Anne-Marie Slaughter is president and CEO of New America. Her book “Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family” will be published by Random House in September.
Working mothers today are the targets of an entire industry of books, magazines and advice columns on how to balance work and family, complete with competing studies as to whether couples in which husbands help more with housework have more or less sex. Forget the rarified world of the chief executives who need to travel frequently and make themselves available constantly for clients or crises; a far larger group of women simply want to advance in their careers at a steady pace — at least keeping up with the men in their offices — without feeling overwhelmed by dueling demands at home.
But all that counsel only goes so far: Even when their husbands fully share the housework and child care, it doesn’t help reduce the stress that so many women say results from the equivalent of two full-time jobs. The biggest problem is that Mom remains “the designated worrier” in most households, as Judith Shulevitz wrote on Mother’s Day. “Mothers draft the to-do lists while fathers pick and choose among the items.” The psychological toll of always being responsible can knock a woman “partway or clean off a career path.”
There’s a simple fix for that anxiety, though: Don’t just ask men to do more work at home. Put them in charge.
Call it the feminism of empowered dads. “Want to open the boardroom doors for women? Encourage — heck, praise — dads who stay home with their children.” The man who made that appeal in 2013 is Conor Williams, an early-education expert at New America who spent several years as the primary caretaker for his young son and daughter. That allowed his wife to run projects for a nonprofit in preparation for business school, thereby taking the first step on that path to the boardroom.
Female leaders have ascended thanks to this model. Bloomberg News’s Carol Hymowitz researched the 18 female chief executives of Fortune 500 companies in 2012 and found that almost half had or once had full-time primary-caregiver husbands. Others had husbands whose flexible careers allowed them to anchor the home front — the kind of jobs still known in many quarters as “mommy track” career paths. These women had figured out, Hymowitz concluded, “what every man with a corner office has long known: To make it to the top, you need a wife. If that wife happens to be a husband, and increasingly it is, so be it.”
My husband is a distinguished professor of international affairs but is also the lead parent — the one who can adjust his work schedule to be available for teachers’ conferences, homework projects or music lessons. This happens to be a particularly upper-middle-class problem, with particularly upper-middle-class solutions, and we are fortunate enough to be able to pay for a full-time (and indispensable) housekeeper. But still, I could not do what I do without Andy taking the lead on what happens at home.
Yet this is not a role that the husbands of working women have been eager, so far, to grab for themselves en masse. Shulevitz points to biology, arguing that women are just evolutionarily conditioned to worry more about their children. But the evidence from the animal kingdom and from neuroscience is equivocal at best. And “biology” is what historically confined women to roles as wives and mothers rather than lawyers and neurosurgeons. Same-sex couples also challenge our preconceptions of “natural” roles. Biology is mutable; the more we know about the plasticity of brains, the more we realize the extent to which nurture actually shapes nature.
For men to take charge, however, women have to be willing to step aside, despite all the cultural expectations that we’ll run the home front no matter what. Andy and I have, after some debate, come to an understanding that if he’s the lead parent, he gets to call the shots about schedules, how things are organized (I can never find anything in our kitchen), the punishments to mete out when the kids break the rules and myriad other parenting decisions. I don’t like it. But he says that if I want to change it, I can stop traveling as much as I do and focus less on running things in my office. Otherwise, he’s not about to be micromanaged.
For many women, no matter how stressed they are, this is a hard step. When I speak to women’s groups, I describe the following scenario. You walk into your office, and your boss says: “I am biologically better at this, but I think you can do this job if I micromanage you enough, leaving you long lists of what needs to be done and calling in every hour or two to make sure you are actually doing what you are supposed to be.” Partway through, ripples of laughter begin to spread through the audience; the women recognize that I am describing how most of us treat our husbands. Some heads nod, but in the question-and-answer period, someone will always raise her hand and say that her husband really can’t do it. He can’t multitask. He’ll forget which child has to be where, when. He’ll just order pizza for dinner.
