Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle: Deep Thoughts About Parenting

Hilary Rosen's comment about Ann Romney and the resulting brouhaha may be emotionally exciting (or angering) to engage in but ultimately not very enlightening. They set stay-at-home-mothers (SAHMs) against mothers in the labor force, they point out that poor mothers on welfare are supposed to go out to work, even though otherwise staying at home with one's children is the most valuable work there is.

But however valuable work child care is (and it is) it is terrible in pay and in benefits (never mind this story, funny money does not count). Women who do it for their own children end up taking a financial punishment for doing so and women who do it for other people's children are among the lowest-paid workers in this country.

Then there's the feminist-bashing arguments. Feminists hate SAHMs! So much that being a feminist who wishes to be one is a daring move. And the truly nasty arguments you find if you dig in the bottom mud of comments threads attached to these pieces: Mothers who stay at home are lazy bon-bon eating golddiggers! Mothers who work are selfish careerists who mistreat their children! Women who don't have children are the worst of the lot because they have refused to carry out their god-sanctioned and biologically determined role in life!

It's all fun and games. But it doesn't bring us one step forward, for several reasons. The most important is that every woman gets equally threatened in these conversations by what are viewed as her "choices." The stories are linkbait for that very reason: Imagine all those shaking fingers typing on all those keyboards, all those gritted teeth, all those churning stomachs, all that unfocused anger!

Add to that mix the very patriarchal commenters who come in to tell women how to mother and feathers will fly.

So let's take a few long steps backwards and look at the very innermost layers of this parenting onion. Forget about the current debacle, forget about your place in this guilt-scenario. Indeed, even forget the planet we are on.

Instead, suspend your judgment and imagine another planet where creatures very much like us have created civilizations. They differ from us in one aspect, however, and that is how they procreate. Suppose that they work that bit out like frogs, that they leave tadpoles behind in ponds and that the children born that way are then quickly filled with all necessary information by some high-tech procedure.

In such a world neither sex would have to be in charge of long years of child care. What would such a society look like, in terms of gender equality? My guess is that it would look pretty close to equal.

Spend some time with that thought. You might ask yourself what would happen if that society decided, for some reason known only to themselves, to meddle with their reproductive system and to change it into something resembling ours, requiring years of hands-on care by at least one adult.

Would they choose one sex to do all the hands-on child-rearing? And if they did, what would that extra obligation mean to that sex's societal equality? How would sex roles change? What beliefs would be created about the proper life roles of male and female parents?

These musings can be enlightening. They lead to several obvious questions, the most important one being the question which underpins everything here:

Is it possible to have hands-on childcare shared by both mothers and fathers, in fairly equal amounts or is it never going to be that way?

This is the crucial feminist question on parenting.

What we have, right now in the United States, is a system where most people believe that it is the mothers who are ultimately responsible for the hands-on care of children.

Some believe that this is a managerial role, that she can delegate the actual care to either other relatives or to paid caregivers but that she is still the one responsible for all the scheduling and the overall performance of the arrangement. Others believe that only the mother herself should do the caring. The latter means, naturally, that she cannot be in the labor force while carrying out those duties. Very few people seem to believe that the managerial role should be shared by both parents (even on the left side of the political aisle), and voices arguing for a wider solution ("it takes a village") exist but get no political traction. Hence the miserable maternity leave and lack of accessible daycare in this country.

Return to our imaginary society, after the genetic manipulation, and assume that now the female adults of that species are responsible for child-rearing, either because they were genetically manipulated to want that role or because the society decided on that for some other reason, such as them now breast-feeding the babies. Assume, moreover, that the society decides not to help the female adults in that task in any other way except by decreeing that the fathers of any children should give her bed and board while she is raising children.

How would a mother in that society look back at the history of her planet, at the roles of the past? Would she be content with the changes and the obvious costs to her? How would her male partner view the situation? And what would the society do, to ensure the reproduction of the next generation under these conditions? What myths would be created, what arrangements would come about, what laws would crop up?

The answer is probably unfathomable and would depend on how strongly the female parents would wish to undertake the task they have been assigned and on other power-related questions in the society. But it's hard to see how such a society could have political or economic gender equality, without very conscious changes to ensure just that.

And those required changes are few on our planet or in this country. Hence the question I bolded above.

If, one day, fathers participate in hands-on childcare in roughly equal numbers or at least as a sizable minority, then gender loses much of its discriminatory power. Employers would no longer try to shy away from promoting women just because they might quit soon, to stay at home with children. Men would be equally likely to do that, you see. There would be more women among the political decision-makers because women who wanted such a task could do so by marrying a man who was more focused on the family. And, perhaps most importantly, questions about how to cope with children would have stopped being questions that only have to do with women.

Is this trend feasible? I don't know but that is my hope, not only because it would decrease gender discrimination in the labor markets and even out the earnings differences between men and women but also because it would offer a more balanced and emotionally richer life for all. Ultimately.

Current feminist economic and social activism makes sense if it is based on that implicit assumption about the future. But if this trend is not going to happen, the kind of feminist activism we need is quite different, consisting of attempts to get salaries and retirement benefits for SAHPs, of affirmative action for parents who return to labor force after taking care of children, of fights against seniority and work experience as a basis for promotions (when they are not equally available for both fathers and mothers) and possibly of political quotas for mothers. Continuing to fight for better and affordable daycare would continue but it would remain a women's issue.

These have been deep thoughts on parenting, not in their wisdom but in the depths I have plunged here. It makes sense to drill into the very center of the gender onion. It even lets me, at least, get a better handle on the question why the mommy wars rage so very easily: Parenting is seen as what "mothers" do, "mothers" are seen as an undifferentiated mass from the undifferentiated mass of "women", taking care of spoonfuls from the undifferentiated mass of "children" there is only One Correct Way To Mother And If Your Way Differs From Mine Then One Of Us Is Wrong.

And fathers are invisible elephants in the room.