Parental care and scientific careers: a fish metaphor


Dads typically do less parental care than the mom, at least in the US. This is a problem, especially for the mom’s career.

Many men, and I suspect particularly academics, are genuinely focused on parenting. They want to do right by their partners, and make sure that they don’t create an inequitable parental burden. Parenting is a joy, but time demands of the required tasks involved are often burdensome. In some some families, if you fast-forward from zygote to toddler, you’ll find that some, if not many, of these guys are not doing their share.
The mom with an equally important career is spending more time cleaning, cooking, shopping, nursing, pumping, not sleeping, pickup andropoff, erranding and so on, than the dad. This is a fundamental problem that needs to be fixed. (Note: I’m writing about biparental straight couples with jobs and kids. I realize that these ideas do not apply universally.)

So how does it happen? How does it emerge that a spouse and father focusing on doing right thing can end up doing something somewhat less than the right thing? Well, I don’t exactly know. But here’s an an idea, or a metaphor, from parental care from animals that perform external fertilization.

In behavioral ecology, it is dogma that females are choosier about mates, and invest more into parental care. In species in which females make greater energetic investments into offspring before birth, more female parental care is expected because they want to make sure that their investment pays off. Males, who can be mere sperm donors, do not have as much of an energetic investment to protect with continued parental care.

We can learn interesting things by comparing how different kinds of mating systems affect parental care. Many bony fish do it with external fertilization. The female lays eggs, and then the male fertilizes them. And then, the eggs are just sitting there.

The female looks at the male. The male looks at the female. There are a couple awkward pauses, and a quiet swish of an operculum. At this moment, the male can just ditch away and leave the female to care for the eggs. If he does, then the female can either decide that the eggs are a loss, or she can be stuck with parental care on her own.

The female has the same exact option as the male. She can ditch the eggs and leave them to die unless the dad does the parenting. At this point in time, right after fertilization, the only real investments by the parents are the eggs and the sperm that they produced.

What happens varies among species and ecological contexts. Game theory is involved. The upshot is one of four possible outcomes: mom does the parental care, dad does the parental care, mom and dad sharing in parenting duties, and in some cases abandoned zygotes eventually get eaten by an interloper.

In our own species, in biparental couples, biparental care is the norm. However, the distribution of parental care is mom-biased.

Why is it that dads do less parental care than moms? In a few words, the dads are more able to swim away and leave the mom to do the work. Let me walk through a generalized chronology of parental care from the moment a baby is born. (Yes, generalizations can’t apply adequately to any specific case. That’s why they are called generalizations, not specifications.)

From what I’ve seen, having a baby is a major physiological event. It’s a big frickin’ deal, and maybe even more than that. Having a baby puts you out of commission for a while. For days to months after the baby gets home, the mom is working full time (at a parental duty), by just going through physical recovery. And, if the mom is nursing, then she has a baby attached to her half the time. At this point in time, dad is super-busy around the home dealing with all of the stuff, while the mom is getting her physiology back to equilibrium and nursing. If the dad is doing it right, and at this point I bet most are, then he’s just as underslept and hard-working as the mom. Of course, he didn’t just have a 10-pound human emerge from his body.

From the first day of a new baby, it’s all-hands-on-deck we’re-going-to-get-by-somehow, oh-my-god-I’m-not-mature-enough-to-be-responsible-for-another-whole-human-being bedlam. From that joyous, sleep-deprived delirium, a new equilibrium emerges at home. In every family, this equilibrium manifests itself in a different way. Regardless, by time the kid is toddling and talking, though, it often turns out that the mom ends up with the lion’s share of the parental care. Even if the mom’s career is just as busy as the dad’s career. How the heck does that happen? When that equilibrium emerges, I posit, the dad has the option of swimming away more than the mom does.

I think we need to really focus on what happens in those first days, weeks and months at home with mom and dad, to understand how inequitable parental care emerges. I know many dads who do their fair share for their working spouses, but I know even more who don’t do so.

In families in which the mom is nursing, it’s pretty clear how the dad starts getting a free pass on parental duties. The mom is physically connected to the baby a lot of the time. It’s only an efficient use of time and effort for the mom to take care of other baby-related stuff. If the mom is already up at 2am nursing, then she might as well do the diaper change. If she’s up at 5am nursing, she might as well start the next batch of laundry. Since the baby will want milk right after daycare, she might as well do the pickup because that would be easier than having to pump even more. These things are understandable (regardless of whether they are acceptable).

In the US, paid time off work after reproduction is scarce for both parents. But women working full time get six weeks. In the course of those six weeks, moms learn a heck of a lot about parenting, how to take care of a baby, and how to get comfortable with the little human. By the time those six weeks are over, the mom is more efficient at doing a bunch of routine baby-related tasks. Even if the mom isn’t nursing, she’s more likely to know how to prepare the bottle just right. She is more able to differentiate pee cries, poop cries, sleepy cries, and hunger cries. If the mom gets more time with the baby from the outset, then she gets better at doing parental stuff than the dad. More time with the baby at the very beginning can start a positive feedback that results in more and more parental care from the mom, because she’s better and more comfortable with it.

