The Unfinished Business of Caring

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My friend Anne-Marie Slaughter just published a book called Unfinished Business. It is her road map to completing the revolution that started out as the women’s movement. But to characterize it as a book about feminism would be too narrow.

Slaughter has reframed the gender debate and focused on caring and competition as the two drives that make us human. Caring manifests itself in the domestic sphere, while competition dominates in the workplace.

The concept of caring encompasses more people.
Slaughter made a name for herself with a 2012 article in The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All“. Due to a coincidence in publication it was widely regarded as a response to Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In.

In Unfinished Business she recognizes that the work-life balance debate is limited to women of means, and doesn’t capture the experience of a solo-mother living paycheck to paycheck and having to choose between going to work and staying at home with a sick child.

And coupling caring with women, however numerically persuasive, fails to capture the experience of men like me, while also creating a barrier that stops other men joining the cause.

Her argument is that we need to address the imbalance between the caring and competition, by placing more value on the latter. As a carer I am well aware that we collectively relegate it. It is a huge hurdle both at both the individual and societal level.

When I typed the word carer in this previous sentence, my word processing program inserted a jagged red line beneath it. The software prefers the term caregiver. Carer is the Queen’s English. Caregiver is American, but if caring is only something that can be given it will always remain undervalued.

I am guilty of undervaluing caring. It is almost a chronic condition.

Last month spent five days in Rocky Mountain National Park. My goal was to climb a Fourteener, which is what Coloradans call peaks over 14,000 feet which I described in a separate post “Men, Mountains and Middle Age“.

Throughout the trip I had a lingering sense that I was not worthy of this little vacation.

Why?

I know plenty of working dads who go away on boys’ weekends. They don’t feel badly about it. My wife makes time to be away with her friends. The biggest dilemma that presents the girls is finding a half marathon in a city with decent apr├Ęs-race shopping.

The Fourteener was my New Year’s Resolution in 2012. It’s been rolling over ever since. A continuing resolution like they have in Congress when they can’t get their act together.

Admittedly it is an inconvenient resolution. You just can rock up from sea level on Friday night, climb to 14,000 feet on Saturday and be home for Sunday dinner. I tried that in Hawaii a year ago, taking a day out of a family beach vacation to hike up 13,700 foot Mauna Kea. It almost killed me. This time I took a week so I could acclimatize.

That only added to the sense of guilt. This was a particularly self-indulgent scheme.

Indeed if a friend, a stay-at-home mother, had not decided to celebrate her 40th birthday in Las Vegas, making Denver a convenient stop on the way home, I probably still wouldn’t have climbed my mountain.

The logistics were not easy, but my wife has long been supportive of the idea, so the only thing stopping me doing it sooner was me:

I DIDN’T THINK I DESERVED IT.

Did being a man make taking this time off particularly challenging for me? Earlier this year a friend sent me this article about men and their “Conspicuous Work” habits “Why Men (at Least Pretend to) Work Longer Hours“.

A Dutch study found men are happiest when they think they are working longer hours than their male peers. We are more concerned with the appearance of working hard than our actual income or productivity.

We compete with each other to be seen to be working the hardest. I have taken myself out of what Annie-Marie Slaughter calls the competitive realm of the workplace, but have I lost that natural urge to compete? Of course, not. Maybe it manifest itself in the temptation to deny myself time off.

Was I climbing into more that rarified air in Colorado? Did I create a double whammy; a subconscious devaluation of my role as a carer was exaggerated by my male propensity to compare my labor with others? Not only was I not working, I was not working very hard at not working.

Anne-Marie Slaughter outlines some societal changes that would elevate caring. Along with legislative remedies and changes in the workplace the caring mindset needs to change.

I am a carer, but individual work I need to do improve my attitude to caring represents quite a mountain to climb.

It’s Time to Retire “Mr. Mom”

Andrew Moravcsik on Good  Morning America.
Andrew Moravcsik on Good Morning America.

Yesterday, Andrew Moravcsik wrote a thoughtful article in The Atlantic titled “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First”.

It was an honest account of his role in the family he has created with his wife Anne-Marie Slaughter. Much of what Andy wrote resonated with my experience as a stay-at-home dad, although he uses the term ‘lead parent’ to encompass household leaders who work as well as those who are unpaid. He graciously mentioned me as an insightful commentator.

As the subtitle of his piece indicated he was writing in support of a broader social change that both he and Anne-Marie have been advocating for some time.

The well-being of children, the status of women, and the happiness of men will depend on whether more fathers are willing to take on primary parenting roles.

This morning, ABC’s “Good Morning America” show headlined Andy’s piece under the title “Mr. Mom”.

One can imagine a sleep-deprived copy editor resorting to that term at 5 a.m. as the breakfast show deadline loomed, but unfortunately it totally misses the point of Andrew’s article. In fairness, to ABC, the panel discussion afterwards was much more on point.

I’ve been called “Mr. Mom” before. Interestingly, I can only recall women using it.

It doesn’t really bother me. It is a bit like an Irish joke. Just as I’ve moved beyond the patently absurd stereotype that Irish people are stupid, that the O before my name is indicative of my IQ score, “Mr. Mom” washes over me like some distant cultural relic.

But that is me. I am there. I am quite comfortable in my role running our household.

I suspect most other men are not ready to join me as the home-maker. Andrew’s article details the social and cultural biases facing men as lead parents;

Pew polls show that 42 percent of Americans now view the “ideal” family for child-rearing as one in which Dad works full-time and Mom works part-time; about half prefer that she not work at all. Only 8 percent believe children are better off with Dad at home. About two-thirds of Americans believe that a married man should be able to support his family financially, yet only a third say the same about a woman.

These expectations present quite a hurdle for a man who is contemplating taking on the role of lead parent.

If you are starting out on the journey “Mr. Mom” is not a cultural relic. It is a rock rolling down the mountain you are trying to climb. If you get hit by enough rocks you are not going to ascend very far.

That is why we should stop using it.

Language matters. Its effect is subtle. An individual word or phrase has small impact, but the cumulative result of its repeated use is massive.

Language both reflects and creates culture. It is a self-perpetuating system. If you can change the language you can alter the culture. The results are not always perfect. Stereotypes are hard to break down, but those who complain about political correctness are usually on the wrong side of the cultural shift.

Fifty years ago Donald Trump would have been in the unchallenged majority talking about a woman having an unelectable face. Today, he is a cultural dinosaur who, apparently, doesn’t look in the mirror.

The place of women in our society has shifted in that time.

“Mr. Mom” is an indicator that men’s roles are lagging.