Around the time my firstborn was learning to walk, my wife and I tried a tag-team approach to parenting. I’d take most of the early morning shifts and then head to the office. Most evenings, no matter what was happening at work, I’d log back in at home, and my wife would pursue her career as a modern dancer. Our schedules were so distinct that we shared a single unlimited subway pass.
Friends and neighbors got so used to the arrangement that they’d express genuine surprise when they’d see us together. They’d also go out of their way to tell me what a good job they thought I was doing. “You’re the best father” or “You’re the father of the year” were compliments frequently tossed in my direction. Of course these statements were true, but they were nevertheless unsettling. I was spending roughly the same amount of time parenting as my wife —and they thought that made me special.
I was born in the early 1980s. My co-generationists, the millennials, were supposed to change the parenting status quo. We were supposed to make engaged fatherhood seem totally unexceptional. Nearly three quarters of us told Pew in 2011 that we wanted egalitarian marriages.
But with millennials now accounting for more than 80% of births each year, it’s apparent that relatively few millennial men are walking the walk.
Forty percent of millennial women have reduced their work hours or taken a significant amount of time off to care for a child or family member; only about a quarter of millennial men have done the same. And women of my generation are almost three times as likely as men to have actually quit their jobs to care for a child or family member.
Like our fathers and grandfathers before us, when forced to choose between career and family, millennial men are choosing their careers, leaving their wives overburdened with children and household responsibilities. We’re hypocrites.
As the New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller wrote in summarizing a range of recent studies on millennials, marriage and parenting: “When faced with a lack of family-friendly policies, most fell back on traditional roles.”
We should have seen this coming. Sure, we speak in broad strokes about the virtues of egalitarian marriage. But when Pew asked millennials in 2013 whether “being a working parent makes it harder to advance in a job or career,” only 19% of men said yes, compared to more than 60% of women.
Do men my age not realize that parenting is time-consuming? Or do they expect their wives to pick up the slack?
If we want to be the generation that actually changes family dynamics for the better, more of us have to acknowledge that we can’t — to borrow a phrase — have it all. None of us has unlimited time, energy, willpower or sanity, so trade-offs are inevitable. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told women to lean in; I’m telling men to lean out: Don’t go for that promotion. Don’t worry about making VP by 30. Don’t try to impress your boss by forgoing vacation or family leave.
Pre-fatherhood, I routinely worked 13-hour days. But when it came time to have kids, I changed my schedule. I’d already missed out on time with my wife for the first two years of our marriage by devoting too much time to work; I wasn’t going to let her or my kids down by keeping that pace going as I entered fatherhood.
Every couple has to find its own routine, but in my marriage, I’ve tried to keep asking myself and my wife whether I’m doing my fair share or if I need to shift things this way or that — always seeing balance as a priority. I’ve been warned that airing these personal goals could make me seem boastful. But consider how absurd it is that trying to share the load equally with my wife could come across as braggadocio.
Amid all the sad statistics suggesting that my co-generationists are hypocrites, there’s at least one promising sign for an egalitarian future: The pay gap for millennials has narrowed to the point where women earn 93 cents for every dollar a man makes, compared with as little as 77 cents for older women working today.
We know, however, that the gap could reopen as more millennials have children, and more millennial women feel the need to abandon or curtail their careers because their lazy husbands aren’t helping out at home.
It’s in our power to stop that from happening. If men take on an equal share of that parenting load, and accept a corresponding reduction in pay, we can shrink the pay gap from both ends.
And our wives will understand: 91% of millennial women told Pew in 2011 that a “very important” quality in a good husband is being a good father, and almost as many women said a good husband is someone who will “put his family before anything else.” Only about a third said a good husband “provides a good income.” Lean out, young men, lean out.
Steven I. Weiss is news anchor and managing editor at The Jewish Channel.
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