An Interview with Barbara Risman
We recently got back from a weekend in Chicago, where we had the pleasure of meeting with Barbara Risman, feminist sociologist from the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Gender Vertigo (read our book review here). We were happy to find her an enthusiastic believer in equally shared parenting, and enjoyed talking with her about the future of gender equality. Dr. Risman considers ESP to be the unfinished work of feminism, and as inevitable as any cultural evolution. Here's what she had to say when we posed some specific questions:
M&A: The idea of ESP gets pushback from some people (both men and women) who believe men are just not as capable of primary parenting as women or just can't seem to notice when the house needs cleaning. Do you believe there is something inherently 'less than' about men's abilities here?
BR: There is plenty of research with evidence to prove that men are fully capable of both homemaking and childcare if given the opportunity. Rather than innate male failings, it is the dynamics of a couple's relationship that create this presumed incompetence. Men and women simply find it easier to relate to each other through the well-worn play-scripts of male provider/female nurturer-homemaker than to improvise a new relationship not modeled around them. Improvisation would require redefining the couple's relationship with each other and with their children, and a purposeful examination of each parent's sense of self.
M&A: What do you see as the greatest barrier to ESP?
BR: Our culture's definition of masculinity. It is still seen as a step down for a man to take on a significant (nevermind primary) caretaking role - this is still considered women's work. Until the moral code for being a man includes responsibility for nurturing in equal measure with breadwinning, many men will resist change. The second big barrier to ESP is the workplace's construction around the ideal worker with a wife at home to take care of the family and housework. Until the workplace is redesigned to accommodate caregiving, it will be difficult for parents to achieve the work schedules and hours needed to sustain ESP.
M&A: What about the effect of ESP on children? In Gender Vertigo, you write about your research into children's views of gender, but do you know of any data on how an ESP home affects a child's persona (e.g., self-esteem, patience, emotional intelligence)?
BR: There are no data because a study that examines these questions would be complicated and very costly to run. I can tell you that ESP doesn't hurt children, and information from studies of father-involvement give us strong data on the importance of a father in the future success of children. We also have evidence that children's self esteem is connected to the happiness of their parents (i.e., a girl's self-esteem is greater if her mom is happy), so happy parental relationships are good for kids. That said, my research also shows that culture is extremely important in childraising, probably even more so than the individual lifestyles of a child's parents.
M&A: We know the divorce rate is high in the US, and even though we theorize that divorce is less likely with ESP, we know some ESP couples will divorce. How might ESP contribute to the way children are raised if their parents divorce?
BR: The more two parents are involved in their children's upbringing in an intact family, the more likely they will both continue a high level of involvement after divorce. This is good news for kids. Men, in particular, are more likely to invest both socially and financially in their children, and research tells us that children will do better as a result of father presence. Speaking personally, my husband and I lived as equal parents while married and then maintained this equality in raising our daughter when we divorced. Creating an ESP family prior to divorce is a powerful gift to your children!
M&A: Finally, what do you see as the future of ESP?
BR: Equally shared parenting is inevitable as a mainstream family choice. The feminist movement has forever opened our eyes to cultural gender inequalities and we cannot revert to not seeing them. We will march forward instead, continuing our critique of gender and turning our attention to what still remains unequal.
Thank you, Barbara Risman, for your wisdom and for taking the time to speak with us. We share your enthusiasm for the future!