My story about whether the gender roles can be fully reversed – a subject that has continually intrigued me – on the New York Times Motherlode Blog:
There has been a lot of talk about the desire for 50/50 parenting on Motherlode and of course the complaint that women still have the “second shift.” But even if the man does all the work that women traditionally do, as my husband happily does, therefore leaving the mother fully freed to take on the role traditionally played by the father, is the problem solved? Did I manage to reverse the gender roles and be the “father” who goes to work at the law firm? Nope.
Six and half years after the birth of our twin daughters and almost five months after the birth of our third daughter, my husband has truly been the hands-on parent. We have never had a nanny nor a babysitter — not through their rocky beginning after a two-month neonatal intensive care unit stay, not through their terrible twos and threes. We have not even had a housekeeper. In the nearly seven years I have been working as a litigator at a large law firm, he has never asked me to come home earlier, or do any household chores. I am slightly embarrassed to say that I am not entirely sure how to work our washer/dryer. And yes, our apartment is pretty clean and our twins are pretty good kids due in large part to his excellent parenting.
For the first few years, I drove myself crazy with guilt when I missed their bedtime (a frequent occurrence) and felt as if I was not billing hours for the firm or seeing the twins, that I was doing something wrong. I turned down almost all non mandatory work or social events in the evenings. I had to make it to every pediatrician appointment. The twins took the earliest “gym” class offered in our neighborhood so I could attend some of it and run to work late, often making it up late in the evenings. I felt compelled to squeeze in a few drop ins on the “mommy and me” preschool they did in the afternoons when they were 2 years old. All I remember about those drop ins is that I was answering e-mails on my BlackBerry most of the time I was there, and that the caregivers in the class were overwhelmingly nannies, with a few moms, and, of course, my husband, his six-foot-four-inch frame looking quite out of place crouched by the play kitchen.
Eventually I realized trying to do all this while working full-time as a big firm litigator was tearing me apart. I needed more time with my kids. I swallowed my ego, and asked for a reduction in my hours (and pay) at the firm to 80%, which made it slightly easier on me emotionally and physically, though of course not on us financially. This was something that, pre-twins, I would have never thought I would do. It is not typically something a father would do to help a stay-at-home wife. It is something, however, that I have never regretted.
I understand fathers feel substantial guilt as well about working too much and missing kids’ events – balancing work and family is not just a woman’s issue. They want to make it home for their kids’ bedtime too. But I could not fully step in the fatherly role even with that caveat. I believe there was something pulling me home that most fathers do not feel, even though I had someone at home doing absolutely everything that needed to be done, and usually doing it better than I could (yes, my husband even changes diapers better than I do!).
Is this biology? Social norms developed over centuries? A few months after the birth of my third daughter, I think biology plays a larger role than I previously thought. I cannot readily discount the physical process of pregnancy, labor and nursing. I am the one with the breasts, after all, that were designed to nourish the baby I birthed. We are not penguins or seahorses – it is the woman who carries the fetus and is uniquely equipped to feed it. Instead of latching the baby onto my breast where she suckles the warm milk, her little body nestled close to mine, I am forced to use a motor with odd-looking silicone tubes and plastic flanges to extract the milk from my breasts every three hours, usually wearing a bra that allows me to do this while simultaneously typing e-mails.
It is with this in mind that I trade my sweatpants for my suits, and prepare to go back to work after my maternity leave, breast pump and framed photo of my infant in hand. I am pulled between my primordial desire to care for my children and my post-feminist desire to use the skills I have honed over the past decade to earn a living for my family and let my more than willing and capable husband stay home and take care of the dirty dishes and diapers.