Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sexist, Yes. But Against Whom?

A few years back I was involved with a board that addressed family law issues. One lawyer on the board, an older man, would object to any proposal that suggested the treatment of men and women as equally capable parents. His beliefs boiled down to the idea that men were naturally disposed to working outside the home and bringing home an income, and women were naturally disposed to raise children. He never objected to working mothers or daycare, but instead objected to the idea of treating men as equally interested or equally capable parents. Based upon his preconceptions, upbringing, and the role he had taken for himself as a parent, he simply knew better. Yes, he would debate people on the issue, but no, there was no room for movement in his beliefs - he would only argue to try to convince challengers that they were wrong. After a while, people stopped engaging him and we got back to getting through the agenda in a timely manner.

As with ever other human endeavor, parenting skills, interest in parenting, and aptitude for parenting fall on a continuum. Some people (men and women) are very interested in becoming parents, while others are not. Some have a great deal of interest in raising their children, and others have little. And despite their best efforts, some who are interested in raising their children lack the aptitude to do so. I'm not going to try to argue whether men and women fall on the same continuum, or if there are gender differences resulting from societal pressures and biology, first because I'm not aware of any good research into the area, and second because it's not relevant to this analysis. (If any reader coming across this knows of research, please share it as a comment.)

Some have suggested that it is "sexist" to ask of Sarah Palin, "How can you take a high pressure, all-consuming job while you are raising five children." To the extent that the same question would not be asked of a man (and let's be honest - it generally will not), there is sexism at play. But it's not only sexism against women. When a man takes a high pressure, high hours job, the assumption is that somebody else will take over the primary parenting role. That could be a spouse or a nanny. Nobody defends the man by stating, "Maybe he's a superdad who can work 60-80 hours per week yet still make the kids' lunches, attend all of their plays and sports meets, make cookies for the bake sale...." It's just assumed that he does not.

If that's your assumption about a man who works a consuming job, it's not necessarily sexist. If you've ever worked that much, or have observed somebody who does, you know that the assumption is usually correct. That parent is often out of the house before the kids are up in the morning, back home after they've gone to bed, or both. There are only so many hours in the day, and if you spend ten or twelve of them at work (plus commute time) you're not spending them at home. The sexism comes in if you don't ask the question of a man, but ask it of a woman.

One thing that has been overlooked in this "who's taking care of the kids" nonsense is that there have been a lot of women in high-powered jobs, both in the public and private sector, who have kids at home. In recent memory the whispers have not involved "How does she have time to take care of the kids and work that job," but have instead been, "Did she pay Social Security taxes for her nanny?" It's misleading to argue that there's a judgment of women in this type of situation when it is known how they take care of their kids. Sure, there are some people who view it as anything from a dereliction of your proper gender role to entirely inexcusable (unless you're Sarah Palin) for a mother to work outside of the home, but beyond that fringe reliance on a nanny is broadly accepted.

It seems apparent that for now the McCain campaign is giddy about being able to accuse anybody who asks anything about Palin of "sexism", so they're not going to tell us how the Palins divide their parenting responsibilities. They appear to love having people jump to Palin's defense with the assumption that she's a supermom, and don't want to lay out facts that might contradict the myth. But unless your assumption is that a working dad with a high pressure job is an equivalent "superdad", that assumption is also predicated upon sexist assumptions.

When a working parent, man or woman, who has tried to balance work and career, wonders, "How could she possibly do it," there's not necessarily any sexism in their wonder. People with one or two kids and forty hour per week jobs struggle with these issues. And sorry, replying "Who are you to ask," or "Why don't you assume she's a supermom", doesn't clear things up. You know what? If in fact Palin somehow manages a highly involved parent with all of her kids despite her obligations as governor, she should be writing a book of parenting tips. It could be a bestseller. And if she's relying upon her husband or a third party to pick up the slack, she would do us a favor by saying so and ending all the speculation - including the buzz the National Enquirer is trying to generate by depicting her teenage children as all-but-feral. There's nothing wrong with being human.


  1. I think you said this very well, Aaron. Actually, this is one of the best posts on sexism that I've seen in a long time. (I mean "best" as in well written :))

    As to the issue of why women are asking about the kid thing...Women do tend to be raised with the expectation of having kids and being "mom" and I think that both men and women are aware of this. [I am the only child (to parents who wanted a girl :)) and for some reason, my parents never stressed that point with me. Either because of that, or because of genetics, I just kinda always knew that I DIDN'T want to have kids--luckily, my ol' man is the same way.]. I'm not a guy so I don't known if guys are raised with the same expectation, but I know that my male students don't seem to be.

    Also, the fact remains that while dads certainly do a lot these days, women still assume more responsibility (I originally typed "get stuck with the kid rearing", but that sounds bad, doesn't it?). I am not sure if that is genetic, socialization or just the reality that men tend to have more powerful jobs that require longer hours. In my mind, if the baby-daddy is working longer hours, then baby-momma SHOULD assume more of the caretaking.

    Another thing...I sincerely hope that this does not come out the wrong way, but I have often wondered how many men WANT kids vs. how many agree to have them. I'm not sure if it always makes a difference, but when I was in family law, I represented a lot of guys who were definitely in the latter category. They loved their kids (most of them), but there is a difference (in my mind) between "wanting" and "agreeing to have". I'm not saying that all men are one way or the other, but this seems to be different than most women that I've met, who all "want" kids, some at a very early age. Does this therefore affect the amount of caretaking and/or society's expectations?

    I hope I haven't pissed off the guys--I just honestly have turned this stuff over in my brain for a long time. Also, it is the end of a long school day, I'm stuck waiting for a staff meeting, and my brain is fried, so.... :)

  2. I know men who fall into all three categories: Those who always wanted kids, those who never wanted kids, and those who didn't realize they wanted them until they had kids. But you're right about social pressures - in general, women are pressured to have kids, and men are at least tacitly encouraged to avoid having kids. Those pressures are more pronounced in some communities (using a more sociological than geographical sense of the word) than in others.

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