The cover of a recent Time magazine declared, “How to stay married (and why).” As you probably know, I am not against marriage or for it either despite the fact that I co-wrote a book about marriage.
OK, yes, my co-author and I did say in the book that we were for marriage, but — and this is a big but — only because it offers the best legal protections and benefits for couples right now. That may change in the future, and personally I hope it does; why should the government decide who gets what based on his or her love life? That mattered when there were few options, but now there are many. It no longer makes sense, and it also leaves a lot of caregiving unprotected.
And for cohabiting couple like economists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, who are not married but have a child together and have drawn up a contract, marriage isn’t all that necessary — they’ve done the essential work of detailing what they want their partnership to look like. If everyone did that — and I have no idea why committed couples don’t — we really wouldn’t need marriage, although couples still might be missing out on certain government perks, especially tax breaks. Which gets us back to the financial aspect of marriage that few want to address — even Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, divorcing after just 15 months of marriage and no prenup: marriage is, at its heart, a financial arrangement. Yes, it’s about the money and stuff, even if we really want it to be about love.
The pressure to marry
But, getting back to the Time article, journalist Belinda Luscombe gives a somewhat relatively balanced view of the studies indicating the pluses and minuses of marriage. Still, the end result is the same (evidenced by the title) — you probably should marry, as long as you learn how to be properly married, and probably should stay married.
Tireless singles advocate Bella DePaulo, whom I know and greatly respect, and other singletons saw the article as shaming singles; I don’t. Still, what concerns me about such articles, as seemingly balanced as they are, is that there isn’t full transparency about the studies (which DePaulo rightfully continues to address, to often deaf ears) and, perhaps more important, many of them don’t full address the many options available to us now that might indicate similar results. There are scant longitudinal studies on independent men and women who prefer to live alone, live apart together for the long term or cohabit, and until there are, we really won’t know whether marriage is still the best arrangement for couples. As I wrote recently, if you love someone, do you really need a legal arrangement binding your commitment?
The benefits of alternative arrangements
Recently, there have been some interesting studies that show that cohabiting couples — a hugely growing segment of society — often go to couples therapy earlier than married couples and, guess what, they feel more satisfied and committed by the experience. Why? As the study notes, “Without the institutionalized rules of marriage, cohabiting couples may perceive threats to their relationship earlier than married couples.” And some studies indicate that the stigma of cohabiting — versus being married — impacts younger couples, probably feeling the need to follow a normative romantic path, much more than older couples, who seem to fare quite well cohabiting or even as living apart together couples.
All of which means that before we tout the presumptive benefits of marriage for everyone, we should be willing to explore what’s working for those who are happily living alternatively and whether what doesn’t work for them is the actual arrangement or the societal expectation that committed couples marry and live together as well as the judgment they face if they don’t follow the romantic script. And, we need to look at whether marriage matters for couples past the baby-making years or for those who chose to be childfree.
What if those societal expectations didn’t exist? Would Time magazine or other mainstream media still tout the benefits of marriage, especially long-term marriage?
We really don’t know. I just wish that the possibility that it might not make a difference would be acknowledged.
Want to learn how to create a marriage based on your values and goals? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.
A few years ago a woman wrote to me out of the blue. She had been reading this blog and saw me as a woman who “got” it.
What did I get?
The right for women invest in their own life and not put a husband’s needs and wants over hers.
A successful business-
woman in Manhattan, she observed that successful men are looking for what she called a “mom-
ployee” — a woman who’ll take care of all the home needs — just like Mom — as well as his physical and emotional needs.
She wasn’t interested in that and neither am I — now. I did that in my two marriages, especially the second because we had kids, but I’m pretty much done with that kind of life. I want a little more balance with a partner, and a lot more freedom.
I was reminded of her email when I read an interesting take on Moira Weigel’s book, Labor of Love, which I wrote about last week. Weigel was interviewed by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman and Penny brings up the concept of women’s emotional labor — all the work women do to keep love, marriage and the family going smoothly.
Doing the work of marriage
If marriage is “work” — and we are constantly told it is — society seems to expect women to do the bulk of it. We get to do the chores and the childcare as well as the emotional caretaking that is typically unseen or at least undervalued — the planning, organizing, and structuring of family life. And that’s exhausting.
As Penny writes:
Romantic love can be work, and so can domestic work, childcare, all of it — and the fact that we call so much of it “love” makes the that work invisible. … We have to remember that the work that is done within love and family scenarios, mainly by women, is work that has real, measurable value, work without which capitalism could not continue to exist. And the historical marginalisation of women has been about managing and ensuring the unstinting supply of that work, for free, for a long time. Changing the labour of love will involve changing those conditions — and it will take a lot of imaginative work.
That really struck me. Is domestic work and caregiving “love”? If you removed domestic work and/or caregiving from a romantic partnership, would you still have love?
Well, of course.
