It’s Not Any Patriarchy, It’s Just Biology (yeah, right)

This is an early Feminism Friday post, as I won’t have time to write anything this long again until the New Year, probably.

This post has been edited for clarity since it was first published.

A thread disrupter is trying it on at Shakesville, arguing for a general standard of a rebuttable presumption of joint custody in child custody disputes (the thread belongs to an excellent post about Nice GuysTM which you should all read). I’m not going to help him derail the thread further, but I do want to address the argument he’s making.

Firstly, let’s state that I have nothing against joint physical custody of children in cases where the separating couple have come to that arrangement themselves. Good for them, and I hope it works out as well as possible. Even in adversarial cases, joint physical custody could certainly end up being the most appropriate arrangement for some couples. However, that doesn’t mean that I believe that joint physical custody should become the rebuttable assumption in contested custody cases.

Especially for infants and preschool children, I accept the view that continuity of care from their primary caregiver is of profound psychological benefit in helping kids cope with the trauma of their parents separating, and thus I support the presumption that the primary caregiver (yes, nearly always the mother) should be preferred as the physical custodial parent for younger children as a general rule. For school-age children, I am more persuaded that joint physical custody is a good standard to aim for.

So, this “whatever” guy latched on to a statement that “Patriarchy is bad for everyone” and is claiming that unless feminists support a rebuttable presumption of joint physical custody of children after a separation, then we are hypocrites because assuming that the primary caregiver (usually, of course, the mother) should be the preferred primary custodial parent is caving in to the Patriarchy. Something like that.

Anyway, one particular statement prompted this post. I wanted to address it, but I didn’t want to muddy up Jeff’s thread to do so. One piece of his argument against the presumption that primary physical custody should go to the parent who has been the primary caregiver is that biology is so unfair (want to bet that in other arguments he claims that biology can’t be overruled just because women think that traditions based on biological disparities are obsolete?). Let’s call this the It’s Not Any Patriarchy, It’s Just Biology argument.

Any primary caregiver is usually the mother not due just to the patriarchy as you claim, but also to genetics, who is best suited to breast feed the child.

Now, this is a pro-breastfeeding blog. Definitely we encourage mothers to breast feed their children if they are capable, which for practical reasons mostly entails caring for the infant at home exclusively for the first few months after birth. But here’s the thing: in Western nations many if not most infants are weaned around about 6 months of age, which is coincidentally just about the time that a mother’s joints and ligaments have returned to their normal positions after birth. If the baby has been weaned at this normalcommon age((Edited to add – 6 months is generally considered much younger than is physiologically ideal~tigtog)), and the mother is physically recovered from the birth, then there’s no biological reason from this point that the mother must continue to be the primary caregiver.

In many peasant societies, 6 months is usually around the point where the grandmothers and elder aunties take over the primary childrearing responsibility for the youngest children, while strong young mothers get back to hard physical work (although in peasant societies the mother still breast-feeds for on average another year (ETA: or two), it’s just that they combine their break periods with nursing), because that’s the time that infants start to eat some solid food, which extends the intervals between nursing sessions. Obviously, Western mothers who still wish to breastfeed longer than the usual 6 months can express their milk via a pump so that their partner can feed the baby at home while she works. So, for a Western couple sufficiently dedicated to the idea of egalitarian parenting and equal career-building, why can’t the father take over the primary responsibility at about the 6 month point, allowing his partner to get back into income earning and maintaining her career?

Then parents could switch primary childcare duties and primary career duties every 6 months quite easily, no biological constraints involved, although perhaps alternating whole years might be easier for employers. Considering that when I was a physio I pointed out that although all your bits are back in place 6 months after birth, just like all the other postnatal educators I was at pains to emphasise that that doesn’t mean that the body has fully recovered it’s strength. The ideal interval for maternal bodily health between births is at least two years, which means that one year on childcare and one year off would work perfectly as spacing for the couple who wish to have more than one child.

