Last month, the New York Times published a gutting article titled, Three American Mothers, On the Brink. The piece, written by Jessica Bennett with photos by Brenda Ann Kenneally, documented three families (all of which were opposite-sex married couples with children), in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, deeply struggling to balance work, school, childcare, household duties and everything else. The article described a typical day for each of the mothers, and, surprising to no one, they were the ones to take on the lion’s share of, well, everything. Their husbands, meanwhile, worked largely uninterrupted, as their wives, sometimes only one room away, attempted to work and parent and teach and feed and clothe and clean and and and and and. …
The feature doesn’t offer up much new information, but it’s a powerful piece documenting American mothers reaching their breaking points, and it’s the photos that especially leave readers breathless. Or shall I say, female readers because, unless she is Phyllis Schlafly reincarnated, a woman, whether she is married or single, has children or does not, cannot view those photos without feeling the rage boil from the depths of her soul.
A woman doesn’t need to be a mother to feel that fury because, more than anything, what those photographs perfectly showcase is the gender power imbalance that she has known and understood and been conditioned for her entire life. And while that imbalance can certainly hit a fever pitch once a person enrolls at Motherhood in America, it can also easily be felt by anyone who has simply lived in this society as a female citizen. It is that financial literacy that was not passed on to her, that promotion she was passed over for the male colleague with less talent and experience, it is the guy who grabbed her ass at the company holiday party (probably the one who landed the promotion over her), the sexual assault that feels like a million years ago and yesterday, the medical condition that doctors have ignored and left her in the grips of agony, the valid anger that a man has dismissed as “crazy.” It is the term “pro-life” (nope, you’re pro-birth — and probably not even a safe one), and the endless lexicon of female descriptors like “welfare queen” and “thirsty” and “slut” and “bossy” and “bitch.”
In what was undoubtedly a conscious editorial decision, Bennett did not offer any quotes or perspective from the husbands/fathers in the three households. I can understand the rationale — this is about the mothers’ struggles; they deserve the microphone. Still, in not including the voices of the male figures in these households, I wonder if that doubles down on signaling to society that men, despite being the catalyst for the struggle, don’t even need to be involved in the conversation on how to fix it.
After publication, social media was alight with conversation about the feature, though it was notably a majority-female commentary weighing in on the blows that women and mothers have been dealt in the past year. There was also a pile-on of chastising the men featured in the article. It’s understandable: They do appear pretty useless. Others condemned the wives: They should have hitched their wagons to more useful men. Some also lamented that male readers, especially the progressive-identifying variety, were notably absent from the reactions and hot takes. Where were they in the conversation? My suspicion is that perhaps when it really comes down to it, being the beneficiaries of the system, no matter how broken, may leave even the “wokest” of men rather quiet.
I don’t think the husbands/fathers featured in the NYT piece are bad people. I imagine that, if they’d been asked about their wives’ struggles in trying to balance it all, they’d have said something like, “I wish it could be different,” and then perhaps add, “It just makes more sense” for her to be taking care of the kids and the house and the meals and everything else.
And in a way, we couldn’t blame them for saying this, because yes, of course that would make sense to them in that way. These men have lived in a societal structure that has allowed them to flourish without question in a system designed by and for men, men who share the same bedroom but live in an alternate dimension than that of their partners who sleep beside them.
On a small scale, surely this exists — there are great fathers and partners in a system like this one, men who truly carry their weight when it comes to childcare, the household and the like. (I feel compelled to state here that my male partner is very much in this category of Exceptionally Good Men/Dads.) On a large scale, though, this is a societal problem that is nearly impossible to fix without implementing policies and legal structure that guarantee support for families. Otherwise, women are left to petition to the moral sensibility of men, the same men who have been the beneficiaries of this centuries-old immoral system.
I gave birth to my first son almost two years ago in Berlin, Germany, and received the standard social services that all residents receive: free pre- and post-natal care (including a 10-day hospital stay before and after giving birth because of complications), one year of paid maternity leave (which was through the government and based on my income from the previous year), free midwifery services prior to birth and for several months after my son was born, subsidized childcare after one year of age, and 229€ per month for every family with a child until he/she is 18 (and 229€ per month more for each child thereafter). My partner took three months of paternity leave. This is not an exhaustive list of the social benefits. There are many more.
Do I think German men would have reacted any different to this New York Times article than men in the United States did? No, I don’t. I think they too would be quite indifferent to a news article illuminating the plights of their female counterparts. But Germany has legal structures and social safety nets in place that bring women to more equal footing to their male counterparts — in the culture, the workforce and in the home. This social structure of support for women and families has been imperative in keeping women working in Germany, particularly in the last year. It has been imperative from keeping women off “the brink.” And while the gender roles are certainly alive and well in Germany, they are not nearly as extreme, and there are far fewer families that have experienced the extreme struggle when compared with their American counterparts.
This was a process in Germany to create proper family policies. (I will not call these policies generous, as they so often are described in the cultural zeitgeist, because something that is fundamental to survival should not be considered generous.) It wasn’t until 2007 that the country enacted its parental leave benefit scheme that granted parents 67 percent of their previous income, and included two “daddy months.” Before then, it was not commonplace for men to take parental leave in Germany, and it was not nearly as common to see men taking on as many domestic duties. The social structures in place created a framework for more balance at work and in the home.
U.S. Rep. Katie Porter and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (among others) have been outspoken about the need for paid maternity leave in the U.S., but I believe this argument needs to be pushed even further. If we really want to walk down Gender Equality Lane, paternal leave needs not only to be available to fathers but also offered the way it is Norway (one of the best countries in the world for mothers and families), in a “use-it-or-lose-it” fashion.
It wasn’t until 1993 that a paternal quota (initially four weeks) was introduced in Norway. Before that, less than 3 percent of men took paternity leave. Today, fathers receive 15 weeks of non-transferrable parental leave in the country; more than 90 percent of fathers in Norway take advantage of this policy.
Not only does this balance the expectation and roles of men and women in the workplace, these policies elevate men into a more participatory parental role in the home. It sets a framework for men as caregivers and active participants in domestic life, and importantly, it allows fathers to bond with their child in those fleeting early days of life.
In Germany and many of the northern European countries, it is extremely common to see the same amount of women and men pushing strollers down the sidewalk or playing with their children on the playground during a weekday. That’s because parental leave allows men to have flexibility at work, which then translates to more equality in the home.
Last November, sociologist Jessica Caruso, in an interview with Anne Helen Peterson, discussed the enormous pressure that American mothers have experienced during the pandemic, and offered up a withering critique of gender dynamics in America: “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.”
It’s true, and it doesn’t have to be this way.