This month, the Atlantic published a solid article by Liza Mundy that makes the case for paternity leave, but as we know from a Wall Street Journal article published over the summer, men really aren’t that interested in taking it.
Why are men so reluctant to take part in office policy that would allow women to be more involved in the workplace, give men the time to bond with their children and be more involved at home, and in general, better workplace culture for all? Well, there’s a fear of social stigma, and there’s also the fear of getting left behind on the job. But fellow Atlantic writer and pro-paternity-leave dad Alexis Madrigal has a possible reason: Really, it’s the fear of babies. Men are terrified of the small creatures they co-created.
He writes: “We are scared of these creatures for good reason. Babies are tiny things that don’t talk. They’re fragile. Their hold on life is tenuous. And no one ever taught us what to do with them.”
Madrigal, who took a substantial paternity leave, describes how rewarding the experience can be. But by watching his friends freak out about it to varying degrees, he realizes that many men just don’t know what to do with a kid at first. He posits that when a baby cries, women have “the Boob,” the all-powerful tool for soothing and connecting with their child. Men, being bosomless, are often rendered useless during the early months of the babe’s life and, in turn, head for the hills (or the corner office) until the kid is of speaking age. Perhaps, he writes, if men were better prepared, or learned how to actually take care of a child, they’d be more apt to take long stretches of paternity leave.
Yet last I checked, there wasn’t some secret, women’s-only pre-baby class that teaches mothers how to parent. Men can read the same baby prep tomes that expectant mothers read and they will be equally at a loss with what to do when confronted with a squalling infant that needs total life assistance.
Thanks to Madrigal for an honest exploration of what some men might go through, but every time a man comes forward “bravely” expecting a pat on the back and a hall pass for admitting his limitations as a father, it doesn’t help. This conversation is just reinforcing some dangerous stereotypes for both genders. First, that women are the more natural caregivers (and not just because they have “the Boob”) but the less important players in the workplace. But also, that men are these bumbling, beleaguered, clueless idiots when it comes to being able to care for their own children — who wants that definition of fatherhood?
Fear is never a good excuse for getting out of doing things — especially parenting. Tiny, fragile, dependent life forms are universally terrifying; it’s not just a “man thing.” While discussions of paternity leave are great, let’s take this as a moment to recognize that career goals and parenting goals really aren’t so gender disparate, so the amount of leave allotted to new parents shouldn’t be either.