Caregiving Men

Is this title an oxymoron?  Some writers, always women, conclude that the facts bear out that men who take on caregiving are in the minority and that the main reason is cultural norms and a lack of models of men who choose to take on a major portion of childcare, housework and related activities.  One writer points to the “creaky old idea that caregiving — for a spouse, parent or child — just doesn’t come naturally to men.”  Is it really a creaky old idea?  Partially so, but other data suggests that it is not that simple.  Over three-quarters of American fathers are back to work two weeks after their baby arrives, and only seven percent of all stay-at-home parents are men.  We know some of this is because paternity leave is shorter for men but studies show that in Scandinavian countries with generous paternity leave men tend to want to come back to work much sooner than their female partners.  A somewhat tongue in cheek comment from former CNN host, Piers Morgan, when questioned on the subject of men and caregiving said, “most dads don’t want to do paid paternity leave because it isn’t the most exciting gig in town.”

The issue then becomes whether or not women take on the lion’s share of caregiving because of  reasons beyond the “creaky old ideas.”  The fact is that women generally are more nurturing than men and the reason is for that goes far deeper than patriarchy and historical male dominance.   Women read verbal and non-verbal emotional cues better than men and this leads to having greater empathy than men.  Nurturing, the essence of childcare for infants and toddlers, is the byproduct of empathy and the bonding hormone oxytocin which is released for women during childbirth and breast feeding.  For most women nurturing young children can be quite fulfilling despite the more tedious demands of childcare.  For most men they feel enormously loving and protective of their infant children and feel the pressure of what it means to provide for their new family. The most thoughtful men will help with diaper changing but frankly do not find the day to day maintenance of an infant as satisfying as their female partner.  Therefore, unless there is a significant economic advantage for the family, women will choose the primary caregiving role and not resent that choice.  Obviously, their male partner’s willingness to help out as much as possible is certainly welcome and ultimately will lead to a more satisfying family experience for all parties, including the child. 

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