s day-to-day care is yes! It is completely natural and it is desirable. Fathers should be around their children more and share the care load with their partners.

But, having said that, we mothers, who are concerned about the quality of care that our children get, also have to accept that everyone will not do things exactly the same way, nor should they. Everyone is bound to have their own ways of going about caring. The point is, however, that fathers need to be given a chance. And to the fathers out there I want to say, go for it, you won’t regret it!

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I’ll wear whatever the hell I want

I thought we weren’t doing that anymore; telling women over a certain age what they can and cannot wear. I thought we had already stipulated that people can and should wear whatever they please. But apparently I was wrong.

Last week I didn’t see just one but two posts (suggested to me by Facebook’s generous and thoughtful algorithms – I think someone thinks I’m getting old…) in my Facebook newsfeed on fashion mistakes women must avoid as they age. One was for women over the age of fifty and the other I don’t remember exactly but it was for women older than that. According to these posts’ expert advice, the fashion mistakes you might make will either make you look old or frumpy or both. But at the same time you must look your age and avoid garments made for much younger women, because that will just make you look ridiculous.

This isn’t the first time I see advice like this. Last time I got fashion advice in my newsfeed it was things women over 30 should wear, and I’ve also seen fashion warnings for women over 40. At the time, it was followed by an outpouring of articles, columns, and blog posts protesting this preposterous advice, assuring anyone who cared that not only should women wear “whatever the f*** they want”, they also do. Countless pictures of fabulous old ladies breaking so-called fashion rules and wearing whatever they wanted were shared on social media, and I somehow naïvely thought that was the end of that. We had proven that advice on what you can or cannot wear is not just uninteresting and from an era long past, it is also simply not wanted. But apparently I was wrong.

The thing is – and I can’t believe that I have to spell this out – everyone is different. People look different and different things are flattering on different people. But not everyone even cares about that. For some people other things go before fashion, like comfort or practicality, and besides, what is flattering and fashionable is a very subjective thing, as well as varying, depending on time and place. But either way, when people wear what makes them comfortable and what they like, it makes them feel good about themselves and confident in their skin. That is much more becoming that wearing something you don’t like and ending up spending all day feeling uncomfortable and inadequate just because it falls into the category must wear for someone your age.

And consider this, do you ever see intricate lists for men of what not to wear after certain ages?

Enough said. Stop with the ageist fashion dos and don’ts already. Besides, I’m going to wear whatever the hell I want.

Me too: on sexual harassment and assault

I was going to write a blog post about capitalism, social systems, and truths, but that will have to wait. I realized there is another blog post that needs to be written first, one that needs to be written now.

Yesterday morning when I checked my Facebook newsfeed, a couple of my friends had posted this:

“Me too.
If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste.”

It’s a social media campaign that has come about after the Harvey Weinstein allegations hit the news to raise awareness about how common sexual harassment and assault really are.

I looked at the post in my newsfeed and thought, yes, this is important. I should post that too, because I have also, after all, been sexually harassed on numerous occasions in different situations since I hit my teens. Then I continued scrolling, and stopped, scrolled back up again to the post and then back down again and then back up and then I thought I really need to be involved in this campaign. This is such an important topic to raise awareness about, especially since we don’t usually talk about it.

Yet I found myself scrolling up and down, back and forth, wanting to and not wanting to at the same time and I couldn’t really put my finger on what it was. Finally I just did it; I copy-pasted the text and created a status update.

During the next couple of hours I started to notice my newsfeed filling up with the same text. Female friends, relatives, and colleagues were sharing it too – countless friends, relatives, and colleagues. And it is an incredibly important issue, but that’s not really why I felt compelled to write a blog post about it. No, the sense of urgency I suddenly felt actually came from the way sharing this post made me feel. I felt a bit uncomfortable about it all day. I had this uneasy feeling inside, and after exploring that for a bit I realized that part of what I was feeling was shame.

