In today’s middle-class American household, men have just as much to lose in policies that affect family life as women do.
Recently, a member of my online mothers’ group posted that she had sent my husband, Jason, a friend request on Facebook. I smiled. Our group of 200—the number our brilliant, business-minded administrator cited as an ideal for groups in order to foster diversity and intimacy—has been together for over a year now, and in that time we’ve shared more than our parenting trials. I’ll stay vague for the sake of privacy (ahem, epic vibrator thread). But partners, by necessity, make appearances in our posts, and are included in what we think of as our extended digital family. Jason is a familiar character in my ongoing online narrative, and my friend’s desire to connect with him directly confirmed what I’ve suspected for a while: Jason, a stay-at-home dad and self-proclaimed feminist, has achieved a kind of honorary member status in our women-only group.
We 200 mothers are fiercely protective of our little corner of the Internet. Since the Republican debates, where the clear losers of the 2016 conservative cattle call were American women, I’ve come to think of our space not only as “safe” in terms of emotional protection, but also a grassroots kind of feminist activism. Dating back to the quilting clubs of the 18th and 19th centuries, the very act of women gathering together can be political. And with the auspicious purpose of supporting a woman’s freedom to choose for herself what to believe (or not), how to parent (or not), how to occupy and use her body, our group has become activist whether we intended it or not.
Other women in the group have sent Jason friend requests, too, and this feels significant, especially as Stephen Marche’s “Home Economics: The Link Between Work-Life Balance and Income Inequality” has again been making the rounds in my newsfeed. Published in The Atlantic in 2013, the article’s renewed relevance may be, in part, an answer to the question of whether or not the Republican Party is waging a so-called “war on women.” Marche’s analysis of what he calls today’s “hollow patriarchy”—an outer shell of plutocratic power still dominated by white men, with a center increasingly filled by women in the workplace, and in positions of domestic decision-making—ultimately calls for heterosexual white men who live in egalitarian households where “marital decisions boil down mostly to money” to participate more loudly in discussions of gender politics, and to fight for the rights of families. “As long as family issues are miscast as women’s issues,” Marche says, “they will be dismissed as the pleadings of one interest group among many.” But in today’s middle-class American household, men have just as much to lose in policies that affect family life as women do.
Marche argues that Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” are actually operating on outdated ideas of gender that fail to recognize the paradigm shifts in American fatherhood and women’s financial advancement in the middle class. In the world we live and parent in now, the struggle to make it work at all is unified among the sexes because it has to be—men and women shuffle into their roles out of economic necessity, not gender, and that means we have a lot more fathers who are affected by parental leave policies, abysmal or nonexistent choices in childcare, and proposed legislation that could take away their wives’ agency over their bodies, and thus, the family’s financial future.
“The consciousness has been raised,” Marche says of the generations now raising families with whatever arrangement works to get by. “Men are not victims in this story, nor helpless witnesses to their wives’ struggles. And yet: A chorus of women demands maternity leave. Where is the chorus of men asking for paternity leave?”
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the rising popularity of the word “partner” to describe one’s counterpart in a marriage or domestic union. The rhetoric of “partner” invites identification; it is gender neutral and allows for a diversity of coupling. But the word takes on a deeper implication when seen through the lens of Marche’s claims. A partner is a stakeholder in the business of the family.
Historically, the advancement of human rights for any marginalized group has involved the support of what we call “allies,” or members of the majority who vocally advocate for those marginalized. But in a Barnes & Noble-sponsored interview with Roxane Gay on the difficulties of discussing racism in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates urges us to “abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.” (It’s important here to acknowledge that feminism, as practiced by white heteronormative middle-class progressives, still has a long way to go in its recognition and inclusion of exponentially marginalized black and brown families.)
But as Marche demonstrates with his decision to leave his tenure-track job so that his wife could pursue a more lucrative career in editing, recognizing that the fight is yours—that the health of the family cannot be dependent on gender power—sometimes means abdicating a measure of personal power. In our house, it’s my academic position that pays the bills, and Jason who stays home with our 19-month-old daughter (he also teaches part-time, and he would want me to mention that because, after all, progress is a long game).
We, too, reached this arrangement via necessity. But only since assuming his new role in a position once occupied by “the good wives,” as Marche calls the mothers of the Boomer generation and earlier, has Jason started openly calling himself a feminist. Only since he has experienced the choices circumscribed by the lack of societal scaffolding Marche identifies as the true liberator of the American family—subsidized, high quality childcare, parental leave, the right to choose whether or not to have children at all, and the insurance that allows such a decision to be made affordably—has Jason started to take personally the war on women as, in fact, the war on family.
Still, this makes me very proud of my partner.
We have a lot to navigate in our partnership. The cultural pressure to be a certain kind of mother—a not-yet-dead part of the hollow patriarchy—sometimes makes it all but impossible for me to leave my family, and above all, my loving and entertaining daughter, for my career. I struggle every day to successfully slough off my grandmothers’ aprons and step fully into the breadwinning role I have been selected to play. To trust that my daughter is OK without me no matter how much I miss her. And I struggle, deeply I struggle, to convince myself that I did the work necessary in order to get selected for my job at all. I’m still fighting.
But Jason’s part in our family’s survival means he no longer has the luxury of being only an honorary member of the feminist club. He has wholly subscribed. From here on out, he will have to flash his card. He will have to use his voice and his vote. The fight is his, too.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.