Are we ready for Men to be Primary Caregivers?

Did you hear the one about a CFO of a listed company who scheduled her caesarean so that the birth of her baby would not interfere with the release of the company’s annual results? True story. She took two weeks off after the birth then handed the baby over to her husband and returned to work full-time. I would love to know what your immediate thoughts and feelings are when hearing this story. Do you think ‘well, good for her, a woman who knows what she wants’, or perhaps you are slightly horrified and feel yourself judging her for not being a good mom? If you are in the former category, you are certainly in the minority as broadly speaking, across most of the western world and even beyond, and definitely in South Africa, the common perception is that women are the primary – and expected – nurturers of babies and children.

In this Women’s Month in South Africa, we are again looking at the how far we’ve come and how far we still got to go to achieve full gender equality and there have been numerous articles written about this topic [two to check out are blog posts by Kerrin Miller and Kirstie McFarlane]. We know that women still earn less than men for the same role, are less likely to hold positions in senior management compared to men and that the funnel narrows even more, in favour of men, as we move towards the C-Suite and directorship. Yes, progress has – and is being made – in these areas but the one huge contributing factor to inequality lies beyond the boardroom and sits firmly entrenched in societal values and cultural norms. And this is the belief, as mentioned above, that women should be the primary caregiver and that this role, with its associated responsibilities, supersedes all others. The traditional and pervasive view is that women will give birth and will automatically relinquish their career ambitions in favour of raising their children. Most research articles focus on the importance of the mother in raising psychologically and socially sound children and whilst this is not in dispute, there are very few articles that focus on the role of the father as primary caregiver. I believe the lack of research in this area further cements the societal view that raising children is a women’s job. It kind of feels like the social scientists, when asked about this lack of research, will slap their heads and say ‘duh, study the benefits of men as primary caregivers? Are you crazy? That’s not their job!’. This long held belief is further entrenched when you have men taking over decisions about women’s bodies, as has just been seen in the overturning of the Roe vs Wade case in the US. How can women ever step beyond these limiting beliefs when men have overriding decision making power of what women are allowed or not allowed to do, with their own bodies?

There is hope, however. Counties like Iceland have been at the forefront of pioneering a new way of equality, starting out with equal maternity and paternity leave. The idea is that both mothers and fathers should be able to spend equal time with their children and share the responsibilities of raising them, whilst co-ordinating their professional lives. Whilst Iceland has one of the most generous Parental Leave Acts in the world, the biggest impact comes not from the Act itself, but rather from the mindset of the Icelandic people. The commonly held belief in Iceland is that either parent can – and should – be responsible for their children and that it not just a women’s job.

There is much we can learn from Iceland and their drive towards creating a truly equal society, however are we in South Africa ready to make those changes? We are a deeply patriarchal society and the myth that children should be raised by women is one that is perpetuated by both men and women. I know this because my immediate thoughts on the CFO were not favourable, showing that I too had bought into the societal norms that only women are wired to nurture. Speaking of wiring, one argument that is often used to perpetuate this belief is that ‘women are naturally designed to nurture’. There is definitely some truth in this from a neuro-chemical point of view. We have some strong hormonal changes when we are pregnant and when we give birth – all of which are designed to make us bond with our babies and to protect and nurture them. However, what is not so widely known is that men are also affected by both their own and our hormones during pregnancy and they experience their own neuro-chemical changes at birth, especially if they are present at the birth. These changes are also designed to make them accept their babies and want to protect them. So in actual fact, our brain wiring doesn’t preclude men from being primary caregivers, but of course, society does.

So where does this leave us? In all honesty, I believe it leaves us with a long way to go to full equality as changing our mindsets around women being responsible for the primary caregiver role is a very big ask. But it’s not impossible and the more we challenge traditional stereotypes and belief systems, the more things will change. And perhaps one day, we won’t be judging people like the CFO for her choices and instead we’ll applaud her courage to try to have both a career and family.

by Audrey Riley

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