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"Since pregnancy doesn't take 18 years, as does raising kids, then isn't it fair to say that it's the woman's choice to lose earning potential by choosing to cut back on work or stay home with the children? Men don't make this choice."

But what is a PRIMARY PARENT? I don't believe it's as simple as a "choice", especially not a choice to lose earning ability.

I don't think women plan on this at all, so much as, once they have children, they prioritize their children in their lives.  This priority conflicts with how standard business hours have been arranged to fit men's schedules and lives.

If women routinely could do it all, and while maintaining a reasonable lifestyle, without the children having to sacrifice, and without killing themselves as superwoman, they would. But often they cannot: assistance usually has to come from somewhere, either childcare or financial support.

The question to me is not "why do women prioritize care of their children" (over their own long-term interests and careers -- which also could benefit the children in other ways), but "why don't men"? Why do women end up being the parent who is the one who usually sacrifices career when necessary in favor of childcare. I think biology is in there, at least initially, helping to put into motion, domino-like, an entire subsequent course of events.

Women cannot avoid being the ones who have to slow down, drop back and take off time from work and life because of pregnancy. Post-partum recovery is not instantaneous; and breastfeeding frequently continues for months. Even if women don't take off from work more than the absolute minimum, this does not mean that they will be able to function up to par from late pregnancy through months afterward. This doesn't include possible pregnancy disability or complications, none of which can be foreseen, and which are not at all rare. Exacerbating this, most families who have any children, have more than one child, so this "slight" interruption repeats itself one, two or more times.

Post-birth, the issue becomes that it's simply not in the best interests of babies to be continually separated from their primary attachment. Most of the time, that will be the mother. It will be the mother for the quite sufficient reasons that from the standpoint of biology, the mother is the first caregiver, initially the one who is home with the infant, that most couples need at least one of them to be out earning a living, and that even if both stay home, there's plenty for the other to do other than childcare, such as helping the mother with household chores and errands, making the meals and so forth. (If she's breastfeeding and strongly attached, efforts by attempting to "help" with the direct childcare are duplicative and unproductive -- and mostly will be unappreciated).

Why do mothers "choose" to take more time off from work after they have medically recuperated, and even if breastfeeding is no longer an issue. They do it because that is what their babies need -- a full-time consistent loving caregiver. By this point, most mothers crave being with their babies and overseeing their welfare directly in ways that most fathers just do not. This part is a biology thing. Those who do not understand it likely are not mothers -- who are the only persons with an experiential basis to be able to make a comparison between someone else's child, such as a sibling's child or much younger sibling, whom they've "loved" and cared for (and many women have lots of this kind of experience), and one to whom they've given birth.

Mothers are strongly motivated to continue being the primary caregiver after the post-partum recovery period, because by this point the child has become strongly attached to the mother, and now actually needs that continuity for optimum development. The mother, being the more strongly attached parent, recognizes this. The mother has become more familiar with the child and more attuned to the child's needs. They have settled into a routine. This in turn creates more motivation to act on the child's needs, and so it's a self-perpetuating cycle. It starts out as a biological connection through pregnancy/hormonal differences post birth, including where applicable, breastfeeding. Societal expectations may factor in but they