Thursday, December 10, 2009

Santa Claus is Not a Woman

“What about the holidays?” a women in her 20s asked me, “You see all these capable women running around stores, decorating homes, cooking big meals -- how much does the girl/boy labor gap widen in December?”

A lot it seems.

While the average hours men spend with children are up big in our generation, holiday planning does not seem to have attracted a similar surge of male interest. So this time of year offers an interesting lens on why it’s often hard for men and women to co-pilot family life together -- and why it can be so liberating.

I speak as someone who has all but given up holiday planning for our family of four -- every year I hope I’ll figure it out but that hasn’t happened yet. I have spent many Decembers making lists, going store to store buying carefully considered presents, writing cards explaining why I though each particular family member might enjoy the thing I specifically selected for them -- and spending a large fraction of December 24 wrestling with wrapping paper and scotch tape.

And while my husband Steve once participated in my holiday obsession, he’s now become a conscientious objector. Which has led me to this question: If Santa Claus is not a women -- and indeed I am a woman -- why do I feel the need to be Santa Claus when my husband is not attracted to this decidedly male role?

To help myself worry less about delivering the perfect Christmas (and to do my share closing the holiday gender gap), here’s what I’m telling myself:

1. Be a Man About It. When I met Steve, he had a large stack of silver frames in his closet -- the standard-issue wedding present for all his friends who were getting married. At first I thought this was impersonal: the same frame for everyone. But they were perfectly nice frames and I’d have been happy to get one. Steve has now taken his streamlined approach to the holidays - there’s a list of people who get a box of chocolates, some who get mall gift cards and yet others who get credits on Amazon.

While I haven’t fully stopped fussing over our gift list, a very large subset of family members are now getting copies of my favorite books (last year’s: Mindset, The Jungle Effect) or some Kinko’s-enabled promotion of my children’s artwork (coffee mugs, calendars). And a few years ago, Steve suggested a novel idea: “How about if Christmas is just about the kids? Can we skip getting presents for each other and save that for anniversaries and birthdays?” After tamping down, my “but it’s the holidays!” response, I decided this was another really good idea.

2. My Mother, My Icon (not Myself). I remember the holidays as this wonderful time when my mother would become a magician. Out of nothing, my mom would transform our plain old house into a glittering wonderland of creches and wise men and holly and tinsel. And we’d get a 30 day reprieve from health food and make huge pots of fudge and toffee and caramel -- supposedly for other people. And then dive into what seemed a mountain of thoughtfully-selected presents that my mother wrapped with double-sided tape -- and the multiple multi-course home-cooked meals on Christmas day.

As a working mom, I quickly realized that the only way our family would have an equivalent Christmas was to fly across the country to my mom’s house. And when that became logistically tough, I’ve simply had to say that I can appreciate the beauty of my mother’s holiday masterpieces without feeling guilt that I am wholly unable to produce them myself.

3. Smile - He Did It Without You. Last year, Steve came home with a bag of Christmas gifts -- instead of guessing what our daughter would like, he took our 4-year-old to comb the aisles Target and acquired an arm-full of plastic Barbie items (Barbie Cash Register, Barbie Princess Shoes, Barbie tiaras. etc.). It required all of my self-control not to say that indulging a 4-year-old’s impulse buying was different from getting her presents that were “good for her” -- though our daughter seemed delighted to have end-run more educational toys from mom.

Since we were traveling for Christmas, I decided we should do something special at our house before we left -- so I left my husband and son at home while I headed out to get all the fancy items I needed (but had forgotten to purchase) to turn the turkey in our fridge into the perfect holiday dinner. When I returned with my bags of groceries three hours later, my nose sensed a lovely smell, aroma of roast bird wafting across the kitchen. It was only 5PM but my husband didn’t want to eat late so he and our son had dressed our dinner with the help of instructions on the plastic bag around the turkey -- and without my newly-purchased fixings. Again, not done my way -- but DONE. We ate promptly at 6.

By Sharon Meers

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Father Absence Crisis and Why Men Matter

It’s almost unanimous: 93% of moms say there’s a “father absence” crisis according to a great new report by The National Fatherhood Initiative released yesterday.

Interestingly, very few of us moms (15%) think we have much to do with the problem. Aren’t we the ones providing our husbands all those lists and useful suggestions?

As we’ve learned from our book talks and psychology experts, that motherly impulse to “help” men parent has gotta change.

Clearly there are many layers to father absence - some that moms can’t influence at all. But I’m often amazed how easy it is to overlook the power we women have to let go.

My first inkling of this came a few months after I became a mother -- and interrupted my husband Steve who was diapering our son. I wanted to share the finer points of managing diaper rash (which I’d so carefully researched and discussed with the mommy brain trust). And I began inumerating the steps Steve should take to ensure our son’s behind was well-cared for.

I had only gotten several sentences into it when, Steve -- an ex-high-school football player -- turned on me and looked like he might tackle. Glowering, he said. “If you are going to tell me how to do this job, you can change the diaper yourself -- and all the other ones for the next three years.”

“OK then!” I smiled and quickly retreated to another room. My husband’s point: He loved our son as much as I did and had an equal ability to get information -- what he needed from me was not pointers but space to try being a parent in his own way.

A lot of guys express the same thing more softly -- which sometime means they’re not heard. Many dads tell us how surprised their wives are that they can -- thank you -- manage the kids on their own.

Psychology research says that when mom’s get out of the way - when we are really willing to let dads act as equals -- dads get to school pretty much as often as moms do and get far higher marks from their wives as highly involved parents.

There’s also a workplace angle to this. As fatherhood advocate Jim Levine said in the New York Times, “Working parents assume that employers won’t allow men the same leeway as women. But they rarely ask. Men don’t ask their bosses; women don’t ask their husbands.” So as long as women assume that men *can’t* be equal parents, we create a cycle where men rarely stand up for family at work. And so-called family-friendliness remains treated as a “soft” women’s issue instead of what it really is: a core management challenge that touches 80% of employees sometime in their lives.

The new report raises good questions about how to fix this problem and empower men to understand their unique value to children -- that is well documented in the research. One idea: Let’s help men educate themselves -- and support guys when they come up with innovative ways to do this.

A Stanford student recently made the case for a “male community center” -- so that his peer group would have a place to talk about how men define themselves in the fast-shifting landscape.

If giving men free-reign to parent sounds like a bad idea to moms, we women-folk might consider getting more broad-minded. To that end, I’ll share my kid's new favorite YouTube -- about a guy caring for his infant with his electric guitar (and hopefully ear-plugs for the baby).

By Sharon Meers