Maybe. But we don’t know until we try. Men run offices with many moving parts; they oversee military camps and bases that provide food, health care and other services for thousands of soldiers; they produce movies and complex entertainment spectacles. When I was growing up, many women never imagined that their husbands could cook; now men compare stoves the way they compare cars. They may have different ways of parenting and organizing a household, but women should be the last people to say that different is wrong.
Men seem ready. We know from a Pew study on modern parenthood in 2013 and a study by the Families and Work Institute a year later on “the new male mystique” that men and women now feel roughly the same level of work-family stress when they have children at home. Nearly the same percentage — 52 percent of mothers and 48 percent of fathers, according to the Pew survey — said that “they would prefer to be home with their children but they have to work because they need the income.” Would men resist becoming lead parents if it meant their wives could bring in more money and they could spend more time with their children?
We don’t really know. Men aren’t brought up to seek roles beyond breadwinning, much less act on those desires. Once, we didn’t really know what women wanted, either; in the early days of the women’s movement, many people insisted that women did not actually aspire to be professionals — that they were happy at home and “didn’t want to wear the pants in the family.”
Men who prefer to do more at home still confront an outdated image of masculinity — from women and from other men. “Most definitions of masculinity,” Conor Williams writes, “can accommodate shirts soaked with sweat, blood, or ambiguous grime . . . but not applesauce.” He describes the “emasculating ridicule” he and his fellow dads often face from women at the playground. But he sees himself as “someone whose version of masculinity includes shouldering the bulk of our family’s childcare.” With good reason, he also sees himself as a true feminist.
Men like Williams are secure enough in their masculinity to challenge stereotypes. It is the breadwinning wives, whether sole or co-breadwinners, who are often more uncomfortable than their husbands. A lot of successful women are still slightly embarrassed to have a stay-at-home spouse, as Vivia Chen noted in Time magazine in 2013. High-ranking partners in big law firms whose husbands have primary responsibility for the kids will say that their spouses also do some vaguely explained work on the side, Chen reports. And in all the women’s leadership conferences I have attended, I have never once heard a panel on the essential role of a lead-parent spouse in making it to the top.
Liam Robb O’Hagan, who’s married to Equinox chief executive Sarah Robb O’Hagan and is the primary caregiver for their three kids, is thoughtful on this point as well. “Since I quit paid employment,” he writes, “I’m pretty sure I’ve filled in a few forms using the term ‘unemployed’ instead of stay-at-home dad. Which, when I think about it, it is quite strange. It speaks to how much what you do defines you as a man.”
Feminists of my generation and the millions of younger women who were raised to believe they could break every glass ceiling in sight feel the same way: We should be defined primarily by what we do, which is why deciding to stay home and give up that comforting professional identity is so hard. The answer, for both women and men, is to make clear that parenting is just as hard and important as an income-generating profession — and to allow men and women to be in charge equally in whatever sphere they are in.
That, ultimately, may require moms to give something up, too. I remember the first time one of our sons woke up in the night and called for Daddy instead of Mommy. My first reaction, to put it politely, was deep dismay. I’m his mother. Kids are supposed to call for their mothers.
If I’m honest, however, the hardest emotion to work through at that moment was less guilt than envy. Even with all the rewards of my career, I would still like for our sons to call for me first. As the psychiatrist Andras Angyal wrote: “We ourselves want to be needed. We do not only have needs, we are also strongly motivated by neededness.” But something has to give. I am deeply involved in my children’s lives while being able to pursue my career ambitions — on a slower track than if we didn’t have children, but fast enough for me. That’s enough.
Being in charge means being the indispensable one children rely on and turn to. And it means imposing your priorities and arranging things your way. But if women cannot let go, we cannot ever make it to the top in the same numbers that men do, much less create a society that supports all women and men in caring roles. We have to share the home in the same way we are demanding that men share the office. Women and men will have to accept and indeed value a loosening of male gender roles, just as we have accepted and come to value working women, who once were seen as deeply masculine.
Real equality, for our partners and for us, hangs in the balance. This Father’s Day, let’s take a hard look at ourselves and our expectations, and give it up for Dad.