Never mind the maternal imperative—my years as a stay-at-home dad were my best so far | Bleader

Never mind the maternal imperative—my years as a stay-at-home dad were my best so far


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Can dads comfort babies as well as moms can?
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  • Can dads comfort babies as well as moms can?
I'm glad Anne-Marie Slaughter thinks parenting should be more appreciated in our culture. But her essay in the current Atlantic—"Why Women Still Can't Have It All"—didn't make me feel her pain.

Slaughter quit a senior state department job, in part, she writes, because she felt her two adolescent sons needed her at home. Now she's back at Princeton giving them her attention, while also teaching a full course load, writing print and online foreign policy columns, giving 40 to 50 speeches a year, appearing regularly on TV and radio, and working on a new academic book. She no longer, however, can sip champagne with foreign dignitaries at Washington receptions.

As she realized that she couldn't have it all, "The feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet," she says.

I consider myself a feminist, but I don't consider "having it all" a feminist belief. It's a creed, I think, for certain privileged Americans. At least Slaughter acknowledges, deep in her lengthy essay, that she's "writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place."

Slaughter also says that while she doesn't think fathers love their children less than mothers do, "men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job."

I think that's certainly true, and unfortunate. But Slaughter goes on:

Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.

This belief in a "maternal imperative" that "may be more than" something socialized into us is distinctly unfeminist, troublesome, and, I think, wrong.

I was concerned about this "maternal imperative" in 1979, when my wife was pregnant with our first child. We wanted one of us to stay home with the child, at least part-time. I was a freelance writer then; my wife worked a government job with inflexible hours. I loved my work, and was committed to it—but it made more sense for me to be the "primary caregiver."

I was willing to try—but I worried about it. Since women are pregnant for nine months, and only women can breastfeed, might mothers also have an instinctive ability to comfort an infant that dads don't have? I hadn't babysat when I was young, so I wasn't experienced at comforting babies. My wife was good at it.

I did a lot of reading on this issue before our daughter was born, and my wife and I talked it over—and we both ended up doubting the maternal-instinct thing. So I stayed home, and my wife went back to work. She breastfed our daughter (and our son when he was born three years later) each morning before she left for work, and each evening when she got home. She spent early-morning and late-evening hours expressing milk that I fed to our babies.

But as for comforting an infant: I was glad to learn that there seemed to be no magic, sex-specific ability. When a baby cries, she or he is delighted to be comforted by whoever's interested.

And so couples who decide that mom should be the stay-at-home parent, or, when both parents work, the one to answer the call when a child has to stay home sick from school—those couples are making a social decision. It's a maternal imperative only in the way that grocery shopping and laundry is a women's thing.

I worked half-time for the Reader until our younger child was in middle school, and then gradually increased my working hours. Now the kids are grown, and the work hours have continued to gradually increase; my wife and friends may be right that my work-life balance was better when the kids were little.

I loved those at-home parenting years more than any so far. What a great combination: the rewards and pleasures of nurturing children, along with a professional gig that kept domesticity from becoming claustrophobic.

I know that many people—women and men alike—can't as easily put their careers on hold and then return to them. I suspect, however, that more people—men especially—can do this more than admit they can.

Would I have had more success as a writer if I'd spent those earlier years focused on my craft? Maybe, but I don't really care.

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