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For gender equality, perhaps men should look to traditional roles of women
Linda and Richard Eyre encourage readers to think of what men and women can learn from raising children. - photo by Linda and Richard Eyre
We got an anonymous message not long ago that went something like this:

"Your daughters and daughters-in-law all seem to be bright, competent women; just think what they could contribute to the larger world if they expanded themselves from just being stay-at-home moms and ventured outside their domestic roles."

Well, first of all, each of our daughters have expanded themselves far beyond our family and their domestic roles in all sorts of ways. Starting with degrees from places such as Wellesley College, Boston University, Brigham Young University, Harvard and Columbia, they have gone on to contribute in several professional fields.

But thats not the point. The point is that the anonymous message makes an erroneous assumption about gender and about contribution that needs to be corrected. The implication is that the way to gender equality is for women to live life and play roles more like men. To be equal, the reasoning goes, women must do exactly the same things as men and prioritize the things men have traditionally done in society.

Wait a minute: If equality and sameness were actually synonyms, it would mean that to be equal, a corporate vice president of marketing would have to do exactly the same things as the corporate vice president of research and development. This view ignores the fact that very different people, playing very different roles, can be equal in every important respect.

The anonymous message seems to assume that the way to improve a womans life the way for her to find her greatest fulfillment and make her greatest contribution is to get out into the world, make money, climb the corporate ladder, succeed professionally.

What if the greatest fulfillment and joy and the most important contribution was raising children and developing loving and lasting family relationships? And what if everything else in life was supplemental and supportive of those goals? What if C.S. Lewis was right when he said, The homemaker is the ultimate career; all other careers exist to support that ultimate career? What if the more happiness-and-fulfillment-producing thing we could do was not trying to move women toward the traditional roles of men but to move men toward the traditional roles of women?

No one on their deathbed has ever said, Oh, how I wish I had spent a little more time at the office with my co-workers. The regrets, and we see them all the time with those of the baby boomer generation we work with, are for not devoting enough time and effort and energy to relationships and to family. For so many, the realization comes too late that their real legacy is not their professional accomplishments but their familial relationships: their children, their grandchildren and the time, traditions and love they have built. How they wish they had understood it sooner and devoted themselves more to it.

One of the great ironies of the womens movement is that as it has focused on making women more like men. We've seen the reverse occurring as men have begun to be more involved in roles traditionally belonging mostly to women. In our personal observation, more and more men have begun to realize that they actually want to be more like women in the sense of being heavily involved and invested with their kids, devoting themselves to prioritizing and building a strong family, and understanding that their work and careers are not ends in themselves but the means by which they can obtain and support strong families.

As we travel around the country and around the world meeting with parents and families, it seems to us that a steadily increasing number of men and women in today's world understand that if all their thought and effort goes into their job, they are missing not only the most joyous part of life but the most lasting part. Perhaps as a society, we are figuring out that it makes more sense to work to live than it does to live to work. Careers are important, but they are a means rather than an end.

So when someone says something like, Too bad your capable daughters havent used their smarts and their talents to make a name for themselves or to reach recognized professional success, we just say thank goodness they knew there was something more important than that and thank goodness their husbands knew the same thing. Thank goodness they are trying to work as real partnerships to raise great kids and value their work and careers as the support mechanism for their families.

Is all this a nostalgia for "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave it to Beaver," for the way life was and the rigid roles of men and women in the 50s? Of course not. In a way, it is the exact opposite: It is looking to the future rather than to the past. It is recognizing that a type of equal marital partnership based on commitment and mutual agreement to prioritize children and family solidarity is more possible today than it has ever been before and that the rewards of putting family at the center and seeing all other aspects as support mechanisms that are both momentary and long-term.
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