Couples who are well off financially typically outsource such work — chefs, personal assistants, nannies and housecleaners.
So if those couples can escape gendered expectations when it comes to free domestic labor masquerading as “love,” then why can’t hetero couples and those of us with kids? Why should the hard work that — typically — women do to keep a family going fall under the requirements of “love”? Certainly we can — and do — love others without being expected to do all the dirty work.
To be fair to the breadwinners, traditionally men, wouldn’t breadwinning also be a type of caregiving under the guise of “love”? Absolutely, although there’s a difference. Breadwinning — having a career, being successful in a career, making a good income — is respected. Childrearing and housecleaning? Not so much. It’s just what people — typically women — do. For “love.”
As Penny says, changing that is going to take a lot of imaginative work. Any ideas?
Why do you date? If you’re like most people, it’s most likely because you’re hoping to never have to date again — which means you find someone special to settle down with and be a committed, loving couple and perhaps even wed.
What other purpose would there be to going through all the time, energy and expense that dating requires?
Dating is work, or so says Moira Weigel, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University who explores the history of dating in the new book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating. The history of dating is a lot more interesting and complicated than I ever imagined, and her book is especially illuminating when it explores how the process of finding love has turned singles into commodities in order to sell themselves to potential mates.
I spoke with Weigel right before I went to see The Lobster, a quirky, dark new comedy that’s a deliciously scathing examination of the societal pressure to couple and the stigmatization of singles.
But the issues the movie, by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, brings up are worth exploring, especially since so few of us do: Do we really know what we’re doing when we’re looking for love? How much are we influenced by what others say we should or shouldn’t look for in a romantic partner? How far are we willing to change who we fundamentally are in order to be coupled? If we weren’t seen as such societal outliers if we didn’t want a romantic partner — or at least an “until death do we part” kind of partner — would we choose to live differently?
That’s just a taste of the provocative questions the movie raises.
A world of couples
In the movie’s future world, being coupled is the most important thing; couples get to live in the city, they get to shop at the malls, they have it all. Singles, meanwhile, aren’t allowed to have contact with couples, and are routinely hunted, shot with tranquilizer guns and humiliated (and worse). Singles are rounded up, taken to a tacky hotel and given 45 days to partner or be transformed into an animal of their choosing (thus the title, based on what Colin Farrell’s Dave says he’d like to be turned into) — even if they’ve just become widowed or divorced. (Just like in real life, the pressure to find a replacement and carry on with our coupled lives is huge.) But singles can’t just pick any partner — it has to be someone who’s their perfect match, based on their professed character flaw. Anyone who has ever tried online dating knows just how real that is; don’t all the dating websites show you what they consider a man or woman — often laughably — to be your perfect match based on your professed likes and dislikes?
The few singles in the movie who couple up based on those tenuous characteristics, struggle — as we’d expect they would and often do in real life. But the powers that be, in one of the film’s most deliciously wicked moments, “solves” it for them: “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children; that usually helps.” So much like real life — how many couples decide to have a baby to salvage the marriage? — that it hurts.
The ‘freedom’ of singles
Being coupled doesn’t seem all that much fun — the scenes in the city and mall are dreary — but being single doesn’t either. In fact, in some ways it seems worse. Considering the stigma singles still face today, as Singled Out author Bella DePaulo relentlessly battles, there’s a price to be paid for their freedom.
The Loners, living ostensibly “free” in the woods, are actually under more restrictive rules than the movie’s couples. They must avoid having or showing any romantic interests in anyone else, or face severe consequences.
Given some of the criticism directed at Weigel as well as All the Single Ladies author Rebecca Traister, both married women writing about the single life, it’s clear that the anti-couple single community can seem just as judgmental and limiting.
Consider, in a Chicago Tribune review of Traister’s book, what the writer says about Traister — no longer “one of us,” aka single (emphasis mine):
A virgin until 24 (this may be one of the book’s more shocking revelations), with a checkered romantic history, and a young adulthood focused on work and strong female friendships, she ultimately got lucky: She met her future husband at the bar of a restaurant where she had stopped to pick up a takeout dinner. She married at 35 — late, but not extraordinarily so for her generation and social class — and managed to have two children before her window of opportunity closed.
She got “lucky” — a word we use for men who get laid — before her eggs shriveled. Weigel’s book addresses the pressure put on women to couple up, marry and start popping out kids, always mindful of their biological clock — a term that has been used to reinforce sexist ideas and strains romantic relationships between women and men.
As Weigel writes:
The role of the biological clock has been to make it seem only natural — indeed inevitable — that the burdens of reproducing the world fall almost entirely on women. There are moral as well as practical implications to this idea: if you do not plan your life just right, you deserve to end up desperate and alone.
Anything but being alone
Ultimately, the film brings up the desperate things we’ll do to avoid loneliness, and how being partnered is the only answer we can envision to avoid loneliness. Do we truly believe that or is that what society tells us?
