Family Roles Revisited
Published: Thursday, March 1, 2012
Updated: Thursday, March 1, 2012 23:03
Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you," belted Annie Oakley to Frank Butler in the smash-hit Broadway Musical "Annie Get Your Gun." This confident assertion of feminine power six decades ago was one of the first feminist anthems, boldly declaring that women and men are equals in all respects.
A half-century of feminist scholarship and history have shown that Annie's boast was essentially correct. There are female CEOs, Nobel laureates, prime ministers, lawyers, doctors, investment bankers and even soldiers. It is now an established truth that women can successfully occupy roles previously reserved for men, but can men successfully occupy the roles previously reserved for women?
As executive director of a nonprofit, I mostly work from home. My German wife is a molecular biotechnologist in Frankfurt, Germany, where we live. As a result, I am the primary caregiver to a strong-willed, 2-year-old daughter. My daily battles have made me wonder whether men are sufficiently equipped to nurture and raise children.
Picture an image from some lifestyle magazine of a cherry-cheeked housewife, a content child perched on her left hip, merrily vacuuming. An enticing image of domestic tranquility that we all ought to aspire to, right?
Well, as a house-husband, I have been utterly unable to replicate that image. Of course I recognize that this image is an advertisement not meant to represent reality. But what would your reaction be if on the magazine cover, instead of a happy housewife, there was a cheery house-husband?
On any given Saturday morning in my home, my daughter may decide to throw a gargantuan tantrum. While my wife would nonchalantly bite into her croissant and sip her latte macchiato, my stress level would skyrocket. My wife and many other women seem to be able to tune out screaming children — a gift that, I, and many other men, do not possess.
Even in Nordic countries, where people consider themselves more evolved in gender relations, there is a policy of Vaterzeit (literally, father time). This means that a couple is collectively entitled to 14 months of maternity and paternity leave with 80 percent to 100 percent pay. However, five of those 14 months must be taken by the father.
Of course, most men take advantage of the policy. After all, employers provide free money and your old job is guaranteed without prejudice to your professional advancement. Typically, the mother takes the first nine months and the father takes the remaining five. But the German men I know who have taken advantage of Vaterzeit are more than relieved when it's over.
These northern European governments are essentially bribing men to play a role previously reserved for women. In contrast, Sandra Day O'Connor, the retired Supreme Court Justice who graduated third in her class at Stanford Law, initially couldn't get a job even when she offered to work for free. It's difficult to miss the point that the first brilliant women trying to occupy traditionally male roles were willing to do it for free, but monetary incentive is needed to get men to do stereotypically female work.
Despite the daily stress her tantrums give me, I cherish every single moment with my daughter. But part of my brain still wonders: Are men really built for this? 21st century families are fluid, so rigorous research in men's capability to do "female" work and new discussions about gender roles are needed. What kind of society would this create? I have no answers. I don't know how many Georgetown men are planning on being cherry-cheeked house-husbands, but should we encourage them to consider it?
For all of you who care deeply about gender politics, these are the questions to ponder. Annie Oakley could do everything Frank Butler could, but could Frank Butler do everything Annie Oakley could?
Andrew Owiti graduated from the College in 1989 and Georgetown Law in 2004.