Picking up my son from daycare this week, I somehow managed to hold a diaper bag, a lunch sack, a tote with extra baby clothes, a car seat and a toddler while walking to the car. After getting in the car without dropping anything – or anyone – I found myself reflecting on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s recent call to women to “lean in” to their careers, to embrace their ambition to be leaders in their work. She has a point, considering that women are notably underrepresented in government and executive positions, while making up half the work force and more than half of college graduates and advanced degree holders.
Women have offered Sandberg much criticism and acclaim as she advances her message, from Oprah Winfrey and Gloria Steinem to Anne-Marie Slaughter and Maureen Dowd.
In this public debate, men “have been less voluble,” wrote Belinda Luscombe for Time. “This is no-win territory for them.”
We must not accept the conclusion that this conversation is off-limits for men. In fact, if men do not participate meaningfully in questions of work-life balance, parental responsibilities and the economics of family leave, then we are in “no-win territory” for everyone – men, women and children.
On this front, there is much that men can learn from feminists (and from self-described “sort-of feminists” like Sandberg). One benefit of the feminist movement is women’s awakening to the necessity of making intentional, deliberate choices about family and career. Girls seem to get this message from a young age, while boys’ development in this regard is taken for granted or ignored.
The scarcity of paid paternity is one factor that cultivates an environment in which men aren’t encouraged to think about these issues or make collaborative, intentional choices to balance family and work.
As Catherine Rampell wrote in The New York Times, “A man spending a few weeks at home with his newborn can help recast expectations and gender roles, at work and home, for a long time.”
This needn’t be the exclusive domain of touchy-feely New Age dads. As Sandberg puts it, “We also need men to lean into their families more, especially since research has consistently found that children with involved and loving fathers have higher levels of psychological well-being and better cognitive abilities.”
However, there is still a cultural stigma against stay-at-home dads, who in 2011 represented only 3.4 percent of dads. A friend (call him Jack) recently told me a story about his son-in-law (call him Fred), who is a stay-at-home father. When this arrangement started, Jack recalls asking his son, “What does Fred do all day?” Jack’s son responded, “If it were your daughter staying home with the kids, would you even give it a second thought?” Jack never asked that question again.
Here is another area where men can learn from feminists, since there exists a parallel stigma against successful, ambitious women. Studies show that both men and women view assertiveness and ambition in women as negative traits (think “bossy”), whereas both characteristics count as positives in men (think “strong leader”). I believe that our society still judges men who choose to “stay at home” as lacking ambition and drive and failing to live up to our stereotypical visions of masculinity. As long as this stigma remains, it negatively impacts men, women and families.
In an unexpected way, perhaps same-gender marriage can help change the culture, as it becomes more common and accepted. Same-sex coupling precludes falling back on stereotypical gender roles in marriage and family and demands self-conscious choices around who will lean in at work and who at home. Heterosexual couples would do well to learn from homosexual couples that each family must determine for itself the arrangement of parenting and career that works best.
In my own life, I’m lucky to be in a professional role that supports flexible parenting choices and gives me a healthy degree of freedom in making work-life balance decisions, such as paid paternity leave. I’m grateful to have a loving partner who is committed to making these choices together. We are lucky to live in a community that respects hiking, yoga and skiing as legitimate weekday activities and to have friends and a support network who will step in to help each other with child care and other family needs.
In the end, leaning in isn’t just about our individual choices. Leaning in at work or at home requires leaning on someone else, at home or at work. Every family will be able to decide how and when to lean into parenting and career when we all can lean on a cultural and legal framework that supports and enables our healthiest choices. And then we might have the privilege of leaning back as we look with pride at the legacy we leave for the next generation.
This article originally appeared in The Aspen Times. Cross-posted by permission of the author.