Except anyone who’s ever been lonely in a romantic relationship knows how misguided that thinking is. Still, the pressure is on and so we forge on — dating and sometimes following oppressive dating “rules” and questionable self-help books — in our search for The One and the happily ever after we’re promised to have if we find him or her. It’s better than being alone … right?
According to New York magazine, women are cheating as men as men. The article cites some studies indicating that in the past two decades, the percentage of hubbys admitting to cheating hasn’t changed, but the percentage of wives fessing up rose almost 40 percent.
Call me cynical, but why is this news to anyone? For many years, women just didn’t have the opportunity. Once more of us began working outside the house, opportunity presented itself. The Internet made it easier, too. And, let’s not forget that up until fairly recently women’s sexuality was repressed by a male-dominated culture.
That’s changing (except, sadly, in certain countries and religions).
So why would anyone be surprised that women wouldn’t be as interested in getting some on the side as men?
I don’t have an answer but here’s what I think; in addition to having our sexuality repressed, we gals have had it beaten into our heads that we need love and romance and monogamy, and we can’t have casual sex.
If you hear messages like that all your life, well, of course you will internalize it — even if it’s not quite how you feel. I wrote about that a few months ago when I questioned if monogamy is good for women. I am monogamous by choice and, yes, many women I know are, too.
But the more we see studies like this, on the uptick of women having affairs, I think we may need to questions our beliefs about women’s sexuality.
Wait, what? Men “have a lot to worry about” if women are equally interested in casual sex? Hmm, that’s a curious thought. So, I guess it’s OK that women have historically had to worry about men? No, sorry, it’s not OK.
Maybe Bergner didn’t mean exactly what came out of his mouth; I read What Do Women Want?, and it’s an empowering book for women and our sexuality. And yet, there it is in print — “So we men may have a lot to worry about.”
Years ago, I was a cliche — I was the Other Woman.
I was in my 20s and working with someone whom I liked as a coworker and whom I found attractive. I don’t recall how the conversation started, but somehow he convinced me that he and his wife were only staying together until their daughter went off to college — she was about 14, 15, at the time — and then after that, they planned to divorce.
I wasn’t coupled at the time but I was actively dating; still, I had no illusions of the two of us being romantic partners or spouses one day or even the desire for that. I wasn’t in love with him. I just wanted to have fun with him, and so that’s what we did. Every Wednesday we’d get together to, well, do whatever married men and Other Women do. We did that for a few months until I met the man who became my second husband.
“He played you,” my now former husband said at the time.
“No he didn’t. He and his wife had an agreement,” I insisted with a huff.
It was only recently when I did a Google search and discovered he and his wife are still married — their daughter must be in her 30s by now — and, presumably, do not have an open marriage.
OK, so I most likely was played. I suppose I should have felt foolish, deceived and hurt. Maybe because I wasn’t in love with him and didn’t have any desire to be a couple, I didn’t. Maybe I should have felt bad for his wife, but who knows what she knew. And also it’s decades later — I’m long past obsessing over my youthful indiscretions. So I was intrigued when I stumbled upon a study on how some Other Women feel empowered by being a mistress. This is not a narrative we often hear.
In addition to deception as a form of interpersonal power, a man engaged in relationships with multiple women is empowered by male privilege. He is celebrated for his masculine virility, while Other Women are demonized as narcissist or sadomasochist and deviant others, and wives are pitied, blamed, or shamed.
Except that Utley discovers in her research that the majority of the 35 Other Women she interviewed saw the experience as empowering, even the women had no idea their partners were married or in committed relationships. They saw their affair partner as helping them “recognize and meet unmet emotional and sexual needs.”
Sometimes, the affair was described as an addiction. Few of us might consider that a good thing, but as Utley writes, “An all-consuming desire for sexual pleasure is so foreign to many women that there are few familiar words other than addiction to describe their craving for sexual satisfaction.”
Wives, as usual, were seen somehow at fault: “Wives were disregarded because they never initiated a confrontation, seemed not to care, or were too stupid to notice their man’s attention was divided. Sometimes wives were dismissed because they were trashy, untrustworthy, failed to make their husbands happy, or were suspected of having their own affairs.” This alleviated any feelings of guilt.
Which is why I’m quite intrigued by Maggie’s Plan, a new comedy by director Rebecca Miller in which a man leaves his wife to be with his affair partner who slowly realizes that was all a mistake and she hatches a plan to reconnect him with his wife.
Learning of the plan, the jilted wife (Julianne Moore) tells the mistress-turned wife Maggie (Greta Gerwig): “Have the decency to leave him and face the fact that you poisoned my life and my children’s life and probably John’s life, with your own selfishness. That’s your burden. You earned it.”
To which Maggie responds: “Wait a minute. If you had such a perfect marriage, why was John miserable? You neglected him and you used him, and you didn’t believe in his talents.”
Which is why there isn’t a sisterhood between Other Women and wives!
