Women often experience an implicit (and sometimes even explicit) expectation from those around them to be both a full-time professional and an ever-present mom.
I consider myself a feminist, which means (to me at least) I support the elimination of barriers to access for all people, regardless of their gender. But in spite of that, the equality that follows such efforts comes with its own consequences for the culture, and sometimes even for the woman herself.
My wife, Amy, pastors a prominent church in downtown Portland. She has office hours, late-night meetings and weekend commitments that keep her away from home quite a bit, sometimes more often than she’d prefer. I work most days from home as a writer, which means I have greater flexibility in my schedule to take the kids, pick them up, and sometimes make dinner or even put the little guys to bed. It’s not often that Amy gets home after both kids are asleep, but it happens. And when it does, I see the pain on her face.
Zoe, our four-year-old, had a dad’s night at her preschool this past week, at which they presented us with the requisite finger paintings and other artifacts of her classroom time. But my favorite thing was a letter that she dictated to her teacher for me. The very first sentence in the letter was as follows:
“My dad loves taking me to school every morning.”
She’s right; I do. And I know sometimes Amy gets jealous when she has to kiss the kids on the head and dash out the door for an early meeting. Again, this is not a day-in, day-out thing, but it seems that when it happens, she struggles with it more than when I used to do it. For the first 10 years or so of our marriage, I was the office job guy, affording her the opportunity to go to graduate school, stay home with our newborns and eventually, start a new church in our home. But I do think that, because in our culture it’s still often “expected” than men will be the primary providers, there was less of a cultural bias for me to overcome in leaving the kids.
Amy has told me that, although she has found her place in the professional world, she experiences an implicit (and sometimes even explicit) expectation from those around her to be both a full-time professional and an ever-present mom. So in a way, hers has been a process of addition rather than adjustment or reallocation. And lest anyone thinks this is an isolated experience, I heard a woman in NPR being interviewed about this very thing some time back, so it must be true!
Overall, as women enter the full-time workplace in growing numbers, they’re experiencing more of the same side effects that men “enjoy” from overwork and related stress, including increased hypertension, heart disease and other risk factors related to eating on the run and missing out on exercise. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but research is finding that, as women gain opportunities once enjoyed predominantly by men, they’re also suffering from the effects those opportunities can have too.
For a more stark example, the United States military lifted the restriction this week that barred women from holding combat positions. Though this is a win for gender parity, the implications of what this means for those women who put their lives at greater risk is sobering.
There’s plenty of friction among women discussing the issue as well. Theologian and author Phyllis Tickle talks publicly about turning points that have affected family dynamics and, secondarily, church community, such as access to birth control and workplace parity. Her point – or at least one of them – seems to be that when children don’t come home to a parent after school or take the time to gather intentionally around a table for a meal, the family identity suffers. Others, such as author and blogger Julie Clawson, push back on this notion, suggesting that unfair blame is being cast in women’s direction, and that such claims draw a false correlation.
Some suggest that such trends mean we’re headed down a dangerous path, and they use this as their basis for calling for what they call a return to “traditional family values.” Others place the blame on unrealistic expectations for working mothers to be superhuman, a social burden that is not equally shared by men in a similar position. Others point a finger at our economic system, blaming the need for families to depend on two full-time incomes in many cases to subsist in the American middle class. Still others argue that these trends are largely a confabulation, manufactured by a society wrestling with gender roles, norms and a sense of ground shifting beneath their feet.
I told Amy over dinner a few nights ago (we made it together) that I predicted we will see a shift back toward what some would call more traditional gender roles in our children’s adulthood. Without such barriers to access, there is likely to be more fluidity in more of a back-and-forth dynamic, as people search for the kind of balance of multiple roles they feel fit best for them and their loved ones. As for me, I can handle the “pastor’s wife” jokes and the “mister mom” pokes, especially when the payoff is a letter like the one I got from Zoe. There may come a day when the writing well runs dry and I find myself back in a corporate office. But for now, I consider myself to be a part of a sort of frontier of our own for male identity.
It turns out that the elimination of gender barriers goes both ways. So far, I feel pretty fortunate to benefit from less traditional family values.