I am a researcher and a social scientist. I research gender issues, among other things. I write and talk about inequalities, gender discrimination, identity, and sexuality. I am acutely aware of these issues. I study fears and reactions, and analyze reasons behind actions. I know that being the victim of sexual harassment or assault is not shameful and I know that the victim has done nothing wrong. Still, sharing the fact that I too have experienced sexual harassment or assault feels a bit shameful. It feels too personal; like it is something I should keep to myself.

I am willing to bet that every single woman I know has experienced some sort of sexual harassment or abuse during their lifetimes. I know that I am not alone and still it is difficult to talk about.

But many people don’t understand just how hard it really is. I was reading the comments section under an article about Harvey Weinstein the other day, and there was one comment in particular that caught my eye. It was a person who was genuinely wondering why the women haven’t spoken up before. Why did they put up with it? The answer is that it is really hard to speak up. These women were worried about their careers. They were scared of what Weinstein would do to them. They didn’t want to get stigmatized… I could go on, but the point is that the climate in our society is such that sexual harassment and assault are incredibly difficult to talk about.

I grew up acutely aware that I was at risk and needed to be cautious simply because I was girl. I remember when I was pre-teen, my friends and I heard rumors of girls we knew who had been raped, and we knew it could happen to us too because we were girls and that’s the way it was. And I tell you, walking around with the knowledge that you might get abused is scary and it affects your very fabric of being. To this day, I don’t feel completely at ease walking around after dark, even in my own safe neighborhood. I think this is something that is hard to comprehend for someone who hasn’t experienced that fear.

So this is my way of saying, yes, this is important, and yes, we need to talk about it. If you have ever been sexually harassed or assaulted, speak out if you can because we need to know that we are not alone, and all of us need to understand what a huge issue this really is.

#MeToo

Be whatever you want, sort of

In many ways we live in very exciting times. We really do. There are a lot of scary things going on politically, and at times it feels like everything is up in the air, but it is during times like this that you can really make a change. We have a chance to take a stand and shape the future.

Sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman talk about how this is a time unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, partly due to the speed at which everything is happening. And I do agree; for better and worse though because not all of it is good, but not all of it is bad either.

One of the things that has been argued to define this exciting time in which we live, is the fact that tradition really isn’t as important anymore as it used to be. We aren’t bound by certain professions and we don’t have to do things in certain ways; we can reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat. Not only can we, we are encouraged and pushed to do so too. Ulrich Beck coined a very illustrative expression; he talks about contemporary society as a tightrope society. If you don’t constantly keep your balance and reinvent yourself to stay competitive you might just crash to the ground. Not a very uplifting picture.

But still, even though there undeniably is societal pressure to reinvent and stay competitive, the promise of reinvention is also quite intriguing. If traditions don’t matter so much and you can reinvent yourself as you wish, you can do anything you want. Or can you?

This whole idea of individualization, reinvention, and having a multitude of choices has been criticized. They say that it may be true for a chosen few, but many, if not most, are bound by issues like gender, class, and race. The ones who aren’t, are according to these critics basically white men. Not all white men obviously, but white upper and middle class men. And I have to say, I have seen first hand how women, for example, can be bound and held back by traditional gender roles and norms both in the workplace and at home.

For my current project I have been interviewing men who arguably belong to this privileged group of people who can be whatever they want, and choose from a myriad of possibilities. I’ve been interviewing mostly in the US and Finland, and all but one of my interviewees have actually been white middle class males. Now you may wonder why my data set is so homogeneous. Well, Finland as we all know is somewhat restrictive regarding immigration policies, and the Finnish population just isn’t as culturally and ethnically diverse as in many other countries. In the US, the population is much more culturally diverse, but the fact that almost all my interviewees (so far) are white does say something about the people who get promoted and recruited to top corporate positions, which most of these men opted out of.

However, for people who are free to do and be whatever they want, I have to say that I have been struck by how bound by tradition and expectations my interviewees have been when choosing a profession.