Although, Utley notes, many of the Other Women felt “stupid, empty, foolish, dumb and ruined” by the experience, their regrets spurred them to action — choosing to end the relationship and seeing it as a learning experience. Ultimately, she writes, “Other Women exemplified personal growth by describing who they were before the affair, defining who they were during the affair, and determining who they intended to be post-affair. Identity construction through self-narration is empowering.”
Abbott does justice to the many lexicographical variants of the term “mistress,” which according to the Oxford American Dictionary, connotes domination, learnedness, authority, and, of course, being beloved. She probes the antic recklessness and wanton secrecy endemic to love affairs, breathing life into mistresses who evince the agency, autonomy, self-direction, and order of this definition — attributes far removed from the type of lasciviousness once meriting containment by legal statute and exile in imperial Rome — as well as to those who, by choice or circumstance, fell prey to their lovers’ manipulation.
Why does this matter — if it even matters? Utley says the experiences of Other Women may “be applicable to other relational power differentials between women and men, particularly relationships where there is exploitation or emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, social and/or financial abuse.” If some women can find empowerment even in painful situations they willingly put themselves into — aka affairs — perhaps they can find the same in relationships that don’t start that way but become painful nonetheless.
I don’t doubt that may indeed be true. But I have to wonder if being involved with a married man is the only — and/or best way — for women to gain personal power.
A few weeks ago the New York Post brought the concept of bird nesting back into our consciousness, but it wasn’t until Kelly Ripa brought it up as a taunt on Live with Kelly and Michaelthatpeople began to take notice.
Bird nesting — when children stay in the family home and the parents shuffle back and forth between places to caretake — is hardly a new concept; in fact, it dates back to the late 1970s. Judges have sometimes made it happen, but nowadays, with more couples interested in a kinder, gentler way of divorcing (even if not quite conscious uncoupling), evidenced by the rise of the divorce selfie, some couples are choosing it themselves.
To mixed results.
‘Not for everyone’
“This arrangement isn’t right for everyone. Probably it isn’t right for most divorcing couples,” writes Rob Crane, co-founder of Kids Stay, a nonprofit offering guidance for couples considering bird nesting.
Crane should know: he and his wife, Sandy, did it for 10 years until their daughter Whitney headed to college. He’s open about some of the pitfalls of the arrangement and also some of the accomplishments:
This concept worked for us on many levels. It allowed Whitney to have a much more stable home environment than might have been achieved by moving back and forth between us. Sandy and I felt more equal and connected in our sharing of parenting and our place in Whitney’s life. It allowed each of us to have a part of that idyllic, perhaps overly romanticized, suburban family home and neighborhood, while it also gave each parent a time and space to not be a parent for short periods of time. … Perhaps more important than anything else, that sharing of space kept us feeling like more of a family and less of a failure.
Like a parenting marriage
Feeling more like a family is an obvious benefit of bird nesting. Once a couple has a child together, they’re forever bound. Divorce is no longer the end of a relationship; it’s a “restructuring of a continuing relationship,” says law professor Patrick Parkinson. The sooner unhappy couples realize that, the better — for their kids.
Of course, couples don’t have to divorce to have the same benefits as bird nesting. The parenting marriage detailed in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels is a variation on the theme. Rather than divorce, couples stay married, remove the romantic/sexual aspect of their relationship, and live in the family home with similar on/off responsibilities. Even if you’re sharing a home part of the time while bird nesting and “feeling more like a family,” there are some obvious financial benefits to staying married that divorce removes.
Arrangements like these make sense — for the kids. Divorce per se isn’t bad for children, studies indicate. It’s the instability, conflict, lack of access to a parent and financial challenges that often accompany divorce that hurts them. Bird nesting and parenting marriages, even if imperfect options, solve some of those problems.
All of which demonstrates that there are as many ways to uncouple lovingly as there are to couple — which, of course, is the idea behind Katherine Woodward Thomas’ conscious uncoupling — and many ways to parent well, intact family or not. It’s up to the parents to make it happen.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex couples could marry no matter which state they lived in, many believed it would open the door to polyamorous marriage — marriage among three or more people.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as far in the future as people think,” a confident Robyn Trask, executive director of the polyamory support organization Loving More told U.S. News and World Report.
Whether it’s close or not, there’s one thing for sure — if you’re a parent, you could learn a thing or two about parenting from poly people, even if you have no desire to live the lifestyle.
I’m not poly and I’m not promoting polyamory. I’ll bet there are some bad poly parents just as there are bad mono-
gamous parents. Yet, there’s no denying poly people are different, and it has nothing to do with their sex lives.
Most children don’t want to know about their parents’ sex lives anyway. Many of us grew up thinking our mom and dad did it as many times as there were kids because, ew.
So if it’s not just about sex, then what might be the lessons monogamous parents can learn from poly parenting?
Lots of things, it seems.
