When I first saw the headline, I actually rolled my eyes. “Why Men Still Can’t Have It All.” We’ve finally reached the inevitable point when Lean In crossed the gender divide: another article on Sandberg’s book and social movement, this time by a man. Worse yet, a man whom I used to work with at my old job at Esquire, a guy who had coincidentally attended the same college I did, and whom I considered something of a role-model-from-afar if we’re being completely honest. A guy who had a solid magazine career, a great wardrobe, what seemed like a decent amount of fun, and then went home to a family with kids each night.
A few months ago, when Lean In was being released, a male friend Gchatted to tell me that his boss had told him to “lean in.” His manager was also a guy, and this was around the moment when everyone was sort of using Sheryl Sandberg’s catchphrase as shorthand for “have some balls” (or, in less gender-anatomized terms, “go for it”). My friend and I laughed at the time — or LOL’d, actually, as we were typing — because the idea that one man had told another man to lean in at work seemed ludicrous; a symptom of having only read the title and not the book. Sandberg’s whole schematic was a call to action for women to compete with men in the workplace, after all, in hopes that both genders someday reach balance (in compensation, in the rungs of the corporate ladder, in work satisfaction, in shared housework duties, in child-rearing, in anything and everything, basically).
Because I work at the Cut (nearly 100 percent women, many covering these topics), I usually internalize these problems and this debate as ladies-only. Yet, as ridiculous as this seems, the Esquire article had me realizing that a lot of the anxiety surrounding “leaning in” or “having it all” does feel relevant to me as a man. I worry about having kids and a good job and how I will balance it all. As I’ve gotten a little older, I think about making my apartment look nice — and the housework inherent therein, even if I’m not as genetically predisposed as Jessica Grose to want a clean space. I think about being able to afford a house and retirement and health care simultaneously. And this weekend, when I was driving back with some friends from the beach, we actually started talking about how Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where some of us currently live, doesn’t really have any good schools. (Is this even true? Help me, commenters.) But there seemed to be more children walking around the neighborhood lately. Does that mean our early-twenties playground is finally become family-friendly? Could we live in the same rental apartment we do now, even when we have kids? Where would these kids go (both literally and figuratively)? How expensive are kids? Where does the time come from to raise them? Nannies, really? It’s not surprising we immediately switched back to talking about my friend’s movie project. We twentysomethings — conditioned to be obsessed with finding and keeping a job — are good at talking about work. We haven’t yet learned what comes after that.
Yet, as the having-it-all, lean-in debate has given a forum and vocabulary for women to articulate both their problems and aspirations, I’d argue it has pushed guys to the margins. That’s exactly the point, I imagine women thinking to themselves as they’re reading that sentence, but it doesn’t make me any less jealous that women collectively seem to be a lot better at mentoring, giving each other advice, and helping each other succeed in both the workplace and family space. (Example conversation from our last Christmas party: One older female colleague telling another to have kids as young as possible, when her earning potential is dampered the least. Meanwhile, I sat there thinking two men would never feel comfortable sharing that advice, even if they had it to give.)
When men “mentor” other men, I can tell you it’s mostly about making money, feeling or looking awesome, or getting away with something scandalous. There aren’t exactly Lean In groups for late-twenties dudes with solid careers who want to figure out how adoption or child care works over a few beers. Let alone whether paternity leave feels emasculating or unfulfilling. Or how to deal with aging parents. Or who does the hypothetical laundry if your partner makes more money. Men simply aren’t talking about these things in any regard — even those who already have children. As Dorment explains, “Chalk this up to social conditioning (men are raised to be the providers, so it’s easier for them to be absent) or genetic predisposition (men are not naturally nurturing) or emotional shallowness (men aren’t as in touch with their feelings), but there is the sense, down to the man, that missing their kids is the price of doing business.”
Like most women in my life, I’m now realizing that “Having It All” is an aspirational myth, not something that can be legitimately achieved; it’s nothing more than a framework for thinking about what you want to sacrifice and cling to when you’ve only got 24 hours, a job, and a family. But I hope that, by the time I have kids, some five or ten years out, there are more viable role models or groups or self-help books or something that takes these very real, legitimate, and actually not-so-gendered problems, and then provides specific solutions for guys — even in a world that, yes, I get it, is working against women more often than not. Should I take a pay cut if it means loving my job and having more time? Should I move closer to my family when my parents get sick? Do I need to start thinking about the rote mechanics of acquiring kids, now, like women approaching their thirties might? Am I a total softie for even bringing this shit up? (It’s impossible not to be somewhat glib, as that’s how most men I know cope with seeming somewhat nonchalant about these things, a safeguard against driving ourselves insane.) I can’t be the only guy worried about these issues even as women seem to be the only ones talking about them.
And that divide is coming at a time when it’s even worse for men now, because we’re constantly told we’re legitimately becoming obsolete. Back to Dorment’s article:
There are about as many women in the workforce as men, and according to Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book, The End of Men, of the fifteen professions projected to grow the fastest over the coming years, twelve are currently dominated by women. Per a 2010 study by James Chung of Reach Advisors, unmarried childless women under thirty and with full-time jobs earn 8 percent more than their male peers in 147 out of 150 of the largest U.S. cities. The accomplishments that underlie those numbers are real and world-historic, and through the grueling work of generations of women, men and women are as equal as they have ever been. Adding to that the greater male predisposition to ADHD, alcoholism, and drug abuse, women have nothing but momentum coming out of young adulthood.
Even as we — all of us — welcome equality, these very real problems are worth men figuring out for themselves. And for the time being, at least, it’s the women who are giving us the best language to do just that.