In her provocative and complicated book "Maternal Thinking," philosopher Sara Ruddick famously agued that "mothering" ought to be viewed as a generic human activity rather than a sex-specific role. Unlike "motherhood" -- which I prefer to think of as a relationship, not a job -- Ruddick observed that "mothering" can be classified as an intentional practice with three clearly defined goals: the preservation of life, fostering growth and development, and training children for social inclusion through the transmission of cultural values and norms. Since the necessary awareness and skills to succeed in this endeavor are learned through the hands-on process of child care, she reasoned, it's wrong to assume that biologically-inscribed sex differences prohibit men from developing the same sensitivities and modes of response shared by competent mothers. Men can and should mother, Ruddick proposed, in the interest of gender equity and because the possibility of creating a more humane world depends on it.
"It is now argued that the most revolutionary change we can make in the institution of motherhood is to include men equally in every aspect of childcare," Ruddick wrote in 1980. "When men and women live together with children, it seems not only fair but moral that they share in every aspect of childcare. To prevent or excuse men from maternal practice is to encourage them to separate public action from private affection, the privilege of parenthood from its cares."
Fast-forwarding to 2007, it appears that the project of including fathers in "every aspect of childcare" is moving right along. According to the Families & Work Institute, 30 percent of mothers in dual-earner couples reported that fathers had equal or greater responsibility for child care in 2002, up from 24 percent just a decade earlier. Another recent report found that 74 percent U.S. fathers living with children age 5 or younger fed or ate meals with their child every day, and 53 percent reported they diaper, dress or bathe their child daily. Current Census data indicates that fathers have primary child care responsibility for over 2 million preschoolers with employed mothers, and 283,000 U.S. children have full-time stay-at-home dads. It's tempting to assume that men transition seamlessly into the full-time or primary caregiving role, and the only thing left to work out is the equality part (at this writing, an American child is 56 times more likely to have a stay-at-home mother than a stay-at-home father).
While robust social research confirms that fathers can be excellent and affectionate caregivers, caregiving men still bear the burden of having their performance compared to the specter of the ideal mother, whose mythic capacity for domestic omnipotence and self-denial is tied to gender in complicated ways. Real world mothers bear the brunt of this as well, of course -- among our favorite complaints, pressures to conform to unrealistic standards of maternal perfection top the list -- but at least we don't have the cultural construct of masculinity to contend with. In a recent study, Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet found that whether they were single or stay-at-home dads, primary caregiving fathers felt that mothers share a special bond with children which men are incapable of replicating. Mothers tend to agree; in recent a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. moms, only 16 percent strongly agreed that "mothers and fathers are interchangeable." As Doucet remarks, "Do men mother?" may be precisely the wrong question to ask. A more productive line of inquiry, she suggests, is how men are transforming the concept and practice of fathering to integrate primary caregiving as a masculine norm (an interview with Andrea Doucet will be published in a future edition).
While this scattered effort may not result in widespread gender equality any time soon -- as Doucet notes, only a tiny fraction of North American fathers are primary caregivers, and the Families & Work Institute found that the number of fathers in dual-earner couples reporting equal or greater responsibility for housework did not change between 1977 and 2002 -- it's a critical step in the right direction. As Jeremy Adam Smith of Daddy Dialectic illustrates in his remarkable essay, conventional definitions of "mothering" and "fathering" are already up for grabs as family forms trend toward diversity (Fathering: The New Frontier, in this month's Features section).
Yet as Doucet discovered in her study, gender still matters. Ambient male privilege -- which she and other scholars refer to as "the patriarchal dividend" -- continues to influence how men and women identify and self-select their share of caregiving responsibilities, even among egalitarian-minded couples. And just as we need to reexamine Sara Ruddick's proposed paradigm for men and mothering, we need to rethink the position that progress depends on women taking responsibility for leading men into the domestic fold. Perhaps there are examples -- possibly many examples -- of mothers who make it more difficult for fathers to experience their competence as caregivers. On the other hand, high-powered men (and women) in the workplace and government have been making it difficult for women to fulfill their human potential pretty much from the get-go -- and despite rumors to the contrary, that hasn't stopped us from trying. If we want to blame "gatekeepers" for slowing the flow of equality, we need to acknowledge they are guarding both sides of the work and family divide.
More good stuff in this edition: In the Commentary section, Erica Etelson spells out how Democrats can reclaim the family values agenda by supporting progressive work-life policy, and Jean Kazez explains why Linda Hirshman is wrong about relieving the tax burden on secondary earner wives. In Books, Carolyn McConnell reviews Ann Fessler's "The Girls Who Went Away," which is based on the author's interviews with women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade. Deborah Siegel reviews Pamela Stone's "Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Their Careers and Head Home," which relays the findings of Stone's in-depth study of 54 high-achieving mothers who left the paid workforce. "Opting Out?" is by far the most important book on women, work and family to be published this year, and is an absolute must-read for activists and advocates. Stone walks the reader through the "choices" mothers make when they put their careers on hold, and explains why the illusion of having choices is so persistent. "Opting Out?" is also guaranteed to delight detractors of Leslie Bennetts and Linda Hirshman, since it offers a more authoritative and nuanced analysis of the so-called "opting out" phenomenon and its consequences for women.
Oh, and about that "Opt Out Revolution" -- it's still not happening. A new briefing paper by David Cotter, Paula England, and Joan Hermsen for the Council on Contemporary Families finds that contrary to recent press accounts, we are not in the midst of an "opt-out" revolution, or anything remotely resembling one. "Rather than a strong downward trend," the authors report, "there has been a flattening out of the trend line, so that mothers' employment has stabilized, with a majority employed." More details from the issue brief can be found in this month's Noteworthy section. Also in Noteworthy: the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new enforcement guidelines targeting Family Responsibilities Discrimination, and a new study from the Center for Economic Policy Research confirms that the United States in the only economically advanced nation that does not guarantee workers paid vacation or holidays. In the U.S. Health Care: How Bad Can It Get Department, a new report from the Commonwealth Fund finds the U.S. health care system is far more expensive than systems in other industrial countries that provide universal coverage, and fails miserably on almost every performance measure. Plus: the usual round up of notable news and commentary on the state of motherhood, women's and social issues, and reproductive health and rights.