You would think that these men who have opted out of their careers to create and adopt new lifestyles and ways of working, are the epitome of this age of reinvention. Yet many of them didn’t really seem to realize that they had that many options when they started out. In fact, most of them felt they didn’t. Many of them talk about how they chose what to study or what to become, based on what was expected of them, either by their families or by their peers. Again and again I hear stories of men who after high school decide to study business, engineering, or law because growing up that is what the men in their communities did. I’ve also heard stories of how men have based their choice of university or major on what their friends have chosen or what is considered high status and will make them rich and powerful.

Subsequently, for some of these men, entering the job market after university became a bit of a rude awakening. They worked for several years before opting out, but many of them reported not enjoying it or nor feeling that they were in the right environment. They often didn’t like the culture or they just didn’t feel at home, and when they finally did opt out they did so to do something completely different. I have interviewed a man who retrained to become a nurse, a few teachers, and a life coach to name a few. Others have opted into research, writing, community work, or they might have set up their own business where they could work on their own terms.

So for white middle class men who have so many options, they sure seemed to have been bound by traditions, expectations, and norms, at least when they were starting out. Thank goodness they had the courage and conviction to break out of that mold.

Men are complicated

You know what always drives me a bit crazy? It’s when I hear men say that women are so complicated, so hard to understand. What triggered this rant is a picture I saw on Facebook. It was of a man and a woman dressed in Victorian clothes and the man says, “Women are so hard to read.” The women starts to say, “Well actually we just want…” but then the man interrupts and says, “Such complex creatures.” The woman tries to say, “If you just listen…” where after the man finishes with, “So mysterious.”

And you know what, I’ve been there. I’ve been that woman, without the Victorian getup, but still. Every now and then I hear how complicated and hard to understand women are. Well let me tell you this. Women are no more complicated than men. It is just that men, being well versed as they are in the male social and cultural codes, are just more used to understanding men. But it doesn’t mean that men are any less complicated.

I should know. I recently started researching men and as I embarked on my research project I realized that, being a woman, some things just aren’t going to be as intuitive to me as they were when I studied women opting out. Things like social expectations and what it means to be a man among men. Although it isn’t like I don’t know any men. I am the daughter of one, the mother of one (a young one but never the less), I married one, and I have male friends and colleagues, so I thought that I still knew quite a bit about men and what they go through. But as I started delving into the world of masculinities, let me tell you, I realized it was a completely different world. There are social codes out there that I had no idea of. And some of the codes that I’m uncovering are really quite surprising.

Take peeing for example. Yes, that’s right, peeing. In a book I read, a man remembers a peeing incident when he was in his 20’s (this is a true story). A friend of his had a new sports car and asked him if he wanted to go for a ride. This was an extremely cool car; he definitely wanted to and so they jumped in. A few minutes into the ride he realizes that he needs to pee. Well, I as a woman would have thought that saying, “hey dude, pull over I need to take a leak” would be quite a masculine not to mention a normal (and necessary) thing to do but no, it wasn’t. This guy could not tell his friend that he needed to pee. It was like a weakness or something to give in to his bodily needs in this situation of ultra coolness and apparently one cannot limit oneself by giving in to things like that. Like don’t let your body limit you, or something.

What?!

Well anyway, what happened was that he just couldn’t hold it anymore and he ended up peeing on the seat of the car. Well, this was mortifying of course. Much worse than telling his friend that he needed to pee. But then he never intended to have an accident in the first place. He and his friend never mentioned it, but after that he never saw him again either.

I really had a hard time relating to this, not to mention believing that this could even be true. So I conducted a small investigation of my own and asked some men who I know if this could possibly be true. Is this really a real male experience? Well, apparently it is. They all said that they could sort of relate, although none of them would have let it go so far as to pee on the seat. But surprisingly, it was not a completely alien notion to them.

So there you go. Women may be complicated, but so are men.

It can’t be done… or can it?

