I spent the dying years of the “second wave feminism” movement living, through a dorm exchange, at Bryn Mawr College, one of the “Seven Sisters” (seven elite Northeastern all-female liberal arts colleges) that had remained single sex into the 1980’s. While living there I was inculcated with the belief that almost all gender differences were cultural constructs and that we were slowly moving towards a more egalitarian notion of gender roles, in which women would do much more of the wage earning and men would do much more of the nurturing, and in which gender would become increasingly irrelevant. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (in)famous 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley College (another one of the Seven Sisters) spoke of our “searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living.” Part of that search was a quest for domestic partnerships, including marriages, that were more fluid and less rigid in the roles that partners were expected to play.
Like many civil rights movements, this one took “three-steps-forward, two-steps-back,” with progress coming more slowly than the movement’s leaders might have hoped and with myriad setbacks to go with the progress. The view that there are no real differences between men and women other than their reproductive organs has been undermined by the findings of evolutionary biologists. We are learning that the X and Y chromosomes that determine gender shape biology in ways both more subtle and much greater than mere reproductive development. While it’s quite likely that much of what we attribute to biology is still actually driven by culture, the “holy grail” of a culture in which men and women are not only equal but also equivalent seems further away than when I attended college.
However, my three years living at Bryn Mawr (and a subsequent year as a part-time assistant at a pre-school) shaped my view of family law and custody. When I began developing my family law practice in the mid-1990’s, I advocated fathers’ relationships with their children much more vigorously than many of my peer. While folks assumed that this was because I was a “fathers” attorney, it was actually because I believed that fathers needed to do more of the nurturing of their young and needed both cultural and legal support in their attempts to do so.
Given this background, I find my observations of mothers and fathers, and their actions in public towards their children, to be most curious. Whether observing interactions at parks, pools or the recess at school, the result is the same: fathers are more likely to be playing with their children than are mothers; mothers are more likely to be observing their children than are fathers. If I am at a playground or pool on a weekend afternoon, mothers will typically outnumber fathers by a substantial margin but there will still be more fathers than mothers actually playing with their children.
This trend continues on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. For much of my peer, Mother’s Day means taking mother to brunch and then letting mother have “alone” time without her children. For that same peer, Father’s Day means father doing some activity he enjoys with his children (my wife opted out of these annual kayak excursions a few years ago noting, quite accurately, that I am not her father). I greatly admire the few mothers who actually appear to want to spend Mother’s Day enjoying their children’s company and subtly look down upon the fathers who see Father’s Day as the day they get to go bass fishing or golfing with their buddies (unless they are taking their children with them).
I have many hypothesis to explain these observations. Perhaps fathers simply enjoy their children more. Perhaps mothers simply are still doing too much of the unpleasant tasks of parenting that their idea of a special day is an escape from that responsibility. I look at my own life, with the initial hope of an egalitarian marriage, and note that I have been saddled with the bulk of the wage earning responsibilities while my wife is saddled with the bulk of the unpleasant domestic tasks. I see many marriages like ours, where the spouses start out equally well educated and equally able to handle domestic tasks and end up with almost the same division of labor that our parents (or grandparents) had. Why did our generation not make greater progress towards more egalitarian gender roles? Why is Hillary Clinton’s horribly flawed marriage one of the few public marriages of this generation in which the partners seemed truly equal on the domestic and workplace fronts (even as they played out some of the worst gender stereotypes in their sexual issues)?
As important as evolutionary biology is in explaining human behavior, I think that our culture is driving the choices that prevent us from achieving greater flexibility and equality in our domestic relationships. When I imagine a contemporary situation in which the father is doing the bulk of the child care and the mother is doing the bulk of the wage earning, I imagine both spouses’ peer groups showing subtle disapproval. Most of the women I know consider anything less than a spotless house to be a negative reflection upon themselves while few of the men I know consider the substantial extra effort to turn a home from “clean enough” to “immaculate” to be worthwhile. This creates an impasse on domestic work. Few folks I know of either gender would not subtly look down upon a man who stayed home to raise his children while his wife worked, no matter how good a job he did taking care of the children or the home. This may create enough pressure on the wage earner front to account for an imbalance even after workplace gender discrimination is relegated to the dustbin of history.
Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex attempted to explain the depression of college-educated upper-middle-class women in the late 1950’s as a product of rigid gender roles. I often wonder whether this failure to overcome such rigid gender roles drives so much of the depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder among my college-educated, upper-middle-class female peer and wonder why so many of the woman who must have read and agreed with Madame de Beauvoir while in college ended up in the same trap. Whatever its cause, our culture’s failure to move more rapidly in an egalitarian direction in division of nurturing and wage earning roles is one of my bigger adulthood disappointments. I await an era in which more fathers need a break from their children on Father’s Day while fewer mothers need a break from theirs on Mother’s Day.