The mama lion at the gate

Maternal chauvinism is a dad's greatest obstacle to parental parity.

Published June 12, 2000 7:29PM (EDT)

"Say Da-da," a male voice off-camera urges a baby seen through the lens of a camcorder.

"Ma-ma," gurgles the baby.

"Say Da-da."

"Ma-ma," insists the baby.

A tag line appears at the bottom of the screen: "Baby's first word. Another great reason for being a woman."

This recent commercial for Oxygen, the female-oriented interactive cable channel and Web site, prompted some angry posts from offended dads on message boards. Were they being too sensitive? Not if you consider that the "baby's first words" commercial is part of a barrage of cultural messages telling fathers that no matter what, they're always going to be in second place in their children's emotional lives. What's more, it looks like women are taking gleeful pleasure in men's second-class status. For a gender reversal, try to imagine a commercial making fun of a woman's helpless attempts to pump gas until a guy comes to the rescue.

From a woman's point of view, the Oxygen commercial might look like innocent fun, a way to make women feel good about themselves and about the special things they have in common. Yet in the end, this warm and fuzzy tribute to womanhood may not be so good for women, either. It appeals to an attitude -- call it maternal chauvinism -- that helps perpetuate the unequal division of labor at home and holds women back in the workplace.

Discussions of working women's extra burden of housework and child care usually pin the blame entirely on the male of the species. In her landmark 1989 book, "The Second Shift," sociologist Arlie Hochschild spoke of a "stalled revolution" in which changes in sex roles in the workplace had not been matched by changes at home, and left little doubt as to who was stalling: The problem was one of "faster-changing women and slower-changing men."

In "Backlash," the 1991 bestseller often viewed as the definitive feminist work of the 1990s, Susan Faludi assailed the notion that women couldn't combine careers and motherhood, writing that "women might have less trouble 'balancing' if they had fewer dishes and diapers in their arms -- and their men had more."

Advocates for the male perspective contend that the reality is very different: If men haven't become equal partners at home, it's because women won't allow it. Women, they say, may seek equality with men in the public world, but they want to maintain control over their traditional domestic turf, and are particularly slow changing when it comes to relinquishing their primacy as mothers.

"Generally, men are as involved with their kids as their wives will let them be," says Armin Brott, author of several advice books for fathers and coauthor of the 1999 book "Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers That Keep Men From Being the Fathers They Want to Be."

Is this a clumsy attempt to get men off the hook by shifting the blame to women? Much of the public apparently doesn't think so. In a 1995 Virginia Slims American Women's Poll, most people -- especially women -- felt that men weren't doing enough to help with housework and child care; yet two-thirds of men and women alike said that in this arena, "women still want to be in charge." Quite a few bona fide feminists agree.

Ms. founding editor Suzanne Braun-Levine, author of the new book "Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First," says that the problem of female "gatekeeping" was an unexpected direction in which her work took her.

"I kept running up against the fact that the process of men becoming equal partners at home was harder than people expect it to be," she says. "I kept trying to figure out why. There are a lot of answers in the workplace and the culture, but I didn't expect to find so many answers in the family."

Some of these answers can be found in women's behavior. The quasi-mystical "robe of glory" that envelops motherhood, says Braun-Levine, is "one of the perks of the traditional female role -- and while it's a burden, it's also a very nice feeling."

George Washington University law professor Naomi Cahn tackles the same subject in an upcoming article in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, arguing that women have to give up "some of the power and control that they currently exercise within the family" if they are to gain parity in the workplace.

Braun-Levine, Cahn and Brott emphasize that maternal gatekeeping is usually not malicious. Rather, it has to do with still prevalent assumptions that women are naturally better suited to caring for young children, and that the mother-child bond is deeper and stronger than the father-child bond. For many women, says Brott, "if you're not the one to whom the child comes running when there's a problem, you're not a real woman."

In the 1994 book "Peer Marriage," a fascinating study of egalitarian and near-egalitarian couples, Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington, reports that a number of the husbands and wives she interviewed came close to full equality, only to pull back once they had children -- and that for the most part, the resistance to fully shared child rearing came from mothers, not fathers.