One of the things I often hear when talking about sustainable career models is that in a family with children the parents cannot both have high-powered careers: if one parent pursues a career with everything that entails, then the other can’t or else no one will ever be around to raise the children. In most heterosexual families it’s the man with the career and the woman doing most of the childcare, but I have also seen families where the gender roles have been completely reversed. Instead of sharing responsibilities more evenly they have just flipped roles and the mother has the career and the father is the main caregiver of their children.

To reach the top echelons of corporate hierarchies, there is an expectation to climb the so-called career ladder in a timely fashion. Longer breaks or leaves of absence are often considered suspect. Only a few days ago this was confirmed to me once again by a corporate executive. I was told if a job applicant’s CV has gaps, or if the applicant hasn’t advanced as quickly as expected, he questions the person’s ability, ambition, and drive.

Yes, I know. Just because you choose to do something else for a while certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t able, ambitious, or driven, but that is how many still see it. And no, I don’t think that is the way it should be, and I am working on changing it, but for now that’s what we’re dealing with.

But let me tell you this. In my research, every once in a while, I see an exception to this rule. I interviewed a woman once who decided to just step off the career ladder. She was in a management position, she was exhausted, and she realized that unintentionally often took it out on her child, which she was distraught by. She decided she just couldn’t do it anymore, so after months of agonizing about what she should do, she walked into her boss’s office to hand in her resignation. As it turned out, she didn’t end up quitting. She managed to keep her job but started working part-time instead. No one in a management position had ever worked part-time in that company before, it was absolutely unheard of, and her decision was what we would generally define as a career-limiting move. She stopped caring about promotions, she was just happy that she could still work and be less stressed as a mother. Well, get this. When I met her two years later to follow up on the interview, she had been offered and had accepted a promotion in that very same company. The career limiting move turned out not to be. Yes, she was stressed again, and yes, she stepped back on the career ladder, but if you think about it, it is quite extraordinary as she originally thought her decisions would be anything but good for her career.

Then there was this man I interviewed. He had had several gaps during his career, when he had taken time off work to stay at home with all three of his kids while his wife pursued a successful career. In the interview he talks about how he and his wife thought about what the best solution for the family was, and they came to the conclusion that she should work and he should take care of the kids. His story isn’t very usual, but it’s inspirational because it also proves that interlacing a career with other things does not have to mean kissing a corporate career goodbye. He never disengaged completely; he always kept in touch with his contacts and did some consultancy work while he was away, but definitely didn’t climb the ladder in the expected way. He and his wife had decided to take turns. First she would focus or her career, and then a few years later when the kids were a bit bigger and she had achieved many of her goals, he would focus on his. And because he was never completely away he managed to do this and is now in a top corporate position pursuing the career he originally thought he would have.

His choices haven’t been completely unproblematic. Being away makes his ascent slightly slower than his peers’, but it is still possible. And if we make alternative career models the new normal it might also become possible for even more people.

But in the meantime, consider what these two stories tell us. They illustrate that what we think of as unheard of doesn’t necessarily have to be. You may think it isn’t possible where you work, but how will you know if you don’t ask? Sometimes it really can be that simple.

 

Stay-at-home dads

I got back from the US a couple of weeks ago, where I interviewed men who have opted out of successful careers. By now I have conducted interviews in Finland, the UK and the US (and I am still looking for more men, so please let me know if you are or know of anyone in these countries who I could interview: theoptingoutblog@gmail.com. Thank you!).

Luckily everything I heard about interviewing men when I set out has been proven wrong. The stories I have collected are incredibly rich in detail and so interesting. I just love interviewing, and although I haven’t started to systematically analyze my data yet, I do have some tentative impressions. One is that although it at first seemed that men who opt out pretty much follow the same pattern as women (see my post Men who opt out), the more I interview the more complicated it gets. While the stories of the women I interviewed were all very similar, I’m finding that the men’s stories are all over the place. They are actually all quite different.

