Anne-Marie Slaughter on Raising Men Who Do Housework

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Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

You can’t talk about work-life balance without invoking Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose 2012 Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” kicked off a new wave of discussions about the challenges facing working mothers. Even in the most feminist of marriages, women often find themselves doing more of the work, despite their partners’ best intentions. Slaughter, the author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, talks to activist and writer Sarah Sophie Flicker about how to raise kids, especially sons, who are committed to a more equal future.

I ask all the people I meet who are parents, “What’s the thing you’re most surprised about?” And over and over again they, specifically women, say how unequal the parenting ends up being, no matter how evolved your partner is or how evolved you think you are. Even men who define themselves as feminists, I still think when we start talking about responsibility in parenting and care-giving, it feels like some sort of indictment of the parenting job they are doing. How do you have this conversation?

My husband, Andy, and I had that conversation constantly and did not get anywhere until one day when we were traveling, and he just blew up at the fact that I was sailing through the airport waiting to be told what to do. He said, “Why is it up to me to get us there?” And I said, “Now you know how I feel at home.” And that was this revelatory moment for him. It drove him nuts. We were doing what he wanted us to do, and my view was the trip was his responsibility. Of course I would help, but it was not my responsibility. And from that moment on, he understood what it was like to take responsibility to plan the birthday party or the play date or the summer camp. It wasn’t that he wasn’t supportive, but unless I said, “What are we going to do for Edward’s birthday?” Edward’s birthday wasn’t going to happen.

I’m sure there are plenty of men who are really comfortable with the status quo. Equal responsibility is a hard subject to broach.

You literally sit down and say, “How are we going to divide this up? What are you going to take? And what am I going to take?” Let’s just stick to birthdays and holidays. Who is the lead? That’s why I use the term “lead parent.” Because let’s assume you’re both going to do both in lots of ways, but the lead is the parent whose job it is to nag the other. That’s what it comes down to. Until they are true lead parents, I think most men really don’t even understand all the micro things. How could they? They never did it. Maybe they watched their mother do it, but kids are pretty oblivious. And it’s a shock even to us — remember, the first time you tried to get out the door with a newborn and it takes you an hour and a half.

Even now, I’m still yelling at somebody about where their sock is.

Absolutely. All of that stuff. So, let’s just start with saying neither parent really understands all the small things that go into actually taking care of children. So, sitting down and saying, “Let’s divvy this up. Let’s be realistic about the pickups, the feeding, the dressing, the bathing, the night duty, the diaper duty,” and that’s just the day-to-day care. Then you have “Who is going to research nursery schools or day cares?” Or maybe you will both do that. And then, as they get older, “Who is going to look into everything from Little League to summer camp?” So, laying it out, just like you would in a business, I think that’s the start. But here’s the other thing I find so hard: If you give him the birthday-party-planning, is it really going to happen?

It’ll happen, it just won’t happen the way you necessarily think it should. But I loved that part of your book as well: Women do have to let go of these ideas about being the ones who know how to do it right. 

Exactly. I think a lot of women say, “I’m going to keep this because I don’t really trust you to not screw it up.” And then they feel resentful.

My friend Maya Singer has this fantasy game show. It’s called, “Is it just me, or is it systemic?” And so we applied that to parenting, taking it out of the private sphere and into the more systemic, cultural ways in which we’ve been raised and what our parents did. That’s been hugely helpful to me and my husband. Little things, like insisting that we both are on every email about play dates, just so we can put them in our family calendar. That stuff is such a time suck that you could never know until you’re doing it.

One woman wrote on Medium that she hated the idea of “the lead” because it made it competitive. But it’s already competitive. The decks are stacked. The outside culture is so unhelpful because it is constantly like “women and families, women and families.” No, no, no. Parents and families, working fathers. We’re a couple, and as a couple we have this bread-winning side of our life and this care-giving side of our life. And on the care-giving side, or the household side, how are we divvying it up? If you think about all of the ways that books say you can work better in the office, how you can work as a team, how you can be more productive. If that were applied to the division of labor at home, the division of labor for care-giving … There’s hidden bias all over the place: The mom “sphere” and the dad being supportive.

For two people to sit down and weigh out what they are actually good at, and what they like doing, then divvying things up, makes so much sense. It’s sort of surprising that we’re having this conversation now. 

That was the revelation of these three years with the book. I deprogrammed myself. Once you get it, you look around and go, “What?”

I know you have two boys. When my daughter was born, I thought, I’m going to raise a feminist girl. I actually know how to do that and there are so many resources. But then I had boys and suddenly there weren’t that many resources out there. I don’t intuitively know how to raise feminist boys.

This is where I think we have to really challenge ourselves. I have to ask myself things like, “So, if my son brings home a woman who has a great career, I’m going to be thrilled, right?” I’m a feminist. I’m going to love it! But if that means my son is going to make trade-offs in his career, and going to say, “Mom, I’m not going to advance for the next ten years. I’m going to work part-time because I’m supporting my daughter-in-law.” How am I going to feel about that? The in-laws can be real trouble here when a guy is trying to do this. So, I don’t think of it as raising feminist sons. Now I think of it as, we need to raise boys who are as excited about challenging traditional masculine stereotypes as our daughters are about challenging traditional feminine stereotypes. Our boys have to feel not that they are feminists supporting women, but that they are doing something for themselves. I was thinking about Emma Watson’s He for She, and I’m all for that, but I don’t think that’s going to do it. I think it’s got to be He for He.

Has your thinking evolved further since Unfinished Business came out? Is there anything you wish you had included in the book?  

I was surprised that the very people who asked me questions about the book immediately fell into the very thing that I’m trying to challenge, which is that they think it’s aimed at women, that they think this is women’s problem. How are we going to advance women? And I’m like, “As long as we keep talking about it that way, we are reinforcing the problem.” This book is for any young man who is trying to think about “I want an equal life and a better life than my father had.” I haven’t gotten reactions that have changed my views so much as reactions that have made me realize, “Wow, we’ve got a ways to go on this one.” 

Anne-Marie Slaughter on Parenting Future Men