Honesty = trust
If you ask Trask, she believes it’s because they’re pretty open and honest with their kids, which creates trust.
“My guess is that parents who model honesty and communication give their kids a great foundation. Kids have amazing intuition and perception, often much more than people give them credit,” she writes in a Loving More blog. “When we lie to our children, we give them the message that they can’t handle the truth.”
And it also sends a message that lying is OK. If we want our kids to be truthful with us, especially when they become teens — the lying years — we might want to be better role models.
Elisabeth Sheff, who has studied polyamorous families for decades and wrote about her findings in her 2014 book The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, says that kind of transparency brings families closer together.
“Creating a family atmosphere where children feel confident their questions will be met with thoughtful, honest answers allows kids to take the lead and ask questions not only about their family dynamics, but everything else, too. Poly parents report that free ability to think and talk helps the children trust them, and creates emotional intimacy for the whole family,” she writes in Psychology Today.
The takeaway: Create a culture of transparency in your family.
More people, more helpers
Beyond that, poly parents benefit by having a lot more help with household chores and expenses, and with childrearing. There’s also a lot more caregiving done by men, especially to children who aren’t theirs. How often do you see that happen in today’s society?
“Pooling their resources also allows adults to have more personal time, work more flexible hours, and get more sleep because there are multiple people around to take care of the children,” Sheff writes. “Poly parents said that they felt more patient and had more energy for their children when they were well rested and had sufficient income — all of which benefited their children.”
Rest, personal time, help — what harried monogamous parent seeking work-life balance wouldn’t appreciate that?
But, what about the kids? Adults can easily rationalize and justify their behaviors and actions to fit what they want to believe, and convince themselves that their kids will be fine no matter what they do.
Sheff admits there can be as many problems for kids in poly families as there are in intact monogamous families, single-parent families or divorced families. Still, there are some definite positives.
The takeaway: Let dads do more, join baby-sitting coops, find another parent or two with whom you can share the load (and avoid parenting in isolation)
Creating a ‘village’
For one, children have an extended family of nonparental adults who care for them, often serve as role models and trusted confidantes, and remain in their lives even if they are no longer romantically involved with the child’s mother or father. They have, basically, a village.
“I got to speak to adults from all manner of varying backgrounds, whether they were my parents’ partners, or parents’ partners’ partners, or whoever. I lived with people who were straight, gay, bi, trans, writers, scientists, psychologists, adoptees, Bermudians, Hongkongers, people of wealth, and benefits claimants. Maturing in that melting pot really cultivated and broadened my worldview, and helped me become the guy I am today,” he writes.
The takeaway: Create a loving, nurturing and ongoing community of mentors from various backgrounds for your children
Learning to let go
Polyamorists often talk of “compersion,” a word coined in the poly community that explains the joy people feel when they see a loved one experiencing pleasure with someone else. It’s the opposite of jealousy. While it’s typically spoken of in terms of poly lovers, it’s a lesson non-poly parents can benefit from, particularly mothers.
With the rise and often necessity of dual-income families, more parents are relying on baby-sitters, nannies and au pairs to care for their children. But it isn’t always a happy relationship.
“Many parents who share the care with childcare providers also share the fear of losing the prime place in their child’s life,” writes child development specialist Claire Lerner in Parents.com.
That can lead to jealousy and competition with their child’s caregivers, which can cause negative consequences, she notes, such as creating “distance between caregiver and parent or inadvertently place the child in a loyalty conflict where she feels she is betraying her parent when she cares for another adult.”
In her research on professional women and the relationship with the caregivers they hire, sociologist Cameron Macdonald, author of Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering, says that in their desire to be their child’s No. 1, some moms only keep caregivers around for a year so their child won’t get too attached — thus depriving their child of long-term, stable and loving relationships, and the moms themselves from the help they actually need.
The takeaway: Let go of your jealousy and allow your children to love their caregivers, and support and encourage those bonds
Open and loving
Sheff observes that, by the very nature of their alternative and frequently misunderstood lifestyle, poly people are open to new ideas and are good at shifting expectations. This allows for a growth and builds resilience while also demanding they explore parts of their personality others generally don’t, such as jealousy. Since children challenge parents at every stage, coming at parenting with an open mind rather than a set of rules we either learned from our parents or the latest parenting “expert” might alleviate some of the anxiety parents have.
She also notes that, despite the belief that polyamory all about sex, it’s actually emotional connection that maintains a poly family. That has ramifications for everyone if a relationship ends, and the divorce rate — while not as high as we have believed — is still somewhere between 30 and 50 percent. “The end of sex does not have to mean end of relationship. Remaining friends is a real choice, and especially important when people have had children together,” she writes in Psychology Today. De-emphasizing sexuality opens the way for people to focus on cooperative co-parenting and be cordial to each other. That’s important as studies show divorce per se isn’t the problem; conflict is.
