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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.”  Dads_parenting

It was perhaps a typical answer, and that’s what was so dis-
turbing. Mom? Why not his dad?

We auto-
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?

Therein lies the paradox of caregiving. We think women are naturally cut out for it and actively choose it — and sometimes they are and do — but we often doubt men’s ability and desire to do it, and are also suspect of men who actually do it. And that’s why, in 2016, caregiving is still overwhelmingly done by women, and therefore underpaid and undervalued. Sadly, many of the predominantly immigrant women who look after America’s children have left their own behind. And when it comes to unpaid caregiving, it’s not just women who chose to become moms, and pay a huge price professionally, emotionally and financially for that decision; it’s also women — married or not, moms or childfree — who tend to be their parents’ or partner’s caregivers, or both.

Where are the men?

Despite the fact that 1 in 6 custodial parents are dads and there are about 2.6 million stay-at-home fathers, as well as the millions of Gen-X and Millennial men who are hands-on dads, we still don’t tend to see men as primary — or even equal — caregivers. They “help out.”

This needs to change, as Unfinished Business author Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in the Atlantic:

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. tweet

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.

Changing reality

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.

It’s time to change that.

It already happens, somewhat, when couples divorce and split physical custody. Divorced dads often take on tasks they’ve never had to deal with before so they’re forced to become more hands-on. Some may struggle with it, but at least they get to do things their way, which wives often don’t allow their husbands to do. Many divorcees notice how their former husbands become much better dads once they’ve split.

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?

Want to learn how to create an egalitarian marriage? Order “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” on Amazon, and  follow The New I Do on Twitter and Facebook.

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