Too Many Millennial Dads Are Hypocrites. But There’s Hope.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s husband Andrew Moravcsik is exactly as cool as I hoped he’d be. His new #longread about balancing parenting and work in the Atlantic, appearing three years after his wife’s, is perceptive, intelligent, and eye-opening. What he makes clear is that the pay gap between men and women cannot be traced merely to maternity leaves or women taking time off after they have babies; instead, it is a result of the fact that, though both partners in straight couples often agree going into parenthood that they will each do ideally 50% of the work, the vast majority of moms end up being the primary, or what Moravcsik calls the “lead,” parent.

And it costs them.

Does a family really need a lead parent? Moravcsik argues that yes, for the most part, they will find that they do. This is not necessarily someone who stays home. No one matches that description in the Slaughter-Moravcsik household. Rather, the lead parent is the one who is listed first on health and school forms, who is expected to make it to Parent-Teacher Conferences and to softball games, to doctor’s appointments and birthday parties. This is the parent who does a lot of the thankless, mundane, but important work such as keeping track of shoe sizes, diaper supplies, and everything from mild allergies to current food phobias.

A lot of millennials who haven’t had kids yet don’t realize that designating a lead parent may be necessary. That is why many of them end up later feeling like hypocrites, like this dad in the LA Times, whose actions don’t live up to his lofty goals:

Nearly three quarters of us told Pew in 2011 that we wanted egalitarian marriages.

But with millennials now accounting for more than 80% of births each year, it’s apparent that relatively few millennial men are walking the walk.

Forty percent of millennial women have reduced their work hours or taken a significant amount of time off to care for a child or family member; only about a quarter of millennial men have done the same. And women of my generation are almost three times as likely as men to have actually quit their jobs to care for a child or family member.

Like our fathers and grandfathers before us, when forced to choose between career and family, millennial men are choosing their careers, leaving their wives overburdened with children and household responsibilities. We’re hypocrites.

The truth is, designating a primary parent means acknowledging out loud that someone’s career is going to take precedence and someone else’s isn’t. Men haven’t, as a class, been prepared for the idea that they might have to slow down, at least for a bit, in order to accommodate children, or in fact make any real career adjustments at all. Women have. The cult of domesticity casts a long shadow. Many of us are still struggling to get out of it.

For women not to slow down, in fact, is still the anomaly; it requires focus, drive, ambition, and, as Moravcsik writes, support. Real support. In the form of sacrifice. That means either not having children at all or having a partner who is willing to take on a lot, even most, of the drudgery.

In my years as lead parent, I have gotten the kids out of the house in the morning; enforced bedtimes at night; monitored computer and TV use; attempted to ensure that homework got done right; encouraged involvement in sports and music; attended the baseball games, piano lessons, plays, and concerts that resulted; and kept tabs on social lives. To this day, I am listed first on emergency forms; I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis. …

Over the past decade, the quantity and quality of my research has suffered, yet I remain a productive political scientist at a top university.

Maybe more men would be willing to make the same choices as Moravcsik if they opened the topic for conversation with their partners. He makes a good role model: after all, he’s a professor at Princeton. Being the primary parent clearly hasn’t hurt him that badly.

But even dads who want to be potential leading men face more obstacles than those wacky West Coasters pretending to live as Victorians — including workplaces that view their choices with suspicion and conventional wisdom that remains way more conventional than many of us would like it to be. For example:

Pew polls show that 42 percent of Americans now view the “ideal” family for child-rearing as one in which Dad works full-time and Mom works part-time; about half prefer that she not work at all. Only 8 percent believe children are better off with Dad at home. About two-thirds of Americans believe that a married man should be able to support his family financially, yet only a third say the same about a woman.

Pew! Ew. I hope the pollsters reply to whatever answer people give with a shriek of, “Trick question! The only ‘ideal’ family situation is what works for the people involved, and you shouldn’t even venture an opinion about it, you judgmental busy-body!”

Regardless, if more women are to fulfill their economic potential for a change, more men are going to have to learn to say, out loud, “Your career can take precedence. I will be the one who will drop everything if the kid gets sick.” That’s a scary thing, I know! It takes some practice. But Moravcsik details lots of benefits, and besides, isn’t it better than feeling like a hypocrite?

Moravcsik’s bottom line: “’Help’ is not what is needed. Men must also take the lead.”

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.