Thursday, June 9, 2011

Biology and Equality in Parenting: Are Women Designed to Be Better Parents?

In New Mexico, a man has paid to post a billboard with a picture of him cradling nothing but air in his arms. The billboard says "This Would Have Been A Picture Of My 2-Month Old Baby If The Mother Had Decided To Not KILL Our Child!"

Now, this story is rife with problems: the relationship between the two suggests this billboard might be prompted by revenge rather than the grief and "closure" the man purports to be aiming for, the friends of the girlfriend insist that she had a miscarriage, and the whole thing just leaves people feeling a little icky. I am interested in the legal ramifications of the battle that will ensue (freedom of speech vs. defamation or violation of privacy), but I'm also interested in the father's rights argument that's running underneath this topic.

Back in 2002, Dahlia Lithwick wrote an article titled "Why dads don't count when it comes to abortion." In it she explains that requiring the father's consent for the termination of a pregnancy may sound like a good idea to those advocating equal rights for fathers, but in the end "[t]he womb wins. The courts won't stomach forcing a woman to bear a child against her will." And that "a woman's relationship with her own body is simply too intimate for the state to interfere."

I'm not going to hash out the abortion debate here (mainly because I think that the rhetoric on both sides is too extreme to lead to a real conversation).  However, I am interested in the debate about biology and father's rights. Women are uniquely situated to parent at the earliest stages; a woman can carry a child, and a man cannot. And, as I explored in a recent post, a woman can breastfeed a child and a man (usually) cannot.

This biological preference for mother-child bonding during the baby's formation and early months is the basis for arguments like this piece by Melissa Meinzer profiling Suzanne Venker and her beliefs that the feminist movement is destroying America. In Venker's book The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know -- and Men Can't Say, she "writes that children are best served by having a parent at home, and because women have a biological imperative toward nurturing, they should be the ones doing it. She also argues that there's been no systemic discrimination against women — that any suggestion thereof was fabricated by liberal extremist women who want to silence and disenfranchise men."

There's plenty to take issue with in Venker's stance (not the least of which is the privileged perspective every word of her beliefs is drenched in. Not all women have the opportunity to stay home and care for children), but, again, I'm focusing primarily on this idea that biology has predetermined that mothers are better parents than fathers.

While at the conference I attended last week, I sat over lunch with a table of other mothers away from their children. When they found out I was away from my six-month-old (and she was sick!) for the first time, I was met with a lot of sympathetic "aw"s and stories. These women were helpful and supportive, but they were quick to explain that "Dad's just aren't moms. They just can't take care of them the way we can."

One woman began playfully lamenting the outfits my daughter must be showing up to daycare in because surely daddy doesn't know how to dress her. I could tell that I threw her off track when I explained that daddy gets her dressed every morning whether I'm home or not--I take her to daycare, so he does the morning routine. They also seemed confused when I explained that I wasn't concerned about my husband's inability to care for her. I would be equally concerned about her fever if I were sitting next to her. She was in completely capable hands.

But did my husband know that's what I thought? Is that what he thought? Sure, I told him that I wasn't calling because I doubted his abilities. I just wanted to check in. But did he completely believe that? Isn't the narrative that women are better nurturers really, really strong?

So, yes, there are biological realities that make a woman uniquely capable of parenting in certain ways, but that doesn't have to put parenting equality at risk. Equal does not have to mean identical. Fathers are still capable of playing crucial roles in child development and parental bonding even as a mother is pregnant and while she breastfeeds.

But that means women have to give up a little bit of the power. We have to stop saying that "Daddies just aren't mommies." That may be true, but mommies just aren't daddies, either. Valuing the contributions across the board seems like a better way to go.

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