Poly people “communicate to death,” Bjarne Holmes, a psychologist at Vermont’s Champlain College, observes in LiveScience — a necessity when there are so many people’s feelings to consider. While that may sound exhausting, better communication is what most marital counselors tell struggling couples.
The takeaway: Be open-minded and flexible in your parenting and relationship. If your marriage ends, be respectful, kind and supportive to your former spouse so you can co-parent without conflict and anger. You’ll model for your children that a healthy romantic relationship isn’t just about sex; it’s about kindness and generosity.
Is there a backlash against mothers and kids? It sure seems that way lately.
Two weeks ago I suggested that childfree people support the family leave recently passed by San Francisco and New York City. That didn’t go over too well with a vocal childfree group on Facebook led by a woman whom I have quoted previously and whose work I respect, Laura Carroll, who linked to my article. Many people commented that rather than family leave, it should be universal leave, so anyone could take time off for anything. (No state has universal leave but Washington, D.C., is considering a universal leave bill that seems to be shrinking at each turn.)
As I wrote in my blog post they debated, rather than see it as time off for caring for a baby, see it as time off for caregiving, which all of us will most likely face at some point, whether we have children or not. Caregiving is an essential part of society and is considered a woman’s job, thus undervalued and unappreciated.
But some childfree people seemed angry. Perhaps that’s a result of years of having to deal, sadly, with the stigma of being childfree and the constant questioning and judgment against those who are, whether by choice or by chance. Whenever there are articles in major publications about how more people are choosing to be childfree, from Time’s 2013 cover story dedicated to exploring the childfree life to last year’s New York Times’ article about the childfree, there’s a flurry of commentary debating whose choice is more selfish. And that’s when the anti-kid vitriol heats up.
From maternity to ‘meternity’
Last week, it exploded again when former magazine editor Meghann Foye wrote in the New York Post that she wanted all the perks of having maternity leave — just without the kids, calling it “meternity,” which just happens to be the name of her new novel. Of course, it caused a major uproar across the Internet and with columnists, as did her follow-up piece defending her position (and, one suspects, buzz for her novel but, hey, more power to her). She’s jealous that parents have special privileges at work that the childfree don’t; however, as I mentioned before, the workplace is no friend to working mothers, who are held to harsher performance standards. And parental leave is hardly “me” time.
As I listened to the podcast, I vividly recalled my own experiences with that, being the mother of a crying child in the grocery store, in a family-friendly restaurant or on an airplane and then being a solo adult in a grocery store, in a restaurant or on an airplane listening to other people’s children cry — both of which felt just as horrifying and disturbing. Yes, children often behave poorly in public spaces. But so do adults. Is there really a difference?
“Single people functioning in society tend to look at children as a disruption, as a hindrance and as a bother, and to classify a set of human beings like that is a tremendous problem. If we expect certain kinds of behavior and we expect everyone to conform to them, that is a really narrow construction of society and it’s a really narrow conception of public space,” they say.
“What does that say about all people, whether they have children or not, to nurture, to accommodate people of all ages and abilities and sizes, and attitudes and functionalities within our social fabric?”
Are kids the only ‘problem’?
And that made me pause. If children are a disruption, hindrance and a bother, what about others? What about the elderly? What about the physically or emotionally disabled? What about queer, trans, gender-nonconforming people? Should we exclude them from public spaces? Are public spaces just for a certain types of people and, if so, what might those people look like? Society has slowly struggled to make accommodations so everyone can feel that he or she’s part of society — wheelchair access, Braille signs, service dogs, etc. — because everyone is. Are children any different?
[B]y denying that we exist — especially for women, society’s designated nurturers, who feel this stereotype especially acutely — we are denied the chance to prove that, contrary to what one may instinctively characterize us as, this particular facet of our personalities, our identities as baby-haters, does not make us bad people.
I can understand that having kids isn’t for everyone and that we still have an unfair expectation that women should be moms and that they naturally would want to become moms. Many don’t. I also understand that people, especially women, who are childfree are subject to all sorts of stupid questioning and judgment. We are an increasingly judgmental society. And I also understand that what society considers “family-friendly” often offers a narrow view of family and shuts out those who have families but not kids; we need to be more inclusive of all sorts of families.
But what if we switched “baby-haters” to “autistic-haters” or “Jew-haters” or “visually impaired-haters”? Would we applaud articles like Weissman’s and encourage more, or publicly and unapologetically announce our hatred? Would we consider her and her fellow haters “bad people”? Is it OK to hate a certain type of people? What if those people are children? Are children any different than anyone else? Do children have rights, too?
You can decide parenthood is not for you without hating an entire subset of people who happen to be children. We all started out that way after all.
We’re coming up on Mother’s Day, and that means the “mother as hero” rhetoric typically heats up.
I have the utmost respect and compassion for parents. As a mom, a single divorced mom, I know how hard a job parenting is. It’s harder than anything I have ever done and probably ever will do.
