In 1997, Gloria Steinem wrote in Ms. Magazine, “Over the last 25 years, we’ve convinced ourselves and a majority of the country that women can do what men can do. Now we have to convince the majority of the country—and ourselves—that men can do what women can do.” For the sake of our kids and the entire society in which we live, we need to continue pursuing Ms. Steinem’s vision.
It won’t be easy, though. Understandably enough, many men were uncertain at best about the first part of our grand gender role reconfiguration — giving women full respect for their talents, abilities and potential contributions in the formerly male domain of business and government. And understandably enough, many women are a little squeamish about granting men their props in the world of family and relationships. “I’m the mother!” they sometimes say, even if only to themselves.
To be sure, we’ve made a lot of progress in recognizing the value of men as parents. But we need to keep pressing. Inertia and resistance remain strong.
Think of the stereotypes about women that served the purposes of those who wanted to keep economic and political opportunity primarily for men. “Women aren’t strong, they’re not tough, they cry, they can’t do math. Strong decision-making and tough negotiation just aren’t in their nature! Besides, they just want to file their nails, eat bon-bons and go shopping. Sure, they can help the family with their little part-time jobs, but we really need to recognize the natural superiority of men, at least when it comes to business and politics.”
That’s not so different from the stereotypes that are broadcast these days from inside the walls of Fortress Motherhood. “Men are stupid and clueless. They just want to drink beer and watch sports. They’re not kind, not gentle, not patient enough to be primary parents. And they’re so violent. It’s just in their nature. Oh, sure, they can babysit when Mom is busy, but we really need to be clear that Women Give Life.”
I have a “Men are Scum” greeting card from Hallmark to prove it. And the myriad commercials and sitcoms that portray men as immature, incompetent, benighted fools and boobs, helpless until the ever-wise, prudent and powerful woman shows them the way. These artifacts from the wrong side of history allow us all to avoid and impede the difficult process of much-needed change.
Overcoming centuries of tradition and resistance, women brought a lot of good things to business and government. Female culture helped enrich and broaden ways of thinking and doing things established largely by men. Less top-down, command-and-control governance, more concern for consensus and mutual respect, policies that recognize the importance of work/life balance. We needed that. The world is better for it.
At least as much as we needed what women brought to business and politics, we need what men can provide as full and equal partners in parenting. Firm rules with clear consequences, embrace of exploration and risk-taking, can-do/no-victim positivity. And, surprising as it may seem, instilling empathy in our kids. (“The influence of paternal involvement in child care on [the child’s] later empathic concern was quite astonishing," says a 1990 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.)
Nowhere are these contributions from the heart of healthy male culture needed more than where fathers are absent, disempowered, alienated and disrespected. As important as parenting tips are for individual kids and families, new social policies and attitudes are essential for our greater family of families. Yes, Responsible Fatherhood is a good thing. But our social policy apparatus, largely unsuccessful in its mission to improve families and communities, needs to be Responsive to Fatherhood.
Though my social work practice is at the macro rather than clinical level, I can offer one individually focused parenting tip. When a mother feels herself thinking, “I’m the mother!” she would do well to stop and think, “Where did that come from? What do I think that means?” And when a father hears “I’m the mother!” he can do no better than to say, “I love you. And for the sake of our family we need to talk.”
Jack Kammer, MSW, MBA is the Director of Working Well With Men, a training, consulting, policy and resource place for male-friendly social workers and their agencies.