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.