I’m aware that the purpose of many of The Atlantic’s opinion pieces are intended to provoke commentary and generate traffic. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. The world needs more analytical thinking, and if even a fraction of that traffic engages in some critical thought, society will benefit. I do wish, however, that they would steer the conversation in directions that are controversial in a more positive manner. This article is a case in point.
The article’s main thesis questions a basic assumption about paid leave for new Mothers versus Fathers and addresses the potential fallacy, especially in modern times, that one is more useful than the other. This seems sufficiently controversial and socially progressive by itself. Unfortunately, it stumbles by trying to make the benefits of paternity leave into a competition:
“While paid paternity leave may feel like an unexpected gift, the biggest beneficiaries aren’t men, or even babies. In the long run, the true beneficiaries of paternity leave are women, and the companies and nations that benefit when women advance.”
First of all, don’t “companies and nations” include men and children? Second, how exactly are they going to accurately measure a fuzzy word like “benefit” to the point that they can rank who receives the most? Instead of wasting time picking a fight about this, our focus should be on the fact that this policy should improve everyone’s lives in some way. Men will feel less pressure to return to the workplace, women will face less discrimination by being “baby tracked,” and even those without babies will reap the benefit of retaining a greater percentage of female talent. The policy would especially help the lower socioeconomic levels that are sometimes overlooked by feminist policy making. When both parents are working to make ends meet, giving paid paternity leave is a financial boon which defers day care costs without reducing the net household income.
The article then goes on to say this:
“paternity leave [...] is a brilliant and ambitious form of social engineering: a behavior-modification tool that has been shown to boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equity in both domains”
All of those results sound great, but quite a few men don’t need to be engineered or psyched into spending more time with their children. Many are already frustrated with their work-life balance, and their numbers are increasing. Was it really necessary to use words that, dare I say, patronises men and possibly alienates the women who are partnered with these men, never mind gay male parents who adopt. The rest of the article presents a sound, cogent, and sometimes impassioned argument in favor of paternity leave, but I nearly missed it all because I was so irritated by these two passages.
We cannot avoid biology (until someone invents a reliable artificial womb), and that means women are the baby makers and need time off work after giving birth. What we can change is the attitude that women are more naturally suited to the raising of children than men are. Women are socially conditioned to the role just as men are led away from it, but that needs to stop if we are to achieve gender equality in all spheres of life: home, career, and child care. Antagonising men by making social change into a competition isn’t going to help bring it about. Emphasizing the point that all of society, including the men, will benefit tremendously just might sway some opinions.