Health Care (Archived)

Opinion: Free the working fathers

In the fight for paid family leave, the driving narrative behind the policy is how it will benefit women. And it’s true – women are uniquely harmed by social expectations placed on them for unpaid care work, like child rearing and elder care. 

The fact that there is no male equivalent for the awkward trope of “working mother” is proof alone that women still spend disproportionately more time on care work than men. Companies that do not offer paternity leave and punish women who take maternity leave by mommy-tracking them out of career advancement reinforce this inequality. The end result is a yawning wage gap, fewer women ascending to senior positions, and continued hand-wringing about what women can do to succeed in the workforce. 

However, the point of paid leave is not simply to compensate women, but to reduce and redistribute the workload so that men become true partners in care. The current paradigm conceives of fathers as support players, who occasionally help out by relieving mothers of their duties. Women lose, and men do too. 

Take Andy, for example. He took two weeks of personal vacation to be home after the recent birth of his daughter. “Looking back, the pregnancy was the easy part; everything after is an emotional apocalypse,” he explains. 

Because Andy works at one of the 80 percent of U.S. companies that do not offer paternity leave, he’s relegated to an assistant caregiver role as a parent: “Watching my wife and what she has to deal with, she’s going to need help. Help with feedings, someone to take the baby off her hands so she can shower.” He wishes he could take an extended leave to be a full-time caregiver, a partner to his wife, but instead he has to “watch” and “help” her.

Yet even when couples flip the gender script, men still confront the assumption that they’re bystanders to their own children. 

Ten months ago, Adam quit his job to raise his newborn son full time. His wife is the primary income earner (she took six weeks off after giving birth), and he handles all the responsibilities that make it possible for her to wear clean clothes to work, have food in the refrigerator, and keep more of her earnings for the family because they’re not spending it on domestic help.  

“When I go to the supermarket in the middle of the day with the baby, there’s always this element of surprise. People, mostly older women, will come up to us and say, ‘Oh daddy has the day off today,’” Adam says. “There are definitely these moments where people are like. ‘What do you do?’ I’m like, ‘I’m a stay-at-home dad right now.’ The phrase I hear most often is ‘Oh wow.’”

Adam is choosing to be the primary caregiver to his child, a decision that women are forced into every day, because systems, institutions and social expectations deal fathers out of the caregiving equation. Even changing tables in women’s restrooms reflect these gender politics.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman and his husband, David Sigal, spent years kneeling on dirty bathroom floors, crouched under the urinals, to change their daughter’s diaper. Sometimes they attempted to balance their writhing baby on the side of a sink. Other times they braved public disapproval to change her on a park bench. 

“It was a constant complaint that we heard from other gay parents, but also straight men,” Hoylman said. “This represents a lot more than just changing dirty diapers. It’s reflective of norms in society and the bias toward women as caregivers.”

Earlier this year, Hoylman introduced a bill that would require all public buildings and places of public accommodation, like restaurants and retail shops, to offer changing tables in the men’s room. Thanks to the Republican-controlled Senate, it’s going nowhere fast.

Whether it’s a lack of changing tables or lack of paternity leave, traditional gender roles deny fathers the right to be fully responsible caregivers, while patronizing them with excessive credit for work that women are, by default, expected to perform.

“Up until she died, your grandmother still couldn’t believe I cooked,” my father griped in a recent conversation. “Strangers on the street used to congratulate me for being a good father, just for walking around with a baby!” 

Gender equality is not a zero-sum game, although men who are loath to relinquish their privilege receive it that way. However, for many more men, it’s just as frustrating to be trapped in an outdated definition of masculinity left over from the last century.


Alexis Grenell (@agrenell on Twitter) is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.