These women had been all for co-parenting in theory; once they actually became parents, Schwartz notes, they succumbed to "the siren call of motherhood" and started hogging the baby. In some cases, it was the men who rebelled against being shut out and pressured the women to curb their possessiveness.

It's not that women don't want men to participate; it's just that, quite often, they want Dad to be the junior partner. In a 1985 survey, only one in four mothers strongly endorsed 50-50 parenting, while two out of three seemed "threatened" by the idea.

Things may have changed in 15 years; unfortunately, the survey has not been replicated. However, Schwartz believes that the basic pattern is still the same: "There is much more expectation of male involvement," she says, "but bottom line, women tend to think that's more of an area where they have some superiority and control, just not as total as it used to be."

These observations are confirmed by some true confessions of maternal chauvinists -- women who admit to feeling secretly thrilled when Dad shows his incompetence and slightly disappointed when he copes well in Mom's absence.

A few years ago, Redbook ran an article called "My Husband Is Too Good a Father" by Beth Levine. Levine's husband, a home-based freelance writer like her, was an active, nurturing father to their young son, which was exactly what she had always wanted. What she had not expected was to feel hurt every time the boy cried for Daddy, not Mommy.

"I'm ashamed, but I hate that I am not the center of my child's universe," she wrote. "When I am honest with myself, what I really want is for Bill to be an eager but charmingly inept father, a soldier to my general."

Some mothers wisely keep such feelings to themselves. At worst, they may occasionally sulk when the child displays too marked a preference for Dad. But in some instances, maternal jealousy can turn ugly and wreak havoc on parents' and children's lives.

In the 1999 book "Divorced Dads," University of Arizona psychologist Sanford Braver describes the case of a woman who felt so upset and threatened by her husband's apparently closer bond with their young son (due both to the father's more flexible schedule and to his desire to be a "New Dad") that she filed for divorce and successfully fought for sole custody. Her husband, who was devastated by these events, felt that "she wanted a court of law to certify that she was indeed the better parent." The result was that instead of being in the care of his father while the mother worked, the boy was now left in day care.

This is an extreme example. Far more commonly, in intact families, mothers may consciously or unconsciously sabotage paternal involvement in various ways -- by taking the crying baby away from the father, by criticizing the way he puts the toddler to bed or cooks a meal or by directing his every move and making him feel like an assistant rather than a partner.

"The man who's just trying the waters at being a parent and participating in the household feels very clumsy and unanointed, and then he gets defensive," says Braun-Levine. "We keep giving orders and saying, 'This is the way you do it, and if you can't do it my way, just stand here and hold the dirty clothes.'"

Brott believes that all first-time parents, men or women, have to learn the ropes through trial and error -- except that in most cases the father never gets to do that because the mother quickly dons the mantle of expertise: "She's not giving him the chance to make the mistakes she's made and go through the learning process."

Many women sincerely believe they can meet their children's needs in a way their husbands can't -- a belief that often doesn't seem to be grounded in fact. James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute, recalls that after he gave a talk on encouraging father involvement to a group of nurses, a woman in the audience said that her daughter needed regular medication for a chronic illness and she simply couldn't trust her husband to give it to her.

"As it turned out," says Levine, "the husband is an emergency medical technician who deals with medical situations far worse than their daughter's every day. There was no rational basis to believe that he couldn't or wouldn't give the daughter the medicine. But Mom had decided this was something she, and only she, could do. Then she resented Dad for not doing it!"

Even at a feminist symposium on men and the changing nature of work and family life -- where the issue of maternal gatekeeping was identified as a barrier to equality on the home front -- there was some disturbing evidence of maternal chauvinism. When panelist Dana Friedman, a family issues consultant, mentioned a poll in which 60 percent of fathers said that they shared equally in child rearing, laughter rippled through the mostly female audience, turning into gleeful guffaws when she added that only 19 percent of mothers agreed. (Yes, men probably exaggerate, but could women's investment in the motherhood mystique make them less than completely objective?)

Then, Francine Moccio, director of the Cornell University Institute for Women and Work (sponsor of the event), said that she wanted to speak up for maternal gatekeeping and launched into a story about how, 20 years ago, her husband forgot to pick up the kids from a party. "So," she summed up, "they do need to be trained." Again, there was roaring laughter.

