The other day a colleague of mine mentioned that his wife was pregnant with their second child. I casually asked him if he was planning to come back to work after the baby was born. In doing so, I stopped conversation around the meeting room and everyone stared at me a little quizzically. Of course he was coming back.
I like my colleague, I knew of course he was coming back to work, and I really only asked him that to be obnoxious – but I think it’s a point worth making. A question worth asking.
A friend of mine recently said that she hates telling people how much she spends on childcare, because their reaction to the astronomical number makes her feel bad, like she needs to be justifying why she pays someone SO MUCH MONEY to watch her kids so that she can work. And that’s because it is seen as choice she makes – her, as the mom, her, as the female spouse – framing her choice as if working were a vanity project, leaving the “child care or stay at home parent” viewed almost entirely as the decision of the mother; of course Dad will go back to work. Of course. “But what are you going to do,” society says. “Is working more important to you than staying home with your child? Is it? No judgment but is it? Huh? Huh?”
I recently watched the Neil DeGrasse Tyson clip in which he responds to comments made by the President of Harvard stating that it was the genetic differences between men and women that account for the lack of women in the sciences. (…). And he said that as a black man, his stated intention to become scientist put on the “path of most resistance”; it placed in him a zone that made society uncomfortable. People questioned and prodded him and wanted to place in him a box that was more familiar to them. (“Don’t you want to be an athlete?” he was asked.)
And he wonders that if he did not know with so much certainty at such a young age what he wanted, would he have had the motivation to overcome those challenges, to push through and become the astrophysicist he wanted to become. And he asks how many people don’t get the chance to even know they want to become scientists, because it’s so hard to place yourself outside where our culture thinks you should be.
(He says it better than I can paraphrase:
I saw that clip weeks after I asked my male colleague if he was coming back to work after his wife had their baby, but two things feel related to me. Of course I knew that my colleague was coming back to work. I didn’t need to ask. But when I was pregnant, my coworkers did need to ask. And the fact that the question has to be asked of me and not of him means that for all the support and “of course you work, women work, duh, what’s the big deal” means it’s still seen a female choice, a choice that needs to be justified and explained and is not a given.
That’s a daily thing, a constant thing, the explaining of that choice, be it in terms of explaining why you pay for childcare or that, yes, don’t clean out your office, you’ll be back, and it’s not a thing men are thinking about. And like Neil DeGrasse wondering how many kids of color or female gender miss out on the chance to know they want to be scientists because people like them aren’t supposed to be scientists, I wonder about the toll it takes when we suggest that it’s only working women who are deliberately choosing to not be primary caregivers. Think about the message that frames for us as a society, for our kids to internalize, if my participation at work is voluntary but a man’s is expected. And think about what it must feel like to live with the constant underlying judgment, because no matter you chose to do – work or not – if it’s a choice that’s yours and yours alone, then what is being suggested is that you may be choosing wrong.