Now of course, this isn’t actually as easy to do as it might sound, but that’s because of social expectations, not biological imperatives. The way that the job market has structured gendered career expectations, and how society generally has elevated work demands over family demands as the primary responsibility of adult males, that is what is to blame. These expectations (and they come from within the family as well as from the workplace, because we’re all imbued with the Patriarchy) mean that men feel pressured to build their career at the expected rate regardless of what’s going on at home((“I’ve yet to be on a campus where most women weren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children, and a career. I’ve yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.”~Gloria Steinem quote:)), rather than share home-based family duties equally and accept a slower career path and fewer material acquisitions during the period of their children’s greatest dependency (never mind that in later years two senior worker incomes will enhance the family’s socioeconomic standing more than only one senior worker and one mommy-path worker income would do, most people simply don’t plan that far ahead, unfortunately).

These social expectations also mean that employers are not challenged for family-unfriendly work practises that have accelerated in recent decades, along with the hegemony of economic “rationalist” ideologies, a system which certainly makes it horrendously difficult for many young fathers to see much of their children in waking hours. (This is another departure from the truly traditional family labour structures, where fathers worked in village workshops or local farm fields, with their wives and non-infant children alongside them as often as not. There’s nothing biological about men being separated from their families, that’s industrialisation and urbanisation.)

So, the current reality is that in our Western urbanised society, men are becoming more and more isolated from their children during their children’s infancies due to a distorted work/family balance and gendered expectations of childrearing responsibilities, and this is generally taken into account when determining adversarial custody cases: the infants have more emotional stability with their primary caregivers, so the mother is the parent usually awarded primary custody. This is a recognition of the needs of the children, not a bias towards women as women – it is a bias towards caregivers. If men are not considered adequate caregivers because they simply don’t spend the hours required being the responsible minder for their own children, how is acknowledging that this discrepancy exists some sort of bias towards women as women rather than caregivers as caregivers?

“whatever” seems, to my eye, to also have a distorted idea of what 50/50 parenting responsibility actually entails, and I say this despite the fact that if he truly did as he claims, then he did more parenting duties than many men are willing to take on.

Due to our mutual choice to use breastfeeding, it was natural for my ex to be close to the kid throughout the period.

Nevertheless, all nighttime wakings were mine, as well as strolling the kids to sleep at other times, as well has feeding the kid through expressed breast milk. When the kids were older, it was my job to walk them to daycare 4 days a week and pick them up 2 days a week, getting them breakfast and dinner and the occasional bath.

In the meantime, my OTHER job was to work fulltime and pay for our rent and food while my wife attended a Ph.D. program.

How would you measure that?

The court psychologists in fact wanted to measure it 50/50 and award us joint custody.

[snip further court disputes, including wife moving interstate, with kids, to be nearer her family]

I have been struggling since to achieve the relationship that I had once had with my kids of at least 3-4 days a week of breakfast and 3-4 dinners each week.

So, 168 hours in the week. Normal sleeping time of 8 hours per night takes 56 hours a week out of that, but given that children were waking for nightfeeds etc, lets give them only 6 hours per night, so we take 42 hours per week from that total, leaving 126 hours in the week of childcare remaining, that somebody has to be with them to keep them safe and fed and occupied.

He’s working full-time, and the kids are in daycare while she is studying. They seem to be juggling the dropoffs and pickups, which means that the kids are unlikely to be in Long Daycare, which means that their Daycare only uses up 8 hours daily as a maximum, more likely only 7 hours daily. Lets be generous, and say that it’s 40, that means there’s still 86 hours of childcare in the week needing to be done.

Now, what in the end does he say is the time he used to have that he now doesn’t? 3-4 breakfasts and 3-4 dinners. Unless every meal was taking well over 3 hours, and even allowing for nightfeeding etc in infancy, then he was NOT spending 43 hours of the remaining necessary 86 childcare hours with his children every week. That means his wife must have been spending much more than 43 hours out of those 86 childcare hours being the person with the prime responsibility for keeping the children safe and fed and occupied.