Were these women expressing frustration over men's failure to share in the burdens and delights of parenthood, or taking pleasure in their own presumed superiority? (I have heard professional women in their 30s, daughters of the feminist era, talk about their husbands' domestic ineptitude in tones that implied bragging more than fretting.) Perhaps the symposium illustrated the obstacles to men's involvement in family life in ways the organizers never intended.

To recognize that women are partly responsible for the unequal division of labor at home is not to make them into the sole culprits. Cahn stresses that some men still regard child care as "women's work" or affect helplessness to get out of unwanted chores, and that the workplace is still peculiarly unfriendly to men who want to devote a lot of time to their families.

It's true, of course; yet one must wonder if, in reaction to a very real history of misogyny, we are now too afraid to blame women for anything. In her Yale journal article, Cahn expresses concern that her reasoning may be perceived as anti-female: "If I turn the argument around, and talk about the need for men to relinquish power in the workplace so that women can break through the glass ceiling, I am not making a particularly controversial statement. When I say the same thing about women in the home, however, my statement becomes more problematic."

Ironically, Cahn and other feminists who are willing to discuss maternal chauvinism often seem too eager to make excuses for women -- suggesting, for example, that it may be unfair to ask women to share power at home until power differentials in the workplace have been eradicated.

But such caveats can only perpetuate a vicious cycle. While discrimination undoubtedly still exists, there is overwhelming evidence that women's parental roles have a great deal to do with job inequality. (A study in the 1990s found that married but childless women with MBA degrees made about 95 percent of their male counterparts' salaries, while MBA moms made nearly 20 percent less than MBA dads.)

Because feminists have largely focused on empowering women, they have had trouble making an argument to reduce female power. The results can be paradoxical. Gloria Steinem has often talked about the importance of fathering; she likes to say that "we need to know not only that women can do what men can do but also that men can do what women can do."

Yet in Ms., the magazine she founded and with which she remains closely associated, occasional praise for nurturing dads is overshadowed by screeds against abusive or negligent fathers. (Braun-Levine ruefully acknowledges that "we now know more about bad fathers than we do about good fathers.") And Steinem gave a glowing blurb to Phyllis Chesler's 1986 book "Mothers on Trial," a virulently father-bashing defense of mothers in custody battles.

Indeed, when it comes to child custody, the feminist habit of solidarity with women can turn all too easily into chauvinism. In a 1992 article proposing that custody disputes be resolved by giving mothers the final say, University of Chicago law professor Mary Becker belittles men's love for their children and suggests that if mothers don't want fathers to participate equally in child rearing, it's because they know that men are "too indifferent [and] too self-centered."

Many conservatives would say that women do have a special bond with their children and a unique ability to care for them, and that demanding that they share that bond with fathers is impossible, unnatural and probably harmful to children.

I think such conservatives are wrong. (There is plenty of evidence that children fare better, and that both parents tend to be happier, when fathers are more involved in hands-on child rearing.) But at least they're consistent: They are frank about their belief that motherhood will always keep women from achieving equal status with men in the marketplace or in public life.

It would be arrogant and presumptuous to say that all women must relinquish the primary-parent role. However, if they want equality, any self-respecting feminist should tell them that they can't have it both ways.

There are signs of hope. In 1993, according to the Census Bureau, fathers provided primary care for nearly one in five children in two-parent, two-earner families while the mothers were working. I have spoken to young mothers who seem genuinely committed to co-parenting, and adamant that their husbands are not "helping out" but, rather, are raising their children as equal partners.

However, when Oxygen TV runs an ad inviting women to feel good about themselves because they are "baby's first word," or when feminist groups treat virtually any woman who loses custody of her child as a victim of sexism, or when Washington Post columnist Judy Mann exults over a study showing that children in dual-earner families are closer to their mothers than to their fathers, we should beware of these false friends.

The ostensible purpose is to reassure mothers that even if they work like men, they are still women. The real effect is to tell them that if they stop trying to do it all and let Dad usurp the crown of motherhood, they aren't women anymore.

By Cathy Young

Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality."

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