Is Caring For Others ‘Important Enough’ For Men To Do It?

We’ll never have gender equality until men do their fair share of the caregiving.

Dad lovingly hugs his toddler in a park, surrounded by autumn leaves
Cropped Photo by Irena Carpaccio on Unsplash

“I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” my husband says, as he gets dressed for his second weekly volunteer shift in our daughter’s kindergarten class.

“Please, they need you,” I beg. “For some of these kids, the hour you’re there might be the only time all week they see a nurturing man.”

“I’ve just got a lot of other stuff I need to do.”

“Um, yeah, me too,” I say, wondering why it’s my emotional job to both volunteer my own time, and to convince him to volunteer his. “Just think: all day every day, it’s just women there with those kids.”

“Yeah, I think all the women are teachers, but the principal’s a man.” He gets it. “Okay, maybe I’ll keep doing it.”

I could volunteer in my daughter’s classroom every single day, but none of it would teach those children that men can be helpers too. Nothing I can do will teach them caregiving is important enough ‘even for men’ to do it.

A new Women in the Workplace study is out, by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, compiling massive data to show us we’re not imagining it: when it comes to jobs, women and people of color continue to be underrepresented at every level. For women of color, it’s especially bad.

The main takeaway here is we’re being held back not by some high-up glass ceiling, but rather a broken rung. Women — particularly women of color — aren’t represented at the tippity top of companies because we can’t get on the ladder at all. We’re far less likely to be promoted or hired to an initial managerial position, so we’re less represented in the applicant pool for higher openings.

This is fascinating and important data, and these top-down problems deserve attention and solutions. The data shows black women and women with disabilities face the most barriers to advancement and receive the least managerial support.

But there’s a piece here no one’s talking about. It’s what played out in that conversation with my husband, and it has to do with our personal and societal expectations about what sort of work is valuable and who should do it.

My husband and I are both self-employed in the gig economy — I’m a writer, and he’s a professional D&D dungeon master. Both of us work with flexible schedules and no bosses to promote us or not. And yet, I feel it’s my responsibility to volunteer in the classroom, since I’m able. For him, he questions whether it’s important enough to be worth his time.

Why?

I was socialized to see myself as successful if I was a loving caregiver. He was socialized to see himself as successful if he accomplished something that made money.

Right before our daughter was born, my husband considered going back to school to be a teacher. When he told his father, he replied, “Sure, because then you could become a principal!”

Our gendered socialization is a lot to unpack.

Men are assumed to be career-driven. Women are told if we’re career-driven, we must be failures at nurturing: it’s presented like a choice, with an unachievable dream of having it all always hanging over us, reminding us we’re failures.

We literally can’t have it all. None of us can. Our lives are constant priority negotiations. For me, any success I achieve will come bundled with me as a loving caregiver, with emotions and empathy. I’m not prepared to give that up. I don’t think I should have to. But I want a society that raises men to value caregiving as well.

We should all be caregivers. Why are any of us even alive, if not to be caregivers?

When we socialize females to value providing care, and we socialize males to value providing money — and our institutions value money — is it any wonder institutions value men? And is it any wonder more women do nurturing work, without any institutional recognition of how important that work is?

I want a society and an economy that prioritizes relationships and quality of life. Is that really too much to ask for?

Women-dominated jobs usually focus on caregiving and usually receive low (or no) pay. If more men entered these nurturing industries, those men would benefit from the empathetic experience, those they helped would benefit from their care, and our patriarchal society might finally shift toward seeing nurturing work as important work.

  • 89% of elementary school teachers are female. Teachers are notoriously underpaid.
  • 91.7% of childcare workers are female, with abysmal wages averaging $15,037.
  • 78% of healthcare and social assistance workers are female. But female physicians on average earn 26.5% less than male physicians.
  • 83% of stay-at-home parents are moms, and of course, parenting is all unpaid labor.

Even when dads do stay at home with their kids, they are far less likely than moms to report they’re doing it “to care for their home or family.” 78% of stay-at-home moms report caring for family as their reason for being home, while only 24% of stay-at-home dads do. Dads usually try to justify being home, while moms generally aren’t ashamed to announce their choice to be home with family.

Please, men, realize the power in nurturing, and show up: with love, with care, with humor, with strength.

The 37-page Women in the Workplace report has just one mention of caregiving, in a case study on a company that increased parental leave postpartum for the primary caregiver. It’s not nearly enough.

Yes, caregivers need much, much more paid leave. But we need to undo this entire idea that there is a primary caregiver.

We should all be caregivers. Why are any of us even alive, if not to be caregivers?

Sweden is famous for its generous, government-funded parental leave system, providing paid family leave for 480 days (16 months) per child. Single parents can utilize the entire 480 days. For two-parent families, 90 days are specifically allotted to each parent, with the remaining days available for either parent.

If a parent doesn’t use their paid leave, they lose it, so there’s great incentive for all parents to take months of time away from work, at home with their family. There is also an “equality bonus”: the more days divided equally between parents, the higher the monetary bonus.

Photographer Johan Bävman’s photo essay Swedish Dads features portraits of fathers who chose to stay at home with their child for at least six months. Try looking at these photos without crying at the realization of how rare these sorts of images are, at the great societal loss we take for granted as normal.

Here’s the photographer with his own child and the caption “Sådan far sådan son” (Like father like son):

Sweden’s policy directly attempts to promote gender equity, and we need more policies like that throughout the world.

Yes, women benefit if they personally get paid family leave. But generous amounts of use-it-or-lose-it leave for all parents — not just one parent deemed the primary caregiver — benefits the parents who use it, the parents who can work while their partner stays with the children, the children themselves, and society as a whole.

We need to work towards a society that values caregiving.

Companies and governments need to work harder on comprehensive paid family leave.

But there’s a lot we can do on our own. Let’s give baby dolls to every child, not just the children with vulvas. Let’s nurture our friendships. Let’s find ways to be helpers. And let’s explore the subtle ways we raise only some children to value empathy.

In a study in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, authors Ana Aznar and Harriet Tenenbaum found mothers are more likely to use emotional words and emotional content when speaking with their 4-year-old daughters than with their 4-year-old sons.

When research like this comes out, misogynistic voices always yell, “Well, it’s the mothers’ fault then! They’re the ones raising kids that way, so they’re the problem.”

Here’s the thing: it’s mothers doing it, because women are doing the bulk of the caregiving. Please, men, realize the power in nurturing, and show up: with love, with care, with humor, with strength.

“Children imitate same-gendered models more than different-gendered models,” study co-author Tenenbaum told TIME. “So they are taught that emotions are more acceptable for women than for men.”

Men, please show the world you feel emotions too. Give care to others, and don’t be afraid to admit it.

Women can’t do this alone. I could volunteer in my daughter’s classroom every single day, and my work there might be helpful, but none of it would teach those children that men can be helpers too. Nothing I can do will teach them caregiving is important enough even for men to do it.

My husband plans to keep volunteering. His mother also volunteers in the school.

And yesterday, my daughter asked her Grandpa a very good question: “Grandpa, when are you going to start volunteering at my school?”

Written by

Empathy for the win! Published in Gen, Human Parts, Heated, Tenderly —Feminism, Sexuality, Veganism, Anti-Racism, Parenting. She/They darcyreeder.substack.com

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