The blogs and news sites were abuzz last week following Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter, an accomplished academic and foreign policy expert, recently declined to renew a State Department position because of her need and desire to be more available to her teenage sons. As a man, and a husband to a wonderfully competent and capable woman, I know better than to comment on the merits of the article’s assertions. Women hold various positions on this issue, as Dr. Slaughter elucidates, and struggle with the dilemma in ways that we men rarely confront.
That said, I still want to mention one point she made, since it was partly about us men. Dr. Slaughter writes,
I appreciate that Dr. Slaughter stresses the differences between men and women regarding children, and that she calls attention to a woman’s “maternal imperative.” Watching my wife go through pregnancy and childbirth, the natural attachment that she feels for our daughter is of a depth I envy. I share her passion for our daughter’s well-being, but I don’t readily make the same sacrifices my wife does. Dr. Slaughter recognizes this and attributes it to a difference between women and men—or more specifically—a difference between moms and dads.
Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.
Dr. Slaughter’s husband, also a professor, tells the young men in his classes to act more like women—speak less and listen more. Jesus, neither a woman nor a dad, is often credited with maternal impulses when he cries over Jerusalem prior to his passion: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). In this impulse Jesus reflects God’s own maternal tendency, and then some: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (says the Lord in Isaiah 49:15). If maternal impulses are appropriate for God and for Jesus, then they need to be more a part of my life. Speak less. Listen more. Play with my daughter a lot.