The decision to leave seems to have come about differently for men than it did for the women I interviewed. The women typically set out to have a career without any plan what-so-ever to ever leave, but finally did leave due to a crisis that pushed them to rethink their lives and their values (see for example How do you decide to opt out?). The decision for men to opt out on the other hand – not all of them but many if not most of them – seems to have been less about being pushed to make a decision and more about just doing it.

This, of course, could be because men aren’t potentially as forthcoming about talking about crises as women, but that is not the whole truth. Men are socially expected to work, to be the breadwinners, and to support their families, whereas women aren’t. If a woman pursues a career, she has to overcome social norms and expectations. In fact, we often assume that women who pursue careers do it for selfish reasons – self-actualization – while men do it for selfless reasons: to support their families. That is not true, however, both do it for both selfish and selfless reasons. Both may have families to support and both do it because they find it meaningful, but still this is how people often subconsciously see it. So a woman has more social barriers to overcome when pursuing a career than a man does, which probably means that if she has made it that far in her career, she has done so because that is what she really wants to do. And if that is true, she is not going to give it up very easily, unless something happens that makes her rethink her priorities.

Men on the other hand, are expected to work, to have a career, so all men who have risen in the corporate hierarchies might not have gotten there out of pure conviction and grit. So I’m thinking, maybe the decision to leave may therefore just be something they decide to do and not necessarily as a result of a crisis. Maybe it is just their next step, whether it is for good or for a period of time until they come back again.

Many of the men I interviewed in the US either are or have been stay-at-home dads. I suppose that is to be expected as there is no legislative parental leave and affordable high quality daycare is harder to come by in the US than it is in Europe.

For these men, it was therefore naturally often children that made them decide to leave. They saw their family as a unit and together with their wives (who also had successful careers) they decided that the best thing for the family whole was for the wife to work and for the husband to care for the children, and then that was what they did. And all of them were very happy about their decisions. Despite the hard work (because staying at home with kids really is hard work), it felt meaningful and they cherished the time they had with their children.

But, the truth is, when it comes to social standards they are the anomaly. In their respective communities, they are the only stay-at-home dads in what continues to be a predominantly woman’s world. And here are some of the frustrating things they hear from other women, often strangers:

  • “Oh you’re babysitting your kids today!” (How can a dad possibly babysit his own kids? They are his kids!)
  • “Oh you must have forgotten her jacket at home!” (No, this dad knew exactly how much his daughter needed to wear in that weather.)
  • “Oh how sweet, are you helping your wife out today?” (…)
  • “When are you going to find a job?” (Something you generally wouldn’t ask a woman in the same situation.)

And the most incredible thing I heard was something that one man told me happens on a regular basis when he takes his child to the park. Strange women will come up to his child sitting in the stroller and fix things like hats and jackets, thinking that this dad needs all the help he can get. Anyone with children will know how unsettling that is. You don’t want strangers touching your children and if a man did that – just walked up to a woman with a stroller and started touching the child – it would definitely be frowned upon, right?

It seems that although we are becoming more open to men and women breaking gendered norms, we really have a ways to go. Even in Finland, which is considered one of the most gender equal countries in the world, very few men actually take parental leave. Many men take out their legislated paternity leave and stay home with the mother and the new baby for up to three weeks right after the baby is born, but the percentage of men who actually stay at home and are the main caregivers until their children start daycare or school, is in the single digits. Last I heard it was about 3 or 4%. And a lot of it is due to organizations not supporting fathers who want to do this. Although they would never deny a Finnish mother to go on maternity and parental leave, I have heard many stories where employers have told fathers that it may be your legislative right, but here we just don’t do that.

So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with a long way to go. But based on the stories of the men I interviewed, it is a truly valuable and cherished experience for both the father and the child. Fathers can be just as attentive and caring as mothers and if we just give them the chance to participate in childcare on equal terms, I really do think the world would be a better place.