In 1999, Kevin Knussman, a twenty-two-year veteran state trooper for Maryland, sued his employer for violating the Family and Medical Leave Act because he was denied parental leave after the birth of his daughter. His wife, Kimberly, had been ill, and Officer Knussman needed time off to care for her and their newborn. In court papers, it was revealed that a female personnel supervisor told Officer Knussman, “God decided only women can give birth,” and “unless your wife is in a coma or dead,” “because only women have the capacity to breastfeed a baby,” he could not be considered the primary care provider, thus not eligible for leave.159 The state of Maryland lost the case, but they were adamant in their position, so they appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Again they lost. Men, the court decided, could be primary caregivers. And yet, in so many ways, they are still considered secondary.
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While we still have a long way to go, much has changed in how we define womanhood. We women can be race car drivers, supreme court justices, neurosurgeons, astronauts, plumbers, construction engineers the list goes on. Underlying all of this is a fundamental change in our attitudes of what it means to be a woman. Yes, we are still viewed as the primary caregivers, but we can also be successful professionals and primary breadwinners (which we already are in 40 percent of households).
That same expansiveness in terms of gender roles has not happened for men when it comes to caregiving. In her 2012 article entitled “The Gender Bind: Men as Inauthentic Caregivers,” Kelli Garria, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law School, provides a thorough analysis of attitudes and laws regarding men and caregiving. In it she wrote, “although many men no longer maintain the primary breadwinner role, they nevertheless retain a secondary role as caregivers; they are the helpers, not the ones responsible for caregiving.”
Kelli detailed how our legal and governmental system places men in the secondary role when it comes to children. She reported,
The United States Census Bureau considers caregiving by fathers while a child’s mother is at work to be a ‘child care arrangement.’ The Census Bureau treats caregiving by mothers as the default by asking the question ‘Who’s Minding the Kids?’ when mothers are not. Thus, the Census Bureau places a father’s caregiving in the same category as a babysitter’s, underscoring the way in which men’s caregiving is treated as something done to help mothers rather than as a primary responsibility of fatherhood.160
Ask yourself how many times have you heard a man say he’s “babysitting” his children or a woman say her husband “helps” her with the kids. This underlying belief that men aren’t or can’t be fully responsible and engaged caregivers is deeply embedded in our society and this conflict is playing itself out most clearly in the current debate around paternity leave.
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