Last week I was a part of a panel in a colleague’s course on family values. The panel, “Mama and Papa PhDs,” was comprised of two male and two female professors, all of whom have young children. I was primed for the discussion with fresh statistics regarding the difficulties women professors face, yet I found the stories of the male faculty members the most revealing.
The class had been discussing changing cultural definitions of the family, and each of us began by describing the biggest ways that parenthood had defied our expectations. Having been raised by feminists, I told the class, I had never felt constrained by gender growing up. I assumed that all careers were open to me, I expected to be self-supporting, and I knew I would have an equal partnership when I married. My own father had chosen to co-parent after my parents’ divorce, eschewing traditional success in order to stay in our town and be an involved father. When I married, I chose a man already proven a good father. But two weeks after I had a baby, my husband went back to work (his job gave him only three paid days off), leaving me alone with our baby for 11 hours a day: it was like a wall came down, I told the students. While I loved being a new mother, I resented the assumption that it was my job, and not his. And it stunned me to realize the ways that fathers are seen as inessential.
At my own college, I’m shocked at how little time off my male colleagues take when they have children. (Since we have no “maternity leave” I believe that both parents are eligible for Family Medical Leave.) When fathers don’t take the leave they’re allowed, it sends a message that children are the mother’s responsibility or that leave is only for physical healing, not bonding and caring for the baby. Therefore, I was excited to hear my male colleagues’ speak about the dilemmas they face negotiating their desires to co-parent with societal pressures on men to prioritize work.
One professor, born in India, said that he was raised to think that a good father is defined by his material success; his own desire to spend more time with his young son is considered unmanly. Another father professor told a poignant story about being snubbed by a scholar after he’d turned down that scholar’s invitation in order to be present at his son’s birthday party. While these two men may be unusual (and it’s worth noting that both are tenured), their stories point to the ways that gender roles in American –even in academia – distance fathers from their families. As Rhona Mahony has argued “in order for women to achieve economic equality with men , men will have to do half the work of raising children.” It isn’t enough to get women into the workforce; there needs to be an equal movement to get men into the work of raising children.
I’m not sure exactly what the students learned from our panel, although it was wonderful for the four of us to share our stories. Perhaps the students learned that their professors are vulnerable human beings who sometimes second-guess themselves, who struggle to balance work and life. Hopefully, my male colleagues’ remarks revealed a different code of masculinity that will resonate when they make their own choices.