Give Fatherhood a Chance
Me Hunter-Gatherer, you Child-Bearer ?
After reading a series of articles discussing women's life choices, both in national publications and in The Dartmouth, the above seemed to be an appropriate modification of that classic "Tarzan" line. Although prehistory should be far behind us in 2005, the recent motherhood-versus-career debate indicates that gender roles in America have not changed all that much since the Paleolithic. This female dilemma was recently put back into the spotlight by Louise Story's thought-provoking article, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," published in The New York Times on Sept. 20. The story garnered much national response and also prompted a string of news and opinion articles and letters to the editor in this newspaper.
The articles approached the topic in a number of ways to achieve a wide range of conclusions; however, something important was still missing: males. If women are supposed to "give motherhood a chance," as suggested by Sara del Nido's opinion column ("Give Motherhood a Chance," Sept. 30), why should men not do the same? Pursuing career goals and raising a family are indeed both respectable choices; however, they should not be considered as such only for women.
Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be the case in today's America, where full-time mothers are much more common than their male counterparts. A 2002 USA Today article reported that it is "the woman who tends to quit her job to care for children," resulting in 38 percent of families with an employed father and unemployed mother, compared to 3 percent of families with an unemployed father but an employed mother ("More Moms Make Kids Their Career of Choice," March 12.) The explanations for this vary and include scientific theories as well as discussion of social barriers.
However, the biological reasons for preferring motherhood over fatherhood are valid only to a certain extent and tend to soon turn into socially constructed prejudices. The woman is indeed the one bearing the child and the one responsible for immediate postnatal care, and some studies, including one performed in 1994 by the University of California, San Francisco, indicate there are additional psychological reasons for the exceptional strength of the mother-child bond. Still, taking this line of reasoning just a little further risks sounding like Supreme Court Justice Brewer in his 1908 Muller v. Oregon opinion, where he claims that a woman's capacity for "performance of maternal functions place[s] her at a[n obvious] disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence."
Social stigmas therefore must be the main reason for the large incidence of, and rather high respect for, stay-at-home mothers, coupled to a very low incidence and rather low respect for stay-at-home fathers. Although today these obstacles tend to be less extreme than the above example, they do persist. A plethora of child-care books are on the market, but nearly all of them are geared toward mothers.
According to a Washington Times article, an educational psychologist in the 1990s attempted to correct this imbalance by writing a parenting book specifically addressing stay-at-home fathers; however, when he tried to publish it, he kept hearing the same answer: "The world isn't ready for this yet."
Even worse, young women and men who are about to face important life decisions are frequently the ones responsible for perpetuation of these gender stereotypes. Yale College's Dean Peter Salovey, addresses this in Story's article in the New York Times: "What [concerns] me is that so few students seem to be able to imagine a life for themselves that isn't constructed along traditional gender roles."
Such prejudice against males as primary caregivers, both from the general community and from the men themselves, is damaging for two reasons: it marks men as secondary parents, and classifies women as secondary contributors to society outside of the family.
In this case, the change will have to come from within the minds of men and women. The former will have to realize they are just as qualified and responsible to be parents as they are to pursue a career, the latter that they are not the only ones obliged to think about the relationship between their family and professional goals. Only then will gender relations be able to keep pace with changes in the rest of society, leaving behind the sharp division between male and female roles. Abandoning certain entrenched practices can be perfectly consistent with progress -- humans replaced mammoth hunting with better food production methods a long time ago and with few regrets.