That said, I am not a hero. My kids, now young men, may think I’m pretty cool as far as moms go, and have been generally kind about the ways in which I failed them — and fail I did. I don’t expect them to consider me a hero, but they can if they want. But no one else should.
Parents, moms or dads, single or married, are not heroes; we’re just people who decided to have children no matter what — our age, our health, our relationships status, our education, our income, our race, our religion, our gender. And once you make that decision, whether by birth or surrogacy or adoption or fostering, we are just doing the job we signed up for, and doing the job we signed up for does not necessarily make you a hero.
I think most single moms would happily forego being called a hero if they had the right to govern their own body and lived in a country where their elected officials created policies that allowed them to raise their kids in healthier, happier ways — from affordable childcare to universal preK to paid sick leave to equal pay.
What about dads?
Calling out moms, single or not, as heroes is hurtful because it ignores single dads and dads in general. There are 2.6 million single dads — they’re doing what they need to do, too. Why aren’t they called heroes?
Granted, while they may not get the title, they do tend to get a lot more praise for being out and about doing “dad things” with their kids — it’s a real double standard, according to studies — which upsets some single moms.
imagine if we extended the same the awe and respect for mothers raising their children alone that we do to guys like Johnson. Imagine if we supported families of all different configurations, and applauded the hard work of both men and women who show up for their kids every day.
Yes, we should support families in all sorts of configurations, because that’s what we look like noways. Regardless, dads seem to get praise for doing when they should be doing — caring for their kids. As Monica Bielanko writes at Babble: “A dad wearing his baby on his chest isn’t cause for celebration, and it doesn’t mean he’s the BEST. DAD. EVER. It just means he’s doing his job.”
From characterizing watching kids as “babysitting” to acting like changing a diaper is grounds for Parent of the Year, our culture tells dads they’re superheroes for doing … normal stuff. It’s worse with single dads, who elicit the sympathy factor and project some kind of powerful allure simply by managing to feed, bathe, clothe and hang out with their children. Single dads, don’t get me wrong. You’re doing a great job. This stuff is hard. Every parent deserves to be praised, and every parent deserves to be supported. But I’ll hold the confetti next time a single dad takes his child to dance class or bakes cupcakes for a birthday party. That’s called getting it done. That’s what we do.
So … if moms don’t want dads to be celebrated for “getting it done” and “doing … normal stuff,” why is it OK if we call moms heroes? Calling one parent a hero to the exclusion of the other sets up an unhealthy and unnecessary divisiveness exactly at a time when more men are hands-on dads, when we’re talking about more egalitarian partnerships and when even so-called poor “deadbeat dads” are actually finding meaningful ways to be involved in their children’s lives. The “moms are heroes” label is divisive and ignores what men do.
What about the childfree?
And it’s not just divisive between moms and dads; it basically excludes women who don’t have children, whether by choice or by chance.
If motherhood allows women to become heroes, how can women without kids become heroes? I pondered this a few years ago, noting that Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert did not want kids, which she detailed in the best-seller that catapulted her into near-goddess stature. Yet, no one called her a hero for making that decision — a decision an increasing number of women make. Aren’t women who know that they’re not cut out for motherhood and avoid it — thus saving their children from potentially unhappy childhoods — heroic? That’s a brave choice considering the stigma and shaming childfree women face.
If motherhood is the only way women can be seen as heroes, something is very wrong.
My last objection to calling moms heroes is because it idealizes motherhood and thus perpetuates the myth of what a “perfect” mother is and does, and then punishes her when she can’t, or doesn’t, live up to the ideal. Haven’t we moms had enough of that?
I remember when author Ayelet Waldman wrote an essay in the New York Times about loving her husband, author Michael Chabon, more than their four kids, which led to maternal outrage — and her 2009 book Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace.
“If you work, you’re neglectful; if you stay home, you’re smothering. If you discipline, you’re buying them a spot on the shrink’s couch; if you let them run wild, they will be into drugs by seventh grade. If you buy organic, you’re spending their college fund; if you don’t, you’re risking all sorts of allergies and illnesses,” she writes about the struggles of being a good mom — albeit a privileged mom.
What about mothers from the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere who leave their children behind to raise the children of America’s middle- and upper-classes; are they good mothers?
As for dads? The requirements for being a good dad are a lot less — or at least very different — than what’s required of moms. Except, as she told me, we moms have fabricated our own requirements, which has done nothing but stress us out. Amazingly enough, we have not progressed very far from then.
Putting moms on the hero pedestal sets up all moms for failure — even when we’re not failing.
My potential heroes
Despite all that, I thought if anyone could be called a hero, it would be parents who go over and above — foster parents, those who adopt special-needs kids. So I was surprised to read that they don’t want the moniker either.
“Foster parenting is hard work and it isn’t for everyone, but mostly we’re just typical people doing our best to love our children and raise them right,” writes foster mom Jasmine Schmidt. “Pushing us up onto a pedestal distances us and makes fostering appear out of reach to the average everyday Joe.”
