The very fact that I was not sure where to place this post (which channel? Women’s Rights certainly doesn’t seem like the right one) shows that we’re not talking very much about the ways that men, as well as women, struggle with the confines of the gender roles imposed by our society. Although, yes, in the workplace it is women who are disproportionately affected by the wage gap, who are affected by double standards with regard to appearance, for whom the mommy track sometimes leads straight out the door, men still struggle, albeit more silently, to balance career and family.
For the Huffington Post, Tom Matlack writes,
“Many men are in crisis. Most guys I talk to quietly acknowledge that they’re struggling to “do it all.” Sound familiar? That’s what women have faced all along: how to have a career while also being a mom and wife. Well, we want to be more involved as fathers and husbands. But no one has set the workplace bar any lower, so that men have the time they need at home with the family.”
This, Matlack concludes, results in a “male identity crisis” that the media ignores, taking up instead the “old feminist battle cry,” from which men are excluded. This is where I take issue with Matlack, who seems to think that a “new feminism” is required to deal with men’s struggles – but feminists have always been deeply concerned with gender equality, which does not mean making women’s lives exactly like men’s. Instead, it seeks to abolish the strictures of a gendered system that makes it impossible for men and women to rebel against the roles that have been set for them without severe social punishments.
For women, this can mean the censuring of success in the workplace or the decision not to have a family; for men, it can mean social imperatives to leave the domestic sphere to women, and to focus single-mindedly on their careers. Although feminism has many different strains, the feminism to which I subscribe has never pretended that gender politics is a “zero-sum game.” But in some ways, the social taboos against discussing the difficulties of being a man are so great that it’s been challenging to know how to tackle them. For example, it seems most practical to get adequate maternity leave before we try for paternity leave.
But a much-emailed NYT article from this week, about Sweden’s legendary paternity care and other ways in which men are allowed to “have it all,” shows that there may be renewed interest in this question. Swedes report proudly that it is now “manly” to want to take time off to raise children (although women still take far more time). This seems to have economic benefits for women – the NYT reports, “A study published by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation in March showed…that a mother’s future earnings increase on average 7 percent for every month the father takes leave.”
The Swedes acknowledge that the “daddy leave” was at first controversial. But this reframing of the traditionally “masculine” career trajectory is intriguing – although it does also include generous maternity leave that the United States still lacks. One thing seems clear: the deeply embedded notion of climbing the career ladder doesn’t seem to work easily for anyone who wants a family, whether they’re male or female, and the whole system is going to have to change before there is real gender equality.
Matlack is right about one thing, though: men are going to have to speak out about this, if they want a change. And they’re going to have to acknowledge that this is not a “new” kind of feminism – but rather, that there is a well-organized and receptive movement waiting to help men “learn how to be the same guy at home as we are at work, to integrate the multiple challenges of male life, and to speak to each other candidly about ourselves, rather than suffering silently.” I’m excited about the prospect – I hope men are too.
Photo from Flickr.