Egalitarian Marriage and Parenting. Making it Work Part 1: Egalitarian Australia’s intriguing little secret

January 16, 2017

 

The introduction to Annabel Crabb’s excellent (and funny!) book The Wife Drought provides a depressingly clear picture of the gender inequality that doggedly persists in Australian society.

 


‘Of Australian couple families with kids under the age of fifteen, 60 percent have a dad who works full-time, and a mum who works either part-time or not at all. How many families have a mum who works full-time, and a dad who is at home or works part-time? Three percent.[1]

 


She concludes: ‘This is free-and-easy, egalitarian Australia’s intriguing little secret; our attachment to the male-breadwinner model is deep and robust.’[2]

 


Childless couples fare better of course – though there is much evidence that even here women do more than 50 percent of household work, even when both partners work (outside the home) full-time.

 


Many older Australians remain pragmatic about these facts. “That’s just how it was,” my mother tells me when I ask why she left the medical profession to stay at home and raise three children full-time while my father completed his specialist training.

 


Many younger Australians too, accept these patterns all too easily – they are what we know, after all. But a growing number of Millennials (now in their 20’s and 30’s and entering marriages and having children) appear to have been caught unawares.

 


A growing body of research by social scientists reveals that young men today have more egalitarian attitudes about family, career and gender roles than any generation before them. ‘The majority of young men and women say they would ideally like to equally share earning and caregiving with their spouse,’ reports one sociologist.[3] Yet the evidence also shows that most of these men and women will fail to achieve these goals. When faced with the usual obstacles – financial issues or aspirations, childcare, lack of workplace flexibility – most will fall back on traditional roles. As Tracy Moore, writing for feminist website Jezebel, puts it, Millennial dads are “hitting the fatherhood glass ceiling.”[4]

 


Some of the responses might be comical if they weren’t so heartbreaking. Men say, ‘I didn’t realise how much of a ding it would be on my career.’[5] One researcher’s work is summarised with this statement: ‘Young men want equal relationships but find them hard to pull off in the real world.’[6]


There is one finding, though, that gives me more pause for thought. A significant difference in attitude can be seen between couples who are childless and those who are parents: Only 35 percent of employed millennial men without children favoured a traditional family model (men as breadwinners, women as caregivers). But that figure rose to 53 percent among men who already had children.[7]


One explanation for this stark difference is what sociologists call a ‘values stretch’ – something that happens when people find themselves behaving in ways inconsistent with their ideals. Stephanie Coontz, writing for the New York Times in 2013, writes:


‘When you can’t change what’s bothering you, one typical response is to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually bother you. So couples often create a family myth about why they made these choices, why it has turned out for the best, and why they are still equal in their hearts even if they are not sharing the kind of life they first envisioned.’[8]


So, if you end up living out more traditional gender roles than you aspired to, it might just be easier (and less painful) to convince yourself that it’s somehow better this way.


According to many commentators,[9] the real obstacle to gender equality in marriage and parenting – what stops people from living out their ideals - is the workplace.


‘Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalisations that do not reflect their preferences.’[10]


The solution? Family friendly workplace policies. Claire Cain Miller concludes:


‘Changes in the way American’s work come more slowly than shifts in personal expectations. But now that millennials are the largest generation in the work force, and as they climb the executive ranks, they might shape policies that more fully reflect the way they want to balance their lives.’[11]


They might.
But forgive me if I’m not all that impressed.


It’s true – workplace policies do affect our choices. And of course, work and income issues are significant considerations when considering parenting and childcare arrangements. I am all for systemic and structural and cultural change.


But I also think there is something deeper going on. Something not just external, but internal. As Christians we know that it is not just actions, or stated beliefs that matter, but our hearts. We understand that gender inequality is not just a social, cultural, or workplace problem, but a heart problem.


What both Moore and Miller skip gaily over in their eagerness to defend Millennial men, is that their commitment to equality doesn’t seem to go very far.


