Not too long ago, my husband and I attended a book signing by an author whom I’ve long admired for her strong female characters and her subject matter, which concerns revolutionary politics and postcolonial identity.
We approached the table where she was signing books and fell into an easy conversation; she was warm, gracious and witty. When my husband mentioned that we have two small children, she turned to me and said, “Oh! So I know what YOU do with your days!” She must have seen my smile falter, because she caught herself and quickly rephrased the question. “And what do you do for work?” she asked.
Of all the assumptions people have of me as a mom and as a woman, the one comes up the most frequently is that I must not work because I have children. When I’m at parties or social events with my husband (oddly, only when I am with my husband), I often observe people asking him what he does for a living, before turning to me to inquire, “And do you stay home with the children?”
I suppose I could respond to these inquiries by talking about how, like 40% of women in America, I’m the breadwinner in the family. I could mention how I financially supported my husband through six years of graduate school. I could cite statistics showing that in the majority of two-parent households, both parents work.
For his part, my husband could say that his academic career has made it easier for him to have the flexibility to accommodate the constantly shifting needs of raising two small children. He could talk about the many times when he’s brought the kids to the park only to have another parent ask him if he’s “babysitting.” We could both attest to the fact that we are deeply committed to co-parenting our children and to equally sharing the domestic work in our household.
Although this question irritates me, I know that it’s embedded with millennia of expectations about women, moms and work. I also know that ours is a pioneering generation, redefining how families look, live and work.
In addition to there being more equal gender participation in the workforce, the modern American family looks astonishingly different than it did 30 years ago. Interracial marriages have doubled since 1980. 45% of all marriages in the past decade were interfaith. Many people choose to be single parents through adoption, surrogacy or artificial insemination. Men marry men and women marry women. About 41% of all children are born outside of marriage. And over all, less than half of children under 18 live in “traditional” families.
Despite these stats, which are well-documented and reported, it’s clear that neither societal expectations nor workplace policies have caught up with reality. You can see evidence of this everywhere, from the over 70 percent of Americans who think that the ideal family structure is one where mom works part-time or stays home with the kids, to media that continue to bombard us with ads and TV shows that are out of touch with how American families look and work today.
Some people might argue that the growth in popularity of advertising with blended families, “dadvertising,” and shows with diverse family configurations are a harbinger of more progressive and open attitudes. These are important cultural shifts, to be sure. But they aren’t exactly revolutionary. And they also don’t say much about whether or not we’re doing enough as a nation to support the various configurations of the modern family.
As nearly any parent can tell you, we aren’t. Our country has utterly failed to create policies that adequately support our needs, including some fundamental prerequisites: family leave, flexible working schedules, affordable preschool, and benefits that are available to all parents regardless of marital status.
Our lawmakers argue endlessly about whether we can afford these types of policies, about whether they hinder or increase economic productivity, about whether they are “good” or “bad” for kids and parents. Many prefer that these questions remain in the hands of the states, or get enacted on a company-by-company basis.
It may seem old-fashioned to argue for radical public policy change, but here’s the thing. Real, transformative change must come through laws, because laws play an important role, not just in extending rights, but in shaping and legitimizing cultural trends.
Consider Sweden’s envious paternity leave, which has shifted not only the number of men who stay home with their small children, but the world’s view of that country as one where women and men are equally validated as parents. Or how in France new moms not only get generous paid maternity leave, but also learn to tone their vaginas on the government’s dime, which recognizes and dignifies a central part of women’s sexuality.
At a bare minimum, our lawmakers should know this: dadvertising and piecemeal policies aren’t good enough for our generation, nor for the ones who come after us.
The modern family may look bewildering to some of those in our nation’s capital, but we’re actually pretty straightforward: some of us are married, some of us aren’t. Some of us have biological kids, others adopt. But someone has to work. And someone has to take care of the children.