We’re in the midst of the latest in a series of Work-Life Balance eruptions, from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” to Sheryl Sandberg’s admonition that women need to Lean In, to Marissa Mayer’s recent diktat that everyone needs to “get back to work,” no more of this “phoning it in.”

Will we see real progress this time?

Not if—abetted by the media—we continue to use the wrong language to describe the problem, assuring both a smaller constituency for change and a framework for looking at the issues that fundamentally misnames what we want.

This is not about “working mothers.”

And—male or female—no one gets to “have it all.”

Pick up enough things, you have to put something down.

Keeping those as the terms of debate ensures that we get nowhere.

We need to shed “working mothers,” a sexist phrase, tainted by what Robin Lakoff has referred to as a “lack of linguistic equivalence.”

When, after all, do we ever say “working fathers”?

“Working” is a modifier for “mothers” in a universe where women in the workforce are a new or rare thing, an oddity to be explained or clarified.  That’s not where we have lived for some time now.

The Work-Life issues that we are suffering are better identified as “working parent” issues, but best put in the larger category of “care giving” quandaries: how do you keep your life (professional or otherwise) on track when your child/parent/spouse needs help, whether with a mid-week trip to the emergency room or a two year slide into dementia?

Where are the men—half the potential caregivers—in this conversation?


Excluded by the language we use; excluded as well by the terms of the debate, which either implies or overtly states that we aren’t seriously interested in care giving anyway.  Often, in fact, men are physically barred from care giving spaces.

I know fathers who have been rejected by “Mommy and Me” play groups (could the naming there have provided a clue as to intent?); who have been asked to leave a daughter’s dance class (for “making the children uncomfortable,” a plaint that might sound a little different to us if made for reasons of race rather than gender).

One of the last verses in Loudon Wainwright III’s “Me and All the Other Mothers,” a song about a father on the playground—half-autobiography, half-parody—ends with the line “The sharpshooters arrived and they shot the man dead.  You know, that guy, he could have been me!”

That about sums it up.

Fathers today are whipsawed between “why don’t men take an equal role in care giving?” and “why is that guy hanging around the playground all the time?”

This is not about winning the game of “my oppression’s bigger than your oppression,” making a competitive argument about discrimination against men.  It’s about empowering women via equitable burden-sharing.  As Gloria Steinem has written, “Women will never be fully equal in the workplace until men are fully equal in the home.”

No, we have not reached some kind of post-gender Utopia, in which discrimination against women has been wholly eradicated.  But—ironically—we have done a better job of opening up formerly all-male preserves (mostly on the professional side) to women than we have in opening up female territory (mostly on the domestic side) to men.

Are there enough women in corporate board rooms?


But a board—a workplace, a club—that overtly banned women because their presence would “make the other members uncomfortable” would be inviting a lawsuit on a platter.

It’s been thirty-five years now since federal judge Constance Baker Motley ruled that, under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, it was illegal for sports teams to bar female journalists from the locker rooms of male athletes.

If we want to improve the care of our children—our parents, our homes—and make real strides toward a better work-life balance, we need the kinds of public policy changes that Slaughter and others have called for: paid parental leave; universal, subsidized, high quality daycare, for relatives of whatever age who need it; a more flexible workplace that values results over presence.

We also need to fully open up the “domestic locker room” to men, which would immediately double the number of potential caregivers.

We should all contest media usage of language that names the work-life balance issue as if it “belongs” to women.  And women should focus less on “owning the problem,” on maintaining a monopoly on domestic authority, and more on sharing the solution.

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DONALD N. S. UNGER teaches in the Program in Writing & Humanistic Studies at MIT. His book, Men Can: The Changing Image & Reality of Fatherhood in America, was published by Temple University Press in 2010. www.men-can.com

2 responses to “Men Can’t Have It All Either”

  1. Nick Bhasin says:

    Such an important issue, which I tackled and wrestled to the ground! http://www.daddyslittlemiracle.com/2012/07/can-dads-have-it-all.html

  2. Kevin Knussman says:

    It’s not that I agree with all the remedies put forth in this piece, but I did think of “Men Can…” and the lack of inclusion for men in recent media discussions on “working moms.” It seems the liberal media is not fully acquainted with equal opportunity parenting at the expense of families.

    As always Professor Unger “cuts to the chase” by calling out the media for giving men a raw deal when it comes to parenting…and giving women and children an equally bad deal as well. Families thrive when both parents are equally committed toward the work of raising kids. Nice job professor!

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