Same for adoptive parents. “Adoptive parents are not heroes. We are parents, just like any other parents,” writes Tracy Hahn-Burkett.
Same for moms of special-needs kids. “(S)omewhere along the line ‘we are equal’ became ‘we are better.’ We toil more, we mother more, we are superhuman,” writes Mary Evelyn, who has a son with spina bifida. “It’s a myth — and it sends a dangerous message. Dangerous because it tells the world that only a special kind of person can raise a son or daughter who is different. Dangerous because it increases our loneliness when we remove ourselves from the world of everyday motherhood — a world we still live in, even if it sometimes seems far away.”
I wish all moms a happy Mother’s Day next week just like I’ll wish all dads a happy Father’s Day next month. Parenting’s a tough, tough job no matter what; it’s often a rewarding job, too, and I hope it’s a joyful job. Maybe your kids will call you their hero one day; their opinion is the only one that matters.
I was standing in line at the grocery store this weekend when I watched a paramedic truck and a fire truck pull up to the front. In hurried about five men, and I watched as they began talking and administering to a boy, around 13- to 15-years-old, who was seated at the front of the store. He didn’t look in any sort of distress, but still.
It took me a few minutes to get up to the cashier, but when I finally got there I asked, “Is he OK?”
“With all those people looking after him, I’d say he’s OK,” she said.
She was right. I admit it — I am a nervous mom, and I told her as much.
And then she added, “I wish his mom would show up.”
It was perhaps a typical answer, and that’s what was so dis-
turbing. Mom? Why not his dad?
matically assume that his mom would be the one to take care of him and that he’d want his mom, or at least expect her, to be there to be there. Not to say that she wouldn’t or he wouldn’t, but about his dad? Wouldn’t Dad want to be there, too, to make sure his son is OK?
It’s clear that American fathers are increasingly serving as “lead parents” and doing so without the social norms or workplace policies necessary to support them. Just as they hinder women’s equal participation in the workforce, rigid gender roles keep men stuck in harmful cultural stasis. Subsumed by a culture of overwork that penalizes them for taking time off for family-care responsibilities, men too face dire consequences from our failure to value care. Failing to involve men in the conversation about care as a core component of gender equality only calcifies harmfully rigid social norms about gender overall.
And those calcified “harmfully rigid” and gendered social norms are why we automatically think a mom should show up to care for a child in need of medical assistance instead of a dad. Does this bother anyone but me? I hope it does.
Changing the conversation
Slaughter heard from many men, including gay men, in the wake of her much-discussed “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” article, who told her, “How dare you frame this as a woman’s issue?” and “I am not any happier with my role as a mandated breadwinner than women used to be as the mandated caregiver. I want to be able to spend more time with my children.” That, thankfully, made her reframe the discussion. Now she advocates for getting rid of language like “stay-at-home mom” and “stay-at-home dad” and instead talk about “working fathers” and “working mothers.”
Which is great and a start, but in order to make it work, people will have to follow that talk with action, and that isn’t as easy as it seems, as Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet has long written about. As long as men still feel like outsiders — and women treat them as outsiders, or worse — on the playground, in parenting groups/activities and in the classroom, and women feel conflicted about being the secondary caregiver, we’re just not going to get very far.
Maybe we moms don’t really want to give up being the No. 1 person our child wants when he or she is sick or sad or overwhelmed at the end of a long way or just excited to share something. Maybe dads don’t really want to be home with the kids, which a recent Gallup poll indicates. And if we continue along those lines, then we will never reach some sort of equitable solution and caregiving will still be seen as women’s work. Despite the essential role caregiving plays in society, it is not given the status it deserves. Until it is, I’m convinced women will never reach equality. And, sadly, men will still be pigeonholed as breadwinners.
Rather than encourage divorce, however, why not create a society in which caregiving is honored and degendered? Which is why I am advocating for mandatory caregiving. Countries like Israel require everyone who turns 18 to serve three (men) and two (women) years in the military. It’s part of their civic duty.
What if we make caregiving a civic duty? What if we required every American, when he or she turns 18, to be trained in caregiving — for the young, the sick, the disabled and the elderly — and then spend two years actually caregiving, in a monitored situation? Like AmeriCorps, participants could get help in college and healthcare costs in addition to the gaining marketable skills. This could help those in lower socioeconomic groups who might not be able to afford college or a trade school. But it also would require all men to become caregivers. And if that happens, society — and men themselves — will actually see men as capable caregivers. It would also strip away the fear we have about men who have an interest in caring for other people’s children.
I call this carenting — making childrearing and caregiving a communal responsibility.
Society may indeed see men as equal caregivers — one day. But societal change moves really slowly, and given the caregiving crisis we already have and that will grow once the majority of boomers hit retirement age — which is soon — I can’t think of a better way to move the issue along in an equitable way. Can you?