I’m not saying he was a bad dad. He seems to have been reasonably willing to step up and share duties, and probably spent more time with his kids than most dads. But more time is not the same as equal time, it’s really not. He was relying on his wife to pick up more than half the work of keeping the kids and keeping the house, there’s simply no getting around it. Also, as a PhD student, she was spending at least as many hours as he was on career building, presumably for the future benefit of their family, for no pay, while she was also expected to pick up more than half of the household and childcare duties, again without pay.

The reasons for the traditions that have given rise to these expectations might lie in mediaeval notions of the familial division of labour, but those traditions were based on a world where women often died young in childbirth, and therefore were considered a waste of precious resources to educate or otherwise imbue with notions of individual self-actualisation. (There were, of course, less pragmatic considerations based upon the institutionalisation of a fetish for dominance, but let’s stick to pragmatic analysis for the moment.) But those environmental constraints are not the environmental constraints which we work within today, just as we have different opportunities today, and traditions which do not adapt to changing environments will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Today women in countries which can afford decent pharmacology and medical technology do not die young in childbirth, therefore traditions which are based on the assumption that women will not survive beyond the age of 40 are senseless. Today’s modern world celebrates, over and over, the “elevation” of Man above our “animal instincts”. We celebrate the great achievements in metal and glass which come about through evolutionary adaptations of larger and more convoluted brains that helped us survive in competition with less adaptable but far more naturally formidable large animals. We have totally altered our habits with regard to how we live in every other respect, how we eat, move around, find our food.

We have totally restructured our family lives, away from extended families where childrearing was a shared activity with grandparents and aunts and uncles all pitching in with the parents, to the modern nuclear family which is largely a monument to consumerism wrapped up in a pretty bow of individualism. All these changes, and yet women are still the ones who overwhelmingly “choose” to be the ones who pick up the tedious portions of raising children and making a home. Sharing the fun stuff 50/50 is not being a 50/50 parent unless you’re doing your share of the tedious stuff as well (and yes, I know earning an income is often tedious as hell, but at least it has tangible recognition via the paypacket).

We, as a society, divide labour so that women are the spend more time doing the labour on the family side of the work/family balance, while men spend more time doing the labour on the work side of that balance ((ick, I hate this terminology that implies that unpaid labour is not work~tigtog)). When families are intact, this specialisation of labour can have some economic advantages in the short term. However, in the long term, it makes families more vulnerable to unexpected situations when they rely only on one income, makes women more vulnerable when older if their marriage breaks up because they have lost workforce skills, and means that men lose childcare skills and bonding opportunities with their children.

That family courts take account of which partner has the greater childcare skills when awarding child custody is an acknowledgement of the reality of how families divide their labour. As I said above, the court is not biased towards mothers as mothers in child custody decisions, the courts are biased towards caregivers, and for very young children that’s a sensible way to be. If men don’t want to have a judge decide that their partner’s childcare experience has made her a superior child carer, then they need to ensure that they actually have just as much childcare experience, truly 50/50, as their children’s mother does. ((I read about a study recently about how couples who practise consciously egalitarian parenting are more likely to come to an amicable joint custody arrangement when they separate, and thus are underrepresented in court custody decisions and the statistics derived thereof, does anyone have a cite?~tigtog)) Arguing that they, without equal experience, are just as capable a carer is devaluing the work that their partner has put into rearing their children: they don’t view it as real work and expertise, it’s just looking after children. The family courts have a more realistic view of the labour and expertise that goes into childcare, they award primary physical custody accordingly much of the time, and I don’t think that they are wrong to do so.

The reasons that we, as a society, encourage men to place work over family, is that doing so feeds the hierarchy that skims the cream off other people’s labour better than a society where men are honoured for taking a slowdown for a few years while their children are very young and their partner takes a turn staying on the promotions ladder as well. But if men were honoured for family-tracking their career the way that women are socially rewarded with approval for mommy-tracking, the consumption treadmill would have to slow down, which would starve the Profit Beast, and that Cannot Be Allowed.

That’s Not Biology, That’s Patriarchy.