I think inequality at work can make it harder for dads, too. At work, men get high praise for doing any basic parental care, while women never get such praise. (e.g., Oooh, you change stinky diapers! What a great dad!” You brought you baby to work? You’re a special one, your wife is so lucky!”) But when it comes to genuine expectations, dads are not expected to provide real parental care. I’ve seen dads get a lot more flack for missing things at work than moms. When my kid was born, my former university downright denied me parental benefits that were clear as day in the faculty handbook. Meanwhile, two faculty members in other departments, who were women, had kids in the same month and received the exact same benefits that were denied to me.

How else is it that dads might be swimming away from parental care a little more than moms? Well, it’s possible that guys may have a higher threshold for tasks that need to be done. Do the dishes need to be washed right now? Do I really need to go to the grocery store today? Should I read a book to this baby now? Does a 4-month old really need a Halloween costume? In can imagine that, in some households, dads are more likely to answer “no” compared to the moms. Maybe. (I’ll leave this to sociology experts, and I’ll try to constrain my thoughts to perhaps quarter-assed attempts at applying behavioral ecology ideas to human families and universities.)

It’s little day-to-day decisions, in which the dad decides to not do a parental task and the mom decides to do it instead, that leads to unfair distribution of parental care. The dad just swims away, a little further, and the mom looks after the eggs.

I’m not claiming to be holier than anybody else, or to be doing it right. I’m just trying to identify the origin of the well-established problem among well-meaning people. How do I size up my own parental effort? I honestly really think I’m doing my 50%. Which might not be enough, it has been argued. I don’t think I’m one of those dads that swam away from the eggs. After six weeks, my spouse returned to work. I was the stay-at-home parent for more than six months. Plenty of dads do this, but the converse is far more frequent. In those first six months, I got really close with my kid. We walked to the zoo all the time, did errands together, read stuff, and I became as well-versed with parenting duties as my spouse. By the time we both went back to work and the kid was in daycare, we ended up with an equitable situation.

Would I be doing less parental care now for my 10-year old, if I hadn’t had those first six months as a full-time stay-at-home dad? I would like to think that I would be doing my fair share out of love for both my kid and my spouse, but that’s a hypothetical question that I can never answer. In many families, biological, personal and financial situations converge, so that it might seem, to some, more sensible for the mom to do more parenting work than the dad. I think that once a family heads down that road with a newborn baby, it’s really hard to backtrack. Once a working mom ends up doing more of the fun and the not-fun parental duties than the dad, it takes conscious and deliberately applied effort to get back to an equitable situation.

Ultimately, the logistical and time-demand problems of working moms should be as much of a problem for working dads. An ideal fix to the parenting demands of moms isn’t special accommodations for moms (other than those tied to medical leave and nursing), but rather accommodations for all those who parent regardless of gender. But in most families, and with most employers, we’re not even close to making that a reality.

Academic dads have a career gain from being a dad, and women have a career loss. To me, this is an outrage, and baldfaced evidence that guys aren’t doing their jobs as dads. Moreover, these delinquent dads are taking advantage of their own partners. But what is the fix, then? Any workplace accommodation for working moms who are doing their unfair share of parenting is just an amelioration. Moreover, as long as parenting is seen as a gender-associated task in professional circles, there will always be a perceived professional cost to reproduction. So then, what would make things fair? Guys have to be as responsible and hardworking and caring as parents as moms. The numbers show that they we are not.

There are huge systemic failures in academia reflecting biases against women. We need to actively work against those problems. But any genuine fix really needs to start with equity at home. As long as men are swimming away from the eggs, then we can only made a bad situation less worse.

Just like you can’t shouldn’t really tell someone what to eat in real life, you can’t tell them how to parent. Those are really personal things. I’m not telling anybody what to do. Life involves compromises, particularly for dual-career families with kids. I’m just pointing out the fact that men do less parental care than women. This pattern can emerge shortly after a baby’s 0th birthday. Temporary arrangements can evolve into permanent compromises over short timescales. The careers of working moms are suffering from the lack of parental care from the dads in a permanent compromise. The avoidance of that kind of compromise is something that takes place within the family, and it’s the job of the employers (and our academic community) to make sure that equitable choices inside are possible.

2 thoughts on “Parental care and scientific careers: a fish metaphor

  1. Wow! This is a hot button topic. My husband and I both have now tenured jobs at different undergraduate colleges. My college had no maternity policy when I started. I was told to have my babies in June! Things are not much better now but one can negotiate unpaid leaves. I decided I could not wait for tenure to start a family but believe me I tried to have a June baby. We started a family in my early thirties so I wasn’t that fertile!!!!. So for each pregnancy, I took a semester long unpaid leave for the semester of their birth. Once we were back teaching, my husband and I carefully arranged our teaching schedules so that we could “trade-off”. We did this up until our youngest hit high school.
    Here is the secret to my success of work/baby balance. I nursed all my babies through the night so that they could be with their dad or a caregiver and have their “fast’ from nursing during the day instead of the night. I know many academic moms who, committed to nursing their babies but unable to pump milk, who have done this. I also took a lot of work home so that I did not have to keep my babies in daycare full-time when they were less than two years old.
    My husband also has been a true co-parent. We were very lucky to have different semester breaks which always seen to coincide with children home from school with childhood illnesses (chickenpox, flu etc).
    Everyone is now grown and out of college….it has been a fantastic journey!

  2. Great post! I often wonder how much the first few days/weeks set the tone in our parenting. Since I was recovering from an emergency c-section, I unable to as much as I might have. That really gave my partner a chance to do a lot more with our baby (he got those first few hours with her while I was still in IC, for example).

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