Things we don’t say to men

After reading “Here’s why we need to start asking men – how do you do it all?” I started to really think about why we don’t ask men this question, and about all the other questions we are asked as women. Can you picture a man being asked any of these:

“Are you going back to work after the baby?”

“Oh you have kids – do you work full-time?”

“Are you going to ask for part-time now that you have three kids?”

And some things you don’t regularly hear men say:

“I’m finding it so hard to balance work and kids”

“I am going to ask for a three-day week”

“I feel guilty about not being there to do the school run and help with homework”

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Why are men not part of this conversation? I think there are a number of reasons: 

1. There’s an assumption that women take on most of the childminding responsibilities

This was of course true throughout history and right up until the end of the last century. It’s difficult to change minds and mindsets in tandem with change itself. And that change came and continues to come slowly. So it’s not that surprising that culturally, regardless of how we feel in a conscious, cognitive way, many of us still see women as the primary carers. Which leads to the next point:

2. There’s the reality that women often do take on most of the childminding responsibilities

It’s not simply a cultural belief – in many homes, the father goes out to work and the mother stays at home. This has changed slightly during the recession – there are now more stay-at-home-dads than ever before, by choice or necessity. But of course there are still far more stay-at-home mothers. So while it’s not ideal that women are asked “how do you do it all?” and men are not, it’s at least to some extent based on the fact that there are more stay-at-home mothers than fathers – in other words, women really do still have most of the childminding responsibility in thousands of homes across the country.

3. If one parent works reduced hours, it tends to be the mother

This is certainly not always the case; there are dads who work a four-day week or a nine-day fortnight. But mostly, it is women who switch to shorter weeks or shorter days to work around the school run and homework. To some extent, this is because it’s not an accepted norm in most workplaces for men to work part-time.

In my own workplace, an office of about sixty staff, 100% of the women who are mothers are working a four-day-week. And 0% of the men who are fathers are working  a four-day week (or anything other than full-time).

I’m guessing that there is a similar picture in most workplaces. And similarly, in my circle of friends, almost all of the mothers are working some variation of part-time, and all of the dads work full-time.

Depending on the role and the industry, it can be seen as lacking ambition for a man to look for any kind of flexibility. The same can be said for women, and being put on the “mommy-track” is a whole problem in itself, but at least the precedent exists – it’s possible in many roles for mothers to work part-time and not stand out as unusual. For men, it is unfortunately not seen as the norm and is often therefore undesirable for a man who is still hoping to advance further in his career.

While this continues to be the case, we are unlikely to see any great change in either the perception or the reality of who does most of the childminding, and that question “how do you do it all?” will continue to be asked of women and not of men.

4. Many families choose this path

It’s not simply or only the case that men can’t or won’t look for part-time hours; in many families, there is a preference on the part of the mother to opt for the more flexible job. And this is perhaps linked to our innate guilt – generally mothers feel more guilty than fathers, about being apart from their children. Think about it – how often do you hear women worry about being at work instead of with their children, and how often do you hear men say that they feel guilty?

In my own case, I spend a lot of time worrying about the impact it may have on my kids by my not being there to do their homework with them; I expend huge effort making my job fit around my children, and I feel guilty that I can’t collect my daughter from school every day. My husband loves our kids every bit as much as I do, and he wishes he could have more time with them, but he doesn’t spend time every day feeling guilty about going to work or wondering if he should give up his job.

Why is that? Is it because women worry more in general, tend to analyse, tend to feel guilty about all sorts of things? Is it because we are more “maternal”, figuratively as well as literally?

Or is it because we too have those unconscious expectations of what a mother’s role is – the very notions that we’re trying to dispel are the ones that are etched so deeply in our minds that we feel constantly guilty about going out to work?

We’re a long way from “how do you do it all?” being a standard question asked of dads, but at least we’re talking about it and asking why not.

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4 thoughts on “Things we don’t say to men”

  1. It’s not all society, you know. Some of it really is hormonal because that’s how our species survived. Women care for their children. We bond, on a deep hormonal level, with our children and thus do not eat them or toss them at cave bears. Part of that bond is the protective instinct so that we insure that no one else eats them or tosses them at cave bears.

    Leaving them is ‘unnatural’ when you’re talking biological drive and that’s probably where some of that guilt stems from. It’s your hormones.
    meeshie recently posted…Facebook’s War Against BreastfeedingMy Profile

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