Introducing Men’s Voice Into the Parenting Debate

Work-life balance is easy for most young lawyers. Or perhaps just easier, as compared to older associates and partners. Despite the greater flexibility and control that comes with seniority in law, most people at this age also have significant family and parenting responsibilities that the majority of young lawyers do not.

It’s probably disconcerting for young lawyers to hear that the whirlwind of work they currently experience will only get more complicated with the introduction of children. The current assumption is that this becomes more bearable with the assistance of a supportive partner. But there are some who suggest this isn’t enough, and that broader, systemic change is needed.

Stephen Marche’s column in The Atlantic this week argues a different angle in the work-life balance debate. He proposes that the main conflict in heterosexual families isn’t between men and women, it’s with the family against money.

Men are very much part of the discussion within families on balancing work and life, as families jointly struggle to figure out how they fulfill parenting duties and maintain careers of both parents. Marche references Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much discussed piece from last summer, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. He concludes that men can’t have it all either,

The solution to the work-life conundrum is not “enlisting men” (as Slaughter puts it) in the domestic sphere. The solution is establishing social supports that allow families to function. The fact is, men can’t have it all, for the same reason women can’t: whether or not the load is being shared 50-50 doesn’t matter if the load is still unbearable. It will not become bearable once women lean in, or once the consciousness is raised, or once men are full partners, always, in domestic life. It will become bearable when decidedly more quotidian things become commonplace—like paid parental leave and affordable, quality day care (which Sandberg and Slaughter both advocate).

Parental leave does exist in many law firms, and there are great strides in allowing women to take absences to care for children. But for men, it’s still a death blow to their legal career. In large measure this answers Marche’s question, as it relates to the legal industry, on “Where is the chorus of men asking for paternity leave?”

Marche refers to a new Pew study, Modern Parenthood, which indicates that American mothers and fathers both find it difficult balancing family responsibilities and their careers. Fathers actually express more concerns that they are spending too little time with their children than mothers do.

Although mothers are spending less proportionate time on housework based on responsibilities fathers have taken on, they still spend more time than fathers on childcare. However, the amount of time fathers have spent with their children has nearly tripled since 1965. The division of labour is even more pronounced in dual income housholds,

When paid work, child care and housework are combined, parents in dual-income households have a more equal division of labor than parents in single-earner households.

What that means is that the struggle for flex-time and a move away from assessing performance through billable hours is just as much a priority for men as it is for women. If it isn’t for young male lawyers now, it will be within a few years, and they should start paying attention now.

Marche notes that if family issues are typecast as only women’s issues they are far more easily dismissed. He points out that gay rights activists achieved far more success when they focused on creating and supporting families than they did when focusing exclusively on rights as an oppressed minority,

Gloria Steinem’s famous declaration that “women’s liberation will be men’s liberation, too” is true. The opposite is also true. Real liberation will not be one against the other, but both together.


  1. Part of the problem for participatory fathers, though, is that their role in the family is essentially a revocable parole, in that courts that have not adapted to the new realities: judges can — and all too frequently do — turn them into Mr. Every-Other-Weekend, no matter how extensive their former role in the family, results which seem to be coming from both the traditionalist and modern progressive sides of the bench. Moreover, progressive men have seen zero assistance from either academic or legal feminism in addressing this equality. There’s lip service, certainly, but only that; the efforts go the other way, as can be seen from the fact that some of the more comically unfair alimony laws in the USA are coming under feminist scrutiny now that women are increasingly becoming the payors.

    There is an increasing amount of sociological data (much from the US, which is ahead of us on noting the numbers) that younger men are less likely to see marriage and family as a positive good, and are evading in and greater and greater numbers. (The last figure that I saw was that only about one in four men under thirty saw marriage and family as something important to them, for example, about two thirds the rate of women in the same age group.) Some commenters (such as Kay Hymowitz, for example, in her sexist, sneering tome Manning Up) blame the young men for “choosing” an extended adolescence. The reality, however, is rather simpler: the predictable outcomes of incentive and disincentive. If a young man becomes a more involved father but will receive no recognition of that fact when the marriage ends, why should he commit in that fashion to marriage and family? They accurately perceive the deck to be stacked, and the rules always changeable against them: a woman who sacrifices a part of her career for her children loses that part of her career, but gets to “keep” the family; a man who does the same does not, and that inequality is becoming more commonly noticed, despite academic and elite consensus that it would be best if that reality went not only unresolved, but unaddressed. (It was amusing as hell to watch the Globe frantically shut down all the comment boards online when it appeared that most of its readers agreed with the SCC’s recent “Lola” decision, and were saying so.) If we want equality the efforts of both genders have to be recognized; it not, it’s merely a disgusting fight over the swing of the pendulum.