Men and “having it all”

I wanted to highlight something that Chip wrote in his comment on yesterday’s post: "I think part of parenting is making hard choices, realizing you can’t have it all."   This remark would have been commonplace if he had said "part of mothering," but it’s still surprisingly rare for anyone to say it about being a father as well.

Even people who should really know better fall into the trap of assuming that men can and do have it all.  In the introduction to The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild writes about envying the "smooth choicelessness" of men with stay-at-home wives, who were able to work undistracted by child care responsibilities or guilt.  In Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, Sylvia Ann Hewlett says that she heard from professional men who spoke of their distress at having essentially missed their kids’ childhood for work, but then blithely dismisses their pain with "well, at least they procreated and can get to know their grandchildren."

Even I fell into this trap.  I used to sit on the metro, and mutter to myself that I bet there wasn’t a single working father with a stay-at-home wife caring for their children who was beating himself up for working a whole 40 hours a week.  And then I realized that if that was true, it was their loss. 

If fathers think they can "have it all", it’s only because they’ve accepted a limited definition of what that "all" could be, that doesn’t include even the possibility of the intense relationship that women are taught to expect as their birthright as mothers.  If that’s the price, I’ll pass on "smooth choicelessness." 

14 Responses to “Men and “having it all””

  1. bj Says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes! Men (and women) who work 80 hour work weeks miss their children’s childhood. It might be true that more men are given the opportunity to make that choice than women (because of stay at home moms and because they can’t get pregnant, for example). But, it’s a loss nevertheless. My adult sister said, to my dad, that he “missed our formative years.” My dad cried (Well, in the way that men are permitted to cry in our society. His eyes got wet and he left the room). He made choices that permitted him to feed and clothe and educate his family, but he missed a lot of the family’s lives, only having an opportunity to get to know us again as adults.
    I hate it when women say that men have it all, as though it really was easier for men to have what some women say they want, which is to be significantly involved in their family and serious participants in the workplace. I think that’s just as hard for men (and sometimes harder, because they don’t get mother track opportunities). What is easier is for them to reproduce their genes.
    PS (I’m a woman)

  2. bj Says:

    Can you blog on your thoughts on part-time work options? I read your comment in the previous post about “not being optimistic” about them, and I am interested in your thoughts.
    I’ll admit, in requesting your opinon, that mine is negative. I think part-time work works in limited circumstances, and that it often has costs associated with it.

  3. landismom Says:

    I agree with Chip, and with you. One of the reasons that I’m still able to do the work that I do, is that my husband isn’t one of those guys that works 80 hours a week (although he has the kind of job that lends itself to that). When I look at the executives in the organization that I work for, I don’t see anyone who looks like us (and by us, I mean me and landisdad)–I see men with wives or partners who take on 90% of the childcare, and women who decided not to have kids, or have finished raising kids.
    We still struggle with the obligations of parenting and work, and there are times when it seems to work better than others. But I know that we are both choosing to compromise equally, and that makes it easier.

  4. Jennifer James Says:

    I know from my husband and from my father that men really do miss their children and family life in general when they work so much, especially when they are the sole breadwinners for the family. As parents, no matter what decision we’ve made for our own lives — to work, to not work, to work part-time, to be sole breadwinners, to be a dual-income family — none of us (mothers or fathers) can “have it all”, although “having it all” is really relative to one’s own definition.
    I agree, it’s ridiculous to assert that when men become fathers they shift directly into emotionless bliss. It’s unfair and untrue! Although, I do know this to be true: Fathers are least penalized at work and in most instances rewarded for being dads as opposed to working mothers who are generally regarded as less capable of being productive employees. That’s probably where some of the ire rises with these authors.
    By the way, brand new research out of Cornell talks about the disadvantages mothers have when looking for employment when compared to fathers. Very interesting.

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    bj, I’ll add part-time work to my list of things to blog about sometime.
    Jennifer, I think fathers aren’t penalized at work because employers think (and there’s some evidence to support this, on average) that men become more committed to work when they have children, because they see themselves as the “breadwinners.”
    My sense is that fathers who want to cut back responsibilities at work or use flexible arrangements in order to have more time with their families are penalized as much as, or more than, women who do the same. Because it’s somewhat expected of women, but not of men.

