Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Dad The World Expects Me To Be: Conversations About Gender Roles During Pregnancy

If you ever thought that our society had moved passed the gender issues that our feminist pioneers fought so hard to overcome, you have a rude awakening once someone close to you becomes pregnant.

As a man who has felt judged and excluded because of not conforming to gender stereotypes, I always thought that I could relate to the pressures that women were under from other men and women. In adulthood, I‘ve witnessed my female friends deal with issues related to gender roles including body image issues, birth control and the struggle to balance work and family life.

I’ve seen my wife, Diana, deal with issues that are unique to her because of her gender. It’s been a struggle to learn how to support her and move passed the feeling of simply wanting to punch anyone who prejudges her because she’s a woman.

Then we were blessed with Diana’s pregnancy. Within the joy of sharing this experience with the world around us, I noticed that the pressure and expectations of gender roles became more present.

It's subtle.  All of the comments people share with us when they find our Diana is pregnant are well-intentioned but some of them express certain expectations.  It's in the way that people ask about childcare and our careers.  It's in the questions that people more often direct to Diana about what kind of diapers we will use and it's fact that people seem surprised that I have informed opinions about child-rearing. 

The implication in these exchanges is that Diana will be more likely to compromise her career to raise the child and that I will play a less active role in childcare then her. While I don’t find these questions all too bothersome, the underlying assumptions about our roles as parents make me feel uncomfortable at times. 

I get why people say these things. Partially it’s because if you look at the stats, women are more likely than men to compromise their career for their children.. Here’s the thing: over-generalizations even in a positive like (i.e. All Asian people are good at math), has a degrading effect on people who don’t live up to those positive stereotype.

The second reason that these things come up is because of our own insecurities. Our society has not wholly embraced the stay-at-home dad. We are not comfortable with the women CEO’s who put their job first and we are not as progressive as we would like to believe when it comes to who takes more responsibility for the second-shift, the house work.

A woman who makes a choice to stay at home and compromise her career faces judgment and criticism and so does a husband who chooses stays at home with the kids. If you feel this pulls, one can’t help but a feel a level of insecurity. This is projected during conversations as we struggle to deal with the consequences of these difficult decisions. 

There are people who buck this trend. When we were planning our wedding, most of our venders didn’t just talk to Diana, they worked to include my opinion. When we go to our bank, my financial adviser makes sure to talk to Diana directly and includes her in decisions. I am blessed with great friends who respond to the choices we make in our lives not with manifestations of their insecurities through judgmental comments, rather with support and love.

We all have to make very difficult choices when we enter adulthood. It’s scary, and it’s hard, so let’s make it easy on each other. If we want to create a world where the choices we make are respecting and not judged against preconceived assumptions of gender roles, we need to move passed the idea that someone has to be wrong for us to be right.

Next time you see a couple and you find out that the woman is pregnant talk to both of them when you ask follow-up questions. Include the guy in the conversation about diapers and if you are wondering about how they are going to balance their family with their career, don’t just direct the question towards the woman.  By including the man in that question, you are saying that he can be as big a part in that child's life as the woman and this could inspire that man to be dad in a way that he never imagined.  

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