It is a very curious thing for me to sit back and try to look with a “beginner’s mind” at all these notions our society has about division of labor based on gender. Thank you for offering such a good overview of the historical context. It is so important to see oneself in a historical moment and understand the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the post-WWII era, etc. When I sit in sermons and hear a clear-cut theory of division of labor, I yearn for a historian or a sociologist to stand up and suddenly hijack the pulpit!
Equally Equipped to Nurture?
Letha, this week I have been doing less outside research and more quiet, internal reflection. I have been pausing to consider my own heart as I ask myself the question: “Can men nurture as well as women?”
I think this is a hidden question in some of the division of labor talk; I also think it is easy to assume that women are simply intended by nature to be better at nurturing children and therefore should be the one at home (at least in the context of a heterosexual parenting couple). Our society seems to promote those expectations, which in turn become their own circular arguments and self-fulfilling prophecies.
It seems to me that for biological reasons (i.e., breastfeeding), a mother might have more of a role in a baby’s early months. I know that for myself, I would hope I could spend more time at home when my children are very young, because of concerns around breastfeeding; but after that season of a child’s life, I am not sure why the parenting can’t be a more mutual effort. Even when a mother is breastfeeding, it still seems that this is an important time for both parents to bond with the child. (As I write this letter, I keep hearing the voices of psychology professors wanting to remind me that a child bonds to the mother as the primary caregiver first, and then will grow through the oedipal stage when he or she work out their relationship with both caregivers. But, as I said in my previous letter, I have never been impressed with that theory. It seems like a theory “perfect” for a post-Industrial Revolution society, and one that does not encompass the actual diversity of family life.)
Beginning to See More
You know how when you are pondering something, trying to tease out a knot in your thinking, life itself seems to become your own teacher? I have felt that way this past week as I have pondered my simple question, “Can men nurture as well as women?” The loveliest moments seems to keep presenting themselves to me.
Maybe it is because I am simply noticing more, maybe it is because I am looking for it, or maybe it is because the universe really wants to tell me something—but I keep seeing these small scenes of fathers with their young children. I have seen several dads out with strollers, some with another child attached to their other hand, trotting along beside them. This Saturday morning I couldn’t help but smile when I saw a dad and his elementary- aged daughter (both of them still in plaid pajamas and bathrobes and slippers) walking home from the neighborhood coffee shop, obviously enjoying their Saturday morning father-daughter stroll.
Then, my favorite moment this past week was in the middle of a workday when I was beginning to pen this very letter to you. I was sitting in the sun outside a Jamba Juice store and noticed a toddler and his father a few feet away from me. The father kept trying to coax the child to keep on walking beside him, but the young boy seemed to have his feet stuck to the pavement and his head looking at every bird in the sky. The young child was sort of absent-mindedly stubborn, and I wasn’t sure quite what the coaxing father would do.
Finally, the father walked away, with his child still planted there, and I was momentarily concerned that the dad was frustrated or being negligent with his son. I had nothing really to worry about—the father was just headed to a nearby garbage can to throw away some things he was carrying, so he could free his hands. He quickly returned to his son, knelt down, and ever so tenderly picked him up, snuggled with him, and walked off with his son bouncing along on his hip. I couldn’t help smiling at the scene. The dad looked over and saw me smiling, and explained with a sense of humor, “Now we can make a little more progress today.”
Noticing Unconscious Expectations
I write about this small, passing moment not because it can somehow give an answer to my question, but rather because the moment provided a mirror for my own expectations. I had found myself growing quite anxious as I watched the above scene unfold. I realized I was expecting the dad to be impatient, and I would not have felt the same way if the parent had been the mother. I had to admit to myself that because of conditioning deep within me, I don’t expect men to have the same tender caregiving capacity as women.
As the father embraced his son, I felt a pang of shame within me. It is not fair or right for me to hold such an unconscious attitude towards men, which is really quite marginalizing to half the human race. Then today, I saw the comment from J. Davidson, one of our readers, and was further challenged to imagine how some men must feel discriminated against. He primarily stays at home with his kids while his wife works full-time outside the home. He has this to say:
“It is interesting to me to watch the reactions of different people when they learn of our ‘roles’ at home. The worst reactions tend to come from the fundamentalist Christian folks and that is sad. My wife is a great person, she loves her family. I love my family. In the end that should be all that matters not what gender is doing what.”
He said it so well. (See his full comment in response to our September 10 post.) We need to love our families, bottom line. What is important is not “what each gender is doing” but that kids know they are treasured, prioritized, and loved. And there are so many more ways to do this than just following one so-called “traditional” formula (which may work well for some, but certainly not everyone). Women should not be seen as “selfish” for pursuing careers they love or simply working out of necessity, and men should not be seen as somehow lesser men for choosing to be at home to teach and nurture their kids. Both judgments are unfair, and are missing what really matters: that each couple decides how to best care for their families.
Thanks again for writing, Letha. I so enjoy thinking through these issues with you. (And to our readers, even though I am not able to respond to the comments right now, please know that I so appreciate the perspectives you bring!)