  6. Russell Says:

    I feel that our culture would need a pretty big shift to truly honor the importance of parenting from both the mother and the father in the work-world. Here is a hopeful story from the Boston Globe, though, of a partner in a law firm who is creating a a different culture in his firm – in a field that, arguably, is the toughest for parents to adequetly parent in:

  7. jen Says:

    I have to agree with Elizabeth on her point that men who take time off for family are severely punished. I’ve seen this first-hand many, many times.
    One other point I’ll make: “having it all” means having *what you want*. The consultants I’ve worked with, the ones who take jobs knowing they’ll only see their kids on the weekend? They’ve *chosen* that. And just as importantly, their *wives* are OK with that. Many of those marriages are totally transactional; the spouses are chosen for their high income/willingness to stay home and make no demands on the consultant husband. How many times have I heard these guys say things like, “I’m so glad to be back from vacation — my &#^#% family was driving me nuts.” Or “When I’m home too much we just fight anyway. It’s better this way.” I find it distasteful but it’s the life they’ve chosen.
    The bad part, though, is that these same people then expect others to devote as much energy to work as they do. I don’t care about anyone else’s personal choice, until it impacts their respect for my own choices!

  8. jackie Says:

    This discussion makes me think of something Ariel Gore wrote in one of her books about the idea of “having it all”– does anyone really have “it all”? and if they do, does it make them happier than those of us who don’t? I think the idea that anyone can have it all is destructive in itself, because it’s totally impossible– we only have so many hours in the day, you know? We may end up with “it all” over the course of our lifetimes– a fulfilling career AND an intensive relationship with our kids, but at the same time? very, very difficult, if not impossible. That’s why I like the idea of “sequencing” like Mothers & More talks about. And yeah, it’s still difficult, but it seems more realistic.
    As a part-timer, I’d like to see a discussion about part-time work as well!

  9. Stone Court Says:

    “Having It All”

    Elizabeth of Half Changed World has an excellent post up about the notion of “having it all” and how rarely it applied to fathers. … I have been meaning to take on this peculiar linguitic device “having it all” since Mary’s recent critique of Sylvi…

  10. Maggie Says:

    Maybe the obsession with “having it all”, that particular turn of phrase and its inaccuracy, results from women being told (implicitly?) that we could “have it all”. At least, among the high-performing, highly educated group of women that I went to college with, none of us really wrestled with the idea of combining work and family. We just merrily rolled along with the assumption that we could do both, and easily. I experienced some very deep, resounding anger when my son was born, when I realized that I couldn’t have the career I’d intended and also be the mom I’d intended. (It was kinda like when you schedule two very different things for the same time on the same day, and you don’t realize you’ve made that mistake because the two are so very very different? Does anyone else do that?)
    I felt, more than anything else, that I’d been lied to and betrayed by . . . by what or who, exactly, I haven’t yet been able to figure out. Maybe by my education, by the women who taught me (except, of course, almost none of them had children – that whole tenure problem), by the career paths presented to me at both my college and my grad school.
    Anyway, all I’m trying to say is that maybe someone, somewhere, implied to us that we would or could have it “all.” And by saying that we can’t have it all, we’re rejecting “all” as defined by others, and creating our own “all”.

  11. chip Says:

    I went from being a full time stay-at-home dad to being a guy working full time with a stay-at-home wife. It was really hard and I did feel like I was missing out a lot. I’ve blogged about it here: I also blogged about not wanting to be the sole breadwinner and asking my wife to go back to work so both of us were sharing breadwinning and parenting:
    I’d just add that your comment If fathers think they can “have it all”, it’s only because they’ve accepted a limited definition of what that “all” could be, that doesn’t include even the possibility of the intense relationship that women are taught to expect as their birthright as mothers. is so on target, it is absolutely right and a huge loss for guys.

  12. dave s Says:

    We’re doing far better than our parents, I think: the dads I know have more time with their kids, and the moms have more, and more fulfilling, careers. How much better can it get? Probably not a lot: we have to do enough at the office/store/factory to give them enough profit to support us, and that takes a lot of time away. We have to do the laundry. And then you go to bed and get up to do it again in the morning.

  13. Wayne Says:

    I’ve blogged about missing my daughter because of working.
    I think a lot of fathers feel something like this, and like what Chip is saying, only it’s hard to express it or hear it because, you know, we’re portrayed as such disinterested, incompetent figures. Even magazines like Mothering make statements to the effect that fathers are best for playing, while mothers do the real nurturing. So a lot of people have this idea of good ol’ dad, happy to toss around a ball with you and make some corny jokes, but not really useful for much else, and not really interested in much else.
    I’m not interested, though, in turning the ever-persistent “mothering” debate into a “fathering” debate. As a friend of mine put it, it’d be nice if the roles were more androgynous, and we could talk about parents and parenting without running around in the same gender ruts over and over.

  14. bitchphd Says:

    Great post.

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