Here’s a fuller picture:


‘Eighty percent of the women and 70 percent of the men Ms. Gerson interviewed said they wanted an egalitarian relationship that allowed them to share breadwinning and family care. But when asked what they would do if this was not possible, they described a variety of ‘fallback’ positions. While most of the women wanted to continue paid employment, the
majority of men said that if they could not achieve their egalitarian ideal they expected their partner to assume primary responsibility for parenting so they could focus on work.’ (emphasis mine).[12]


It seems the Millennial generation’s egalitarian ideals are simply that.


Coontz describes this lurking traditionalism as a reasonable response to the political and economic realities of our world – the gender pay gap, lack of job flexibility, and the extra pressures on mothers in the work force, for example.[13] It just makes more sense, it makes more financial sense, it’s easier… to adopt a traditional model. She writes of couples being ‘
forced to behave in ways that contradict their ideals.’


What disturbs me though, is just how easily these men and women ‘fall back’ into traditionalism. How readily we accept that we ‘just can’t make it work’ any other way. How quickly the assumptions and expectations about who will do what are made. And how naturally we shift the blame to others (the workplace, lack of affordable childcare, government policies…).


I don’t think it’s true to say we can’t live out our ideals. I think, we just don’t.


And that’s why I want to talk about our hearts.


Stephanie Coontz’s New York Times piece is essential reading, but I stopped short here at these words in her conclusion:


‘Our goal should be to develop work-life policies that enable people to put their gender values into practice. So let’s stop arguing about the hard choices women make and
help more women and men avoid such hard choices…” [emphasis mine].


I’ll say it again, I think workplace structures, systems and cultures need to change radically for the sake of both women and men. I agree, one of our goals should be to develop work-life policies that can enable more people to put their gender values into practice. But systems are not the only things that need to change, these options may never come without cost, and eliminating all hard choices for individuals may prove to be counter productive.


As a pastor, I want to help Christian men and women to face - not avoid - hard choices, and to pursue their values even if it costs them.


Good things are not often easy. The road is hard that leads to life.




 

Hannah Craven is an Anglican minister in a church in North Carlton - on the fringe of Melbourne city. Wife to Tom & mother to Liam & Amber.
 


[1] Annabel Crabb, The Wife Drought, (North Sydney: Random House, 2014), Kindle edition, loc 117 of 3865.

[2] Ibid., loc 123 of 3865.

[3] Sarah Thébaud, sociologist at the University of California, as reported by Claire Cain Miller, “Millennial Men Aren’t the Dads They Thought They’d Be,” The New York Times, July 30, 2015. Accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/31/upshot/millennial-men-find-work-and-family-hard-to-balance.html?_r=0

​[4] Tracy Moore, “Millennial Dads: Trying Hard, Hitting the Fatherhood Glass Ceiling,” Jezebel, June 8, 2015. Accessed online at http://jezebel.com/millennial-dads-trying-hard-hitting-the-fatherhood-gl-1721407147

[5] Miller, “Millenial Men,” quote from Laura Sherbin, Director of Research at the Center for Talent Innovation.

[6] Miller, “Millennial Men,” writing about the research of Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University, and her 2010 book, The Unfinished revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family.

[7] Miller, “Millennial Men,” citing a study from the Families and Work Institute.

[8] Stephanie Coontz, ‘Why Gender Equality Stalled,’ The New York Times, Feb 16 2013, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/opinion/sunday/why-gender-equality-stalled.html?_r=0

[9] See for example Miller, “Millennial Men,” Moore, “Millennial Dads”, and Coontz, “Why Gender Equality Stalled.”[2] Coontz, “Gender Equality.”[3] Miller, “Millennial Men.”[4] Coontz, “Gender Equality.”

[10] Coontz, "Gender Equality"

[11] Miller, "Milennial Men"

[12] Coontz, "Gender Equality"


[13] Ibid.

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