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Should We Mandate Caregiving?

We can no longer ignore the caregiving crisis in the U.S. that’s only going to get worse, and we need men to pay attention

I was standing in line at the grocery store this weekend when I watched a paramedic truck and a fire truck pull up to the front. In hurried about five men, and I watched as they began talking and administering to a boy, around 13- to 15-years-old, who was seated at the front of the store. He didn’t look in any sort of distress, but still.

Where are the men?

Despite the fact that 1 in 6 custodial parents are dads and there are about 2.6 million stay-at-home fathers, as well as the millions of Gen-X and Millennial men who are hands-on dads, we still don’t tend to see men as primary — or even equal — caregivers. They “help out.”

It’s clear that American fathers are increasingly serving as “lead parents” and doing so without the social norms or workplace policies necessary to support them. Just as they hinder women’s equal participation in the workforce, rigid gender roles keep men stuck in harmful cultural stasis. Subsumed by a culture of overwork that penalizes them for taking time off for family-care responsibilities, men too face dire consequences from our failure to value care. Failing to involve men in the conversation about care as a core component of gender equality only calcifies harmfully rigid social norms about gender overall.

And those calcified “harmfully rigid” and gendered social norms are why we automatically think a mom should show up to care for a child in need of medical assistance instead of a dad. Does this bother anyone but me? I hope it does.

Changing the conversation

Slaughter heard from many men, including gay men, in the wake of her much-discussed “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” article, who told her, “How dare you frame this as a woman’s issue?” and “I am not any happier with my role as a mandated breadwinner than women used to be as the mandated caregiver. I want to be able to spend more time with my children.” That, thankfully, made her reframe the discussion. Now she advocates for getting rid of language like “stay-at-home mom” and “stay-at-home dad” and instead talk about “working fathers” and “working mothers.”

Changing reality

Maybe we moms don’t really want to give up being the No. 1 person our child wants when he or she is sick or sad or overwhelmed at the end of a long way or just excited to share something. Maybe dads don’t really want to be home with the kids, which a recent Gallup poll indicates. And if we continue along those lines, then we will never reach some sort of equitable solution and caregiving will still be seen as women’s work. Despite the essential role caregiving plays in society, it is not given the status it deserves. Until it is, I’m convinced women will never reach equality. And, sadly, men will still be pigeonholed as breadwinners.

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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