Falling into gender roles

One of the more identity-warping aspects of parenthood is the way that it has pushed certain traditional gender roles into my marriage.  I didn’t expect this: I grew up in the “girls can do anything” generation and married someone who had no interest in being a stereotypical breadwinner.  But then BAM! societal structures whacked me in the face.

Some of it seems to make sense in the context of our family.  My husband is older than me; he has a real job and I’m a grad student.  Now that he’s working outside of academia, he makes a lot more than me.  My status as a student means that my hours are flexible, my vacation is not tracked, and, well, it just makes sense for me to be the one who stays home when the kid is sick.  To be the one who takes at-home days so that we can save money on daycare.  If we have a second kid after I finish my PhD, it’ll be totally logical for me to be the one to take “leave” for a few months or maybe longer.

But…  Would that calculation change if my husband’s new job offered paternity leave?  (It doesn’t.)  Would I have chosen to stay home as much as I did if daycare were more affordable?

What happens when we move somewhere where daycare costs even more?  Where the waiting lists are months long?  Who has to stay home then?

What happens if we have that second kid and I take some time off to parent—will I be losing forever the opportunity to have the kind of career I once imagined?  Am I doomed to be the secondary breadwinner, looking at a life of trying to sell jewelry and fake nails to my friends?

My husband and I had a fight the other day about money.  He’d started to say things that sounded like he thought of his salary as something he earned for himself and partially distributed to me for stuff, as opposed to something he earned for our family.  It turned out we were taking our worries out on each other: he felt bad about spending less time with our son (he’s had to work weekends recently), while I was worried (jealous?) that I made so much less.  It bothers me very much that we’ve been pushed in these directions.

Today is one of my at-home days, and I’m busy trying to fill the hours with dishes and knitting and crayons.  Likely my husband will be working again this weekend.  I feel unfulfilled, like I’m turning into the stereotype of a bored 1960’s housewife.

I’m not sure where to go from here.

In which I am not really surprised by statistics

On Friday, the New York Times described the results of a Harvard Business School study about the effect of working mothers: across the developed world, the grown daughters of working moms are more likely to work themselves, and the grown sons of working moms spend more time on child care and housework.  No one should be shocked by this – after all, parents are their children’s greatest role models.

I don’t want to harp on this particular study.  I’m secure in the knowledge that my own choice to work outside the home is the right choice for my family, and I don’t want to imply that stay-at-home parents can’t be strong models of gender equity as well.  (This particular study didn’t differentiate between working full-time, part-time, long-term, short-term, at home, or out of the home.  It counted as a “working mother” any mom who “ever work[ed] for pay” before her kids were 14.  That includes everyone from high-powered attorneys to stay-at-home moms who babysit.)

No, what I want to talk about is the third sentence of that New York Times article.

… 41 percent of adults say the increase in working mothers is bad for society, while just 22 percent say it is good, according to the Pew Research Center.

Uh, what?

I clicked on the link and spent some time reading the Pew study, which was conducted in 2007.  Yup, turns out if you’re a working mother in the U.S., that disapproval you think you’re feeling from society isn’t all in your head.  Interestingly, there’s no statistical difference in the opinions of men and women on this subject, and there was very little change in attitudes from 1997-2007.

It also turns out that almost nobody (men, women, stay-at-home moms, or working moms) thinks that mothers working full-time is best for the children, although 41% say that a mother working part-time is ideal.  They didn’t ask the “what’s best for the kids” question about fathers, because of course not.

On the plus side, 36% of the respondents said that “more fathers staying home with children so their wives can work full-time” was good for society, with just 21% saying that was bad.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to make this distinction?  If longer and PAID maternity and paternity leaves were readily available in the U.S.?  If we didn’t have a working culture that assumes long hours = more dedicated = better employee, so that moms and dads (and people without kids) didn’t have to choose between “work” and “life outside work” but could have some of both instead?

While we’re working on that, we need to get over the idea that working moms are bad for society.  Seriously, America.  You’re better than that.