After my first son was born, I made a deal to start working from home at least part of the week. Part of the decision was emotional: I just didn’t want to be one of those dads I’d seen, spending the week in a Midtown box going to meetings and making late magazine closes, all for the knowledge that my salary paid for a baby I’d only see asleep or on the weekends.
But a lot of it was practical. Everyone tells you kids are expensive. They don’t tell you that the biggest expense is time. I work; my wife works. Somebody has to shop, wake up early, make meals, shuttle a kid around. My wife arranged a work schedule that helped accommodate that; as someone who writes for a living, this was something I could do too. As a TV critic, I can work anywhere with cable, a laptop and a place to charge a cell phone. I can drop off a kid at school in the morning and be at my desk writing by 8:30 a.m. I can cram in a full day’s work, and then some, without meetings, doorway chat or the hour-plus it takes to transport my body back and forth from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I can cook (or reheat) a dinner, I can make an emergency pickup. Best of all, I can see my kids while they’re awake.
I recognize that not every job — or every person — is equally suited to working from home. But I can say, from experience, that it suits me as a working father.
Yet the debate over the decision by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to eliminate working from home across the board has been critiqued almost entirely from the perspective of working mothers. Here’s Salon: “Working from home is a women’s issue.” Here’s CNN: “A Work-at-Home Mom Defends Yahoo’s Mayer.” Here, a TIME column says Mayer is “Dissing Working Moms.” And here’s a little inclusivity: the Chicago Tribune says Mayer is taking away flexibility from “other moms (and dads).”
Those parentheses pretty much say it all. Maybe you daddy-tracked yourself, guys. Maybe there are promotions you passed up, projects you decided not to take, paths that went unfollowed because of your priorities. But at the end of the day, you’re still: “(and dads).”
Part of the reason for the moms-only framing of the issue, I’m sure, is that Mayer took the job while she was pregnant and was then conscripted as the Next Leap Forward for working mothers. The blanket ban on working from home happened to leak as reports emerged of her installing a nursery next to her office, making her an even bigger target. Another part is that working mothers do still take on more of the work and time of parenting than working fathers. They are doing more of the dropping off and picking up, fielding the doctor visits and sick days; practically, then, they’re more broadly affected.
But anybody who cares about feminism — not including Mayer, to judge from her past comments — should be conscious of a major reason that working mothers still carry more of the weight: because of societal expectations that women should put family first and men should put work first, that a woman nurtures and a man provides. That women should find fulfillment at home and men at the office. That in a heterosexual marriage, women provide the backup income and men the backup parent. On sitcoms, in movies, in commercials, we still constantly see the message that men are comical and incompetent as parents, that a dude wearing a Baby Bjorn is hilarious, that guys don’t know how to change diapers, that a stay-at-home father is a curiosity, an asterisk, a comic-relief figure who gets points just for trying.
All those signals are reinforced every time someone, even with the best intentions, frames work balance as a “woman’s issue.” For starters, it’s just untrue: men gain no more from unbalanced lives then women do. Forget fathers who work from home (or stay at home altogether), though there are ever more of them. Even if you’re the parent who doesn’t work from home, if your spouse suddenly can’t, that’s your problem too.
There’s also a pragmatic reason not to label flexible-work programs as just somethin’ for the ladies. The more people are invested in a good idea, the more people will agitate for it. Just like parental leave and any number of other simple decencies marked as “women’s benefits,” men can gain from them too. Why not remind them they have a stake in it — as do, for that matter, childless workers who’d rather get more done in less time at home?
Flexible work isn’t solely a women’s issue. It is a feminist issue, though, in the sense that feminism is about expanding opportunities for both sexes. People think it’s about taking from men and giving to women, and that “male feminists” are self-sacrificing against their own interests. That’s not so: when you limit women’s opportunities, you limit men’s too — at least, men’s opportunities to be anything but stereotypes. Flexible work is a men’s issue, a women’s issue and a kids’ issue. But more than that, it’s a perfect example of why men should be feminists. Because there’s something in feminism for us too.