Just a few days before Hanna Rosin's provocatively titled "The End of Men and the Rise of Women" hits bookstores, the New York Times published an essay by Judith Shulevitz with the headline "Why Fathers Really Matter."
A mashup of the two might be "The End of Men As We Know Them and The Rise Of Fathers As Equals."
And that one would really be onto something.
For years we have been hearing this. (Heck, for years I have been writing this.) Fathers are on the brink of equality.. this will be the year of the Dad.. any moment now the Stay-at-Home Dad will become the norm.
The stories always seemed more aspirational than actual, though. And the fact that the theme keeps appearing year after year feels like this is more throat clearing than declaration, preparation rather than reality.
That's because there have always been two things standing between the old dad and the new one. The first is what Rosin describes as 40,000 years of social norms. Even the most evolved dad carried the weight of cultural assumptions and entrenched gender roles. And even our attempts to push back takes the archetypical male and female as the starting point. Chipping at granite takes time.
The second -- intertwined with the first to the point that it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends -- is biology. As Shulevitz writes, "advice rains down on expectant mothers for the obvious reason that mothers carry babies and create the environments in which they grow." And, it follows, that mothers have more influence over how that baby turns out. It is a visceral, and visible, connection and it seems logical -- or did until recently -- that great responsibility for the child before birth leads to a different relationship afterward.
But what if both these obstacles to equality were to crumble? What if all the trends that have made men the designated "bread winners" and women the "nurturers" were to disappear. Rosin argues that it is happening, as women begin to outpace men in every measurable social way. Women make up more than 50 percent of the workforce for the first time in history. They earn the majority of college degrees and hold more than half the jobs in the American workplace. They increasingly earn more than their husbands, breaking the the $100,000-a-year threshold at a more rapid clip, and, as men have done for generations, they are starting to "marry down", if they marry at all. There is even some evidence that they are becoming more violent, or, at least, more comfortable expressing whatever tendencies toward violence they might have always held.
Add to that the final piece, the growing awareness that men are just as responsible as women -- by some measures more so --for the health of an infant. The evidence has been mounting for decades, Shulevitz writes:
Doctors have been telling men for years that smoking, drinking and recreational drugs can lower the quality of their sperm. What doctors should probably add is that the health of unborn children can be affected by what and how much men eat; the toxins they absorb; the traumas they endure; their poverty or powerlessness; and their age at the time of conception. In other words, what a man needs to know is that his life experience leaves biological traces on his children. Even more astonishingly, those children may pass those traces along to their children.
Will this be the moment when fathers finally listen? Combined as it is with all the trends Rosin tracks, is this what it will take to make the difference we have been hoping for and hinting at for years?
When my boys were infants and we loaded them up into car seats when we left the house I noticed a trend. Most of the time my husband drove (yes, that is a related subject for another time) which meant I was the designated "singer of songs, pointer at interesting things out the window, collector of banana peels and graham cracker wrappers." That made sense. He had his eye on the road. Every so often I would drive, and he would take on the other jobs.
I was repeatedly struck by the fact that when we arrived, the roles continued. Without discussion or planning, the parent who had strapped the boys in and cared for them on the ride, de facto became the parent who fetched drinks, and kept a more watchful eye, and made bathroom trips while we spent time at whatever our destination. There was a mantle of responsibility that came with being the parent who brought them here in the first place, and we wore it without question.
Is that what is finally happening for men? Have women taken the wheel often enough that men can finally be comfortable buckling up and riding shotgun? Will the knowledge that fathers metaphorically strapped the baby in the car, that they built the being that we somehow assumed was more the mother's creation, somehow allow men to feel the kind of complete ownership that society has withheld for thousands of years?
Most of all, will I still be asking these same questions in five years? A decade? Two? When are endings ended and beginnings complete?