Categories: gender & feminism, law & order, relationships, work and family

Tags: , , , ,

15 replies

  1. Excellent post, just one nit to pick:

    Today’s postmodern world celebrates, over and over, the “elevation” of Man above our animal instincts.

    This isn’t postmodernism it’s patriarchal humanism. :) Postmodernism is sceptical towards metanarratives like “man rose above animals and went onto glory/freedom/self-actualisation”.

  2. Good point, Beppie. I’ve dropped the “post” portion of “postmodern” accordingly.

  3. I’d highly reccomend “Motherhood” by Anne Manne if you get some summer reading time.

  4. Not having read whatever’s comments I can only guess that he is annoyed at having to travel and/or move to be closer to his kids and at having to take time out to be with them. Well, dude, sometimes men get caught by the patriarchy as well. Quit your bitching, we know it sucks.
    Mindy’s last blog post..Flaming Swords of…

  5. Dontcha love the way he writes “attended a PhD program” as though it’s a trivial fun little hobby his wife gets to enjoy, while the poor hard-done-by man has to actually work?
    I have some nits to pick about using the word “normal” to apply to a six-month weaning age, and the assumption that all women can easily pump plenty of milk (and have the resources to do so) and therefore it’s ok for all mother-baby pairs to undergo regular prolonged separation from six months, but you knew that. (Note that I said “all” – if some choose this, big deal, it’s a blanket-policy I object to.) If you’d switched it to twelve months (while again acknowledging milk expression and the need to be together mornings and evenings for direct breastfeeding), sure.
    Unfortunately “She can just pump!” has been used as a tool to forcibly separate breastfeeding dyads in custody cases for prolonged periods, days at a time, which is not fair to mothers or to babies. I think it’s important to acknowledge that if a mother and baby wish to directly breastfeed, that is their choice, and it’s not appropriate for a father or court to force them to separate against their will, nor to assume pumping as equivalent to the optimum situation of direct breastfeeding.

  6. I have two tiny nitpicks about the otherwise excellent post.
    (1) modern is also a problematic term in that in can be referring to modernism, or that specific period (modern furniture or modern design means something quite different to contemporary furniture or contemporary design, for example). I’d suggest using the term “contemporary world” rather than modern world, or perhaps the world today. Very very nitpicky indeed. Sorry. I don’t seem to be able to help myself.
    (2) “although in peasant societies the mother still breast-feeds for on average another year” – which would make 18 months the average age of weaning? This seems young. The ABA website section on extended breastfeeding says “by about two years of age a third or more of the children in sub-Saharan Africa were still breastfeeding. In five out of seven Asian countries studied, 50% or more were still being breastfed at two years; in Bolivia, Peru and Guatemala 40% of children; and in Indonesia 63% of children are still breastfed at this age (Haggerty & Rutstein 1999).”
    Seems like it could be a little older than 18 months, perhaps a little over two years on average if more than 50% are still being breastfed at two years? And of course biologically optimum age of weaning may be older – there’s certainly evidence in that direction.
    But great post despite my nitpickiness.
    Rebekka’s last blog post..And the Mitfords

  7. You guys are right to nitpick me. I was trying to be conservative with the estimate on the age of weaning, and Lauredhel’s points about forced separation of breastfeeding dyads, and pressure to break up breastfeeding dyads, is well made.
    I’ll make a couple of quick edits after I’ve had some lunch. Busy busy day today.

  8. Somehow I feel like there should be some way of playing with non-adversarial off-topic-ish nitpicks without it being in the main comments thread – like a sidethread or something. (C’mon, wordpressers!) For example, I reckon a bit of linguistic brass-tacking on why “contemporary” doesn’t quite work in the place of “modern” could be quite interesting (there’s some denial of coevalness stuff going on there), but it just feels a bit out of place here.
    Y’all know I mostly only nitpick when I reckon the rest of the post was pretty fab, right?
    Lauredhel’s last blog post..Battlestar Galactica: Feminist Or Not?

  9. Yeah, I know :)

    Thanks, all.

  10. Great great post. As a mother who genuinely isn’t the main caregiver for my young (6 and 4) children, and whose marriage is at the moment fine, I can totally agree that if we did ever split up it would be better for the children if they stayed with my husband.
    If it actually happened, though, I would be devastated, and I can imagine fighting to get better access, so I do have some sympathy for fathers like whatever.
    (just by the by on the breastfeeding points, I went back to work and expressed at 6 and 3 months respectively, and it definitely reduced the total length of my breastfeeding in both cases rather than what would have happened with natural weaning and no expressing. I’m happy with my choices, but there were consequences)
    Jennifer’s last blog post..Book Review: Strategy and the Fat Smoker

  11. This is such a sound analysis, I think I will do a clip-out-and-keep so I have it to hand. You touch on one of my favourite points, which is this MYTH that the nuclear family is history’s default model. You really have to not have thought about it at all to keep believing that one.

  12. Nice try, Fimail. Anne Manne’s Motherhood is an anti-childcare book. Childcare is not the only element in the contemporary child’s care mix, but it is still an important need for some. This privileged, upper-middle class white woman, married to a prominent public figure, probably would not have lacked for food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education for older children, and social mixing opportunities while “at home” with children. Not every member of society is so fortunate, or would make the same choices even if they were.
    “Motherhood” is a guilt trip, and its usefulness to a feminist mother is questionable, but go ahead and read it if you want I suppose. Just take it with a very large pinch of salt that your kids will be forever ruined if you use childcare.
    Helen’s last blog post..Calling the Hivemind

  13. Hi there Helen,
    apologies – three week old infant and feeding while at keyboard can take reasonable blame for the fact that whilst it makes perfect sense to me, my pointer to Anne Manne’s work does require some explanation as others can’t read my mind.
    You are right that Motherhood is largely about childcare, and the reason I point to it is that she discusses amongst other things, the lack of policy support in Australia for parenting choices. Research that shows that where women have the option, most women have neither a work centred nor a home centred preference but would in ideal circmstances choose a mix of both over time. As you point out, most people are not in their ideal situation, and make choices based on the options available.
    Manne discusses sweeden where there is a system of paid parenting – payments can be used to fund institutional childcare or as pay for the ‘work’ of a stay at home parent (either father or mother which is where i think the discussion ties in neatly with tigtogs discussion of possible parenting senarios that involve equal time). – the choice being with the parent as to where the money goes. Parenting policies in the workplace are also streets ahead. I think that this is an excellent model and opens up options for shared parenting models. That’s why I suggested it.
    I am a bit taken aback by your assumptions about my motives (“nice try”) which imply that I am trying to somehow pull a swifty and reccomend something that is unsavory for feminists to read. It was reccomended to me by my uni supervisor who publishes extensively on feminism and capitalism. The book is neither conservative, anti-feminist nor attempting to discuss childcare in the context of individal choices and make people feel ‘guilty’. It is largely about policy and looks at the question in terms of larger political and structural contexts such as consumption driven capitalism.
    Manne writes that everyone thought that she was nuts for tackling childcare that it is a taboo topic and I didn’t understand it at first, but I am starting to get a sense. I think it is an excellent read and even if you disagree with the research she discusses about the effects of long day care on child development it doesn’t mean that they are not relevant questions in the context of policy formation.

  14. Ah, I was about to butt in to say that Fimail is a regular good-faith commenter at my personal blog, but I see she has acquitted herself admirably here without my intervention.
    Carry on.
    Lauredhel’s last blog post..Love in the Time of Cholera: A Cantankerous Boxing Day Review

  15. Apologies, Fimail, you copped the sidespray from my ire at Anne Manne’s continual guilttripping of other women.
    Manne needs to understand, it doesn’t matter whether you support childcare as part of your own work and family mix, other women and men will still need it. Until we get (Manne’s version of) utopia, which presumably is where everyone, including working class women, refugee women, everyone, will be able to stay at home being financially independent until they choose to go back to work. Until then, opposition to quality, community based childcare just makes it worse for others. Even then, some selfish berloody women like me might just think it’s quite a good idea ;-)
    Helen’s last blog post..Holidays


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