Freer, Messier, Happier
These days, moms, dads, kids, grandmas—even neighbors—are sharing the work of family.
In 1946, when my grandfather mustered out of the army and married my grandmother, he set up what looked like the ideal family at the time. His wife quit her job and he started work driving a crane in a Massachusetts quarry—a job he would do for the next forty years, working up to six days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. When I asked him if he faced any challenges raising his three children, he replied, “I never did. My wife took care of all that. She brought the kids up.” This arrangement came with a rigid hierarchy: “She worked for me,” said my grandfather of his wife. “I always said, ‘You work for me.’”
By the time my mother and father met in Dracut High School in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, more and more people were starting to question this division of labor between men and women. The following year, Congress formally abolished sex discrimination at work. I was born in 1970. “I wanted to be closer to you than my father was to me,” my dad told me when I interviewed him for my book, The Daddy Shift. “I wanted to participate more in my kids’ lives.” Even so, my parents never questioned for a moment that he would make most of the money and she would change most of the diapers.
By 1988—the year I graduated from high school—only 29 percent of children lived in two-parent families with a full-time homemaking mother. And like many Baby Boomer couples, my parents split in 1991—the same year I met the woman who is today my wife. By the time we became parents in 2004, my wife and I were stepping into a family landscape that was totally different from the one my grandparents faced in 1946.
For one thing, we never assumed that one of us was the natural breadwinner and the other a natural caregiver—instead, we saw those as roles that we would share and negotiate over time. For a year, I took care of my son while my wife went to work, and as we visited San Francisco’s playgrounds, I met other stay-at-home dads, gay and lesbian parents, single mothers and fathers, and multiracial and immigrant families. I watched these disparate kinds of families manage to knit themselves into a community.
The right-wing “family values” movement has painted these trends as a crisis, but no one I know experiences them that way. Instead, we seem to share a positive (if often unarticulated) vision of the family as diverse, egalitarian, voluntary, interdependent, flexible, and improvisational. Many people hold these ideals without necessarily being conscious of their political and economic implications—and they’re not making politically motivated choices. In researching The Daddy Shift, for example, I didn’t interview any breadwinning moms and caregiving dads who adopted their reverse-traditional arrangement for feminist reasons. They almost always framed their work and care decisions as a practical matter, a response to brutally competitive labor and childcare markets.
These day-to-day challenges can prevent us from seeing the bigger picture. We tend to see decades of battles over divorce, single moms, interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, and even immigration as isolated “issues.” In fact, each of these issues is a frontline in a wider conflict over family ideals.
Each is part of a larger debate about what kind of society we want to be: one rooted in solidarity, cooperation, nurturance, and inclusiveness, the other in ideals now being most forcefully articulated by the Tea Party movement.
Today’s parents are pioneering new relationships among moms, dads, neighbors, relatives, and community, largely in response to challenging economic conditions—and they’re doing it with little or no support from marriage, divorce, and medical leave policies designed to support married, heterosexual, nuclear families. Those policies need to change, and we’re the ones who are going to have to change them.
Women at Work, Men at Home
Economics have always shaped family. For most of human history, extended families were consolidated business units, growing and making what they needed to live and then selling the surplus to other families. The sole-male-breadwinner, nuclear family came with the rise of industrial capitalism, when fathers marched off to factories and mothers tended homes that became more mechanistic and consumerist as time went on. Today, we are in the throes of another economic and technological evolution that is transforming our most intimate family relationships. As money and people move across borders, barriers against intercultural marriage are dissolving. Today, one in seven new marriages is interracial.
Meanwhile, jobs are becoming more portable, less stable, and more technically demanding—and the recession has hit hardest in male-dominated sectors of the economy.
For almost every decade for the past 100 years, more and more women have gone to college and work. Over the past three years, men have been much more likely to lose their jobs than women, who are concentrated in fast-growing, high-skill industries like health care and education. Between 2009 and 2010, men with college degrees saw their median weekly earnings drop 3 percent while the income of women with degrees grew by 4.3 percent. Today, young women’s pay exceeds that of their male peers in most metropolitan areas.
These trends have changed the way moms and dads relate to each other and to their children. As men lost the ability to reliably support families on one income, families responded by diversifying. Men have developed emotional and interpersonal skills by taking care of children—since the mid-1990s, the number of hours dads spend with kids has nearly doubled—and women have gone to school and to work. In the eyes of many couples, equity between parents has moved from a nice ideal to an urgent matter of survival.
And it’s a strange but true fact that these changes to the structure of heterosexual families are what’s driving acceptance of gay and lesbian marriage and parenthood. In August of 2010, Judge Vaughn Walker explicitly recognized this connection when he overturned Proposition 8, an amendment to California’s constitution that defined marriage as being between “one man and one woman.” In his decision, Walker wrote:
“The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage. … The exclusion [of same-sex couples] exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed.”
Extended Families Make a Comeback
But however equally moms and dads share the load, this economy is not easy on families as a whole, and parents are increasingly reaching out beyond their nuclear units to grandparents, neighbors, and friends. They’re building extended families based on both blood and affinity, and relying more and more on their communities.
As the Pew Research Center reports, “The multigenerational American family household is staging a comeback—driven in part by the job losses and home foreclosures of recent years but more so by demographic changes that have been gathering steam for decades.” Today, more Americans live in a multigenerational home than at any time in the past 50 years. According to Pew, this shift has been driven in part by the arrival of immigrants who prefer to live in communal situations—a way of life that research says helps them survive economic distress.
In a five-year longitudinal study, sociologists Ross Parke and Scott Coltrane compared how Latino and Anglo families in Riverside, Calif., coped with layoffs and money problems. They found that Latino families were astonishingly resilient, largely because they shared resources among a large network of extended family. Based on their findings, Parke and his colleagues argue that Anglo families have a great deal to learn from Latino families: “We often assume that immigration is a one-way process,” the researchers write in Greater Good magazine. “This is an oversimplified view that ignores the mutual influences between cultural groups.” In their view, the fusion of new, more equal gender roles with extended-family values like sharing and community can create a 21st-century family form “that is better anchored by extended kin, neighbors, and communities committed to the common good of our children.”
In my own community, I’ve seen their vision put into practice. My friend, Viru Gupte, grew up in India, where most marriages are still arranged by parents and communal life remains very strong. “In Indian cities, the people around you become your family,” says Viru, who was raised in Delhi. “The kids practically grow up in their neighbors’ apartments. You just walked in whenever you wanted, and they fed you.”
I met Viru because he had consciously attempted to recreate that way of life in our San Francisco neighborhood. He struck up a conversation with me one day at the neighborhood farmers market and then out of the blue invited me to an all-dad outing he had organized. “You have to work very hard to have a community here,” he later said. “It requires planning.”
Viru has taught me a lot about the relationship between family and community. I don’t think I’m alone: Motivated by a shrinking economy, native-born families are starting to integrate these attitudes and values into 21st-century family life.
My friend, Corbyn Hightower, is a bisexual, breadwinning mother, who has one child with her ex-wife Mimi and two children with her husband Larry, a stay-at-home dad. When she lost her job at the start of the recession, Corbyn and Larry decided to join forces with Mimi and her new partner, Patty. They sold their belongings in Texas and moved back to California, where Corbyn had lived with Mimi.
Today, Corbyn, Larry, Mimi, and Mimi’s partner all live within a half-mile of each other and, through many twists and turns in their personal relationships, all four have served as parents to the three children. As Corbyn writes in an essay for the site I help edit, Shareable.net:
“The agreement was always that we are in this together, and that our broken and vulnerable contingent would find strength and security in the tribe. Since that union was forged, more jobs were lost—and gained—but we weather those storms as a group, and not alone anymore. If one has a bill that cannot be paid, another is there to find spare change under couch cushions.”
Moms and Dads Speak Out
Corbyn’s family is surviving under enormous economic pressure, but she’s not getting much help from our political system. It’s never a political decision to love another person, but political decisions can support, or hurt, our personal ones. Banning same-sex marriage hurts some families, and it does nothing to strengthen heterosexual families. Fighting against paid parental leave or food stamps or health care in the name of “small government” makes life harder for all of us. It’s time for today’s families, in all our diversity, to find our political voice and reshape society.
It’s no secret what social policies could lessen inequality, nurture family diversity, and rebuild community: They include paid, mandatory leave for both parents on the birth or adoption of a child, universal early childhood education, and funneling resources to schools in poor and working-class communities. In countries like Sweden, decades of generous paternity leave have gradually leveled the domestic division of labor between mammas and pappas—and had a measurably positive impact on the health and educational outcomes of both kids and parents.
We will never realize such policies in the United States unless we as parents, both moms and dads, speak out together.
I think the first step is to follow the example of my friend Viru, and begin by talking to the people you see in your neighborhood and beyond, and helping each other out with babysitting, casual work, and sharing stuff. Viru’s case illustrates the degree to which immigrants are infusing our neighborhoods with a stronger sense of interdependence.
We can make a difference by welcoming the insight and energy of folks like him. We can also form communities that include all of today’s families. For example, we can welcome fathers into caregiving situations or take the commitments of gay and lesbian couples seriously. As part of this process, we need to articulate to each other what values make us strong and what ideals we try to live by.
It can’t stop there: Building community is critical, but I think it’s equally critical to leverage the power of that community for social change. We can help each other by voting, marching, speaking out, and clicking for the policies that will nurture all of our families.
Being an activist parent is very different from youthful activism. Total commitment to the cause is not usually possible, at least when kids are young, because it competes with commitments to our partners and children. But raising a child has taught me many things about social change: to be patient and persistent, to try to see the world through the eyes of others, and to never give up on the people in my life.
Fatherhood in my family did not change overnight; it took three generations, and it would be silly to think that evolution will stop with me. We stand on the shoulders of the generations before us—and our children will stand on ours.