Some Thoughts on Men, Women, Children and Work

So far as I can see, men have mostly stayed out of the debate over Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” But it seems to me one of the reasons women have this debate — and too often, in my view, judge one another’s choices harshly — is that men don’t see it as too relevant to them, or, if they do, they think it more prudent to keep their mouths shut. Maybe. But I don’t know how things will change unless men join in. So I have a few comments.

I can see why it resonated so strongly with so many women. So many younger women, anyway. I first became aware of the piece at a dinner party a few days before its publication. A few of the other guests were prominent feminists in their late sixties. One had been asked to comment or blog on the Slaughter piece, and went on a tear about how it would undermine the hard-won gains of women in the workplace. Nobody else at the table had read the piece yet, but the three other women of her generation seemed to agree with her take. I know Anne-Marie Slaughter a little bit from professional encounters — I guest-taught her class at Harvard once some years back, and was among the respondents a few months ago when she gave a major lecture at NYU — and said I would be surprised if the piece was as retrograde as my dining companion had characterized it. Indeed, when the Atlantic came in the mail a few days later and I read it, my instincts had been right. It is thoughtful and measured, and captures the real struggles that many women I know deal with. (Women of a certain income and professional level, to be sure – but Slaughter doesn’t claim to be speaking for anyone else.)

In our age of viral media, the piece raced across the internet, and in the next few days it was posted on Facebook by dozens of female friends and colleagues — with few exceptions under 50, and usually under 40, sometimes with a noncommittal query (“What do you think of this?), but more often with a shout-out (“What she said!” or “this captures much better than I could what I have been experiencing”). I sometimes think that those who fought the great fights for civil and human rights in the 1960s and 70s (I am just young enough to have missed the peak years of those, but I know a great many of the people who led the way) feel they can give no quarter, acknowledge no nuance or ambivalence, that to do so would give aid and comfort to the oppressor or turn back the clock. I think I can understand and appreciate this impulse to represent, a prominent tendency in revolutionary generations. But young people, though they may often be too blithely unappreciative of the fights that paved the way for them, usually don’t see things in such binary terms.

When my daughters were growing up, their mother (to whom I am no longer married) was a strong feminist of the baby boom generation who also believed in a very engaged kind of parenting, in particular that children needed their mothers nearby during their nursing years. So she organized her life — we organized our lives — around those beliefs. She worked at home (as a bookkeeper and artist) when the children were young or took them into the office or studio with her. When she became a childbirth educator, her classes were usually in the evenings, and I came home from work in time to be with the girls, or pick them up from dance class or playdates), make or buy them dinner, and put them to bed. The deal, 1950’s style, was that I would make most of the money (augmenting my non-profit salary with freelance writing jobs that kept me up at the kitchen table late many evenings), and she would provide most of the child care. I was engaged, but not the primary or nearly equal caregiver. As the girls got older, things equalized, though the division of labor was not always predictable along gender lines (she rewired lamps and dealt with the boiler, I was active in the PTA).

At the moment I find myself at 57 — in a kind of sabbatical in between full-time jobs, with flexible hours — an extremely engaged grandfather, spending a few mornings a week pushing a stroller in brownstone Brooklyn. I see a few fathers in the playground, and even some other grandparents (though it’s dangerous to make assumptions). I see lots of mothers, most carting around children who seem to be too old for them to be on maternity leave. And I see mostly paid caregivers – with few exceptions, brown-skinned women tending to tow-headed boys and girls. I spend so much time with my grandson Sam because I can — because I have the economic flexibility to do it — and because I want to. I’ve had a rich and celebrated career, and I expect to continue it, but for now, among all my activities, this seems like the most important thing I can do.

I also do it because I don’t know how my daughter would cope otherwise. She left her job as a newspaper editor after four months of unpaid maternity leave (and self-paid health insurance premiums, all of which her mother and I helped to cover) and now works as a freelance writer. She has a column to write, several blogs to feed and edit, two young-adult novels to finish on deadline, and a husband who is working hard to start his own photography business. In our entirely privatized non-system of child care, if she could find someone to mind Sam who she was comfortable with, the cost of paying that person a living wage would eat up any money she would make. Fortunately for her she has close family nearby, and her mother and sister and I provide about half a week of free childcare. If she lived in Scandinavia, the state would pay her to stay at home, or provide safe and decent childcare as a matter of right, like public schools or fire departments. But she lives in America, and you have to figure it out, and pay for it, on your own.

One of the great public policy mysteries to me is why we don’t have a movement for, and a raging public debate about, the lack of good, accessible and affordable child care in this country. Maybe it’s because the right keeps tying us up in knots trying to keep the rights to contraception and abortion without which there can be no equality. Channeling our energies into such a movement in which women and men could join across generations seems to me a much more productive course than the one we’re on, where mothers are made to feel guilty about working, or not working, outside the home.

Besides as a father and grandfather, I relate to this debate as a manager. I’ve run several large enterprises, and supervised hundreds of employees, and while the organizations’ personnel policies were usually relatively generous by American standards, they rarely suited the real lives of employees with children. I’ve mostly had women work for me as senior staff and program directors, so my view of this may be skewed, but in twenty or more years of management I don’t recall ever having a man ask for more than perfunctory parental leave, ask to work at home so he could manage childcare, either on a regular basis or because his child was sick one morning, or say he had to miss a meeting for a child’s doctor’s appointment or parent-teacher conference — all matters raised regularly by working mothers, and supported by me as their boss, as any such request by a working father would have been. Reading Anne-Marie Slaughter, I see there are such men, at least at the State Department. And if their ranks are growing, that’s welcome. But until more men take responsibility for these parenting needs, and are open about it with their employers, I don’t see how things will change.

When I read Sheryl Sandberg’s article a few months ago, coming out of the closet about leaving work at 5:30 each night to be home for dinner with her children, I thought of the two most efficient colleagues I have ever had. Both were mothers of school-age children who were out the door like clockwork each day at 5. I’ve never worked with anyone, male or female, more reliable, able or productive. In fact, I’ve over the years observed most of the time an inverse relationship between productivity and late hours. Sure, some people work at a slower or more deliberate pace. But usually, the person who is hunched over the computer in the office at 9 pm when the cleaners are coming around, or on weekends is either there to be seen or because they aren’t very organized or disciplined.