Confusing the Past with Today's Possibilities
If you looked up the average time it took to cross the Atlantic in the 1700s, you'd get a very different value than we enjoy today. If you unearthed stats about the American census back in, say, 1901, you'd find there were fewer people living in these 50 states than it shows in our latest census data report. No surprise, right? We imagine you wouldn't dream of using any of these outdated statistics to make conclusions about transatlantic travel or the US population. You'd turn to more current information instead.
Alas, when it comes to data about the roles of mothers and fathers, however, we have seen many journalists make just this mistake. They take old data - from back when men were expected to be primary breadwinners and women were primary parents/homemakers - and apply it to conclusions about what is possible for men and women today in terms of their careers or their abilities to share the home front. It's a bit like saying that women can't have full-out careers because women in the 50s didn't have full-out careers, or that men can't be equal parents because men traditionally haven't been equal parents. Or, even that ESP isn't possible because it isn't common.
The world is changing!
Here's one example of the problem, from TechCrunch. In this piece, author Penelope Trunk says that women should not try to run start-up companies if they want to also have children. Men - no problem, because they are more likely to be fine with abandoning their kids to the crazy hours of a start-up than women would ever be. The problem with this advice is not that start-ups are hell on a balanced life, or that committing to one is likely to prevent you from spending enough time with your kids. These facts are based on the inescapable truth of having only 24 hours to each day. No, the problem is that the whole argument is based only on traditional gender roles.
In our old definition of masculinity, men provided and women nurtured. Men (and women) who buy into this paradigm will fit into Ms. Trunk's description - and these couples had better leave the start-ups to the men. But in today's wider definition of masculinity, there is room for men who have as little interest in skewing their lives toward work-only as there is room for women who'd rather do so. One such type of man, the ESP dad, would be really unhappy devoting his every waking hour to work and missing the nitty-gritty of raising his kids - as unhappy as any typical mother. Slaving away at a 100 hours/week start-up would be his personal definition of a life poorly led.
It is not women, then, who should shy away from running start-up companies (as a general rule), but any parent who wants a balanced life. Of course, having an equal partner at home makes it a bit easier to handle a meaningful career than if you're truly saddled with the bulk of the housework and childcare, but the uber-stressful life of a start-up business owner usually lies on one extreme of the ol' bell-shaped curve.
Beyond its claim that supercareerists can only be male or childless, the TechCrunch article has another, more sinister, message in it too. Ms. Trunk claims that stay-at-home fathers (or, presumably, all involved dads - including ESP fathers) are inferior to mothers in parenting their children. Her data come from backroom chats with women CEOs who gab to her in confidence that their husbands aren't really up to snuff as parents - that these power-career women are really secretly still running the show at home too, even if their spouses are not working.
What's wrong with this conclusion? How do I start! For one, our culture gives women wide permission to belittle their husband's parenting - in fact, it encourages this behavior. Men, on the other hand, are given zero tolerance when it comes to publically belittling their wives' mothering. Our culture also tells women that they have to succeed as parents, and gives men a pass in this arena - and woe be to any woman (supercareer or no) who can't claim that she is a great mom. So it makes perfect sense that a female CEO - who has abdicated the primary parent role to her husband - would poke fun at or complain about her spouse's capabilities with their little darlings. That these women would do so in the company of another female tycoon says far more about their inability to let go than about their husbands' nurturing talents. Secondly, it is a simple thing to find fault with another. No parent is perfect by any stretch, so if a stay-at home dad isn't Mr. Amazing with his kids one day, it would surely be the same if his wife took the parenting reins. And finally, who says these CEO moms can accurately judge their husbands' parenting anyway? It could be that the dads in question make much better parenting decisions than their wives would ever make. Maybe finding "the perfect ballet teacher," as Ms. Trunk intimates a mother would do and a father would always fail to consider, is exactly the wrong approach to a child's childhood. Or not. Just saying....
In the end, there is no longer any gender that need be attached to the life decisions we all make as parents. Start-up venture or parenthood? Big bucks salary or just enough? Full-time, part-time, or stay-at-home? Cincinnati, Manhattan or Bali? Tango lessons or kiddie gymnastics? In the past, women made these decisions in their roles as nurturers and men made them in their roles as providers. Now, many still do. But others, like ESP mothers and fathers, find a middle ground - preserving a great career (but not one that sucks the life out of them), an intimate daily bond with their kids, a chance to tend their homes, and time for themselves and their marriage. They prove, every day, that there is no gender difference in loving and raising children - only a culture that continues to think there is.
Show me data on these parents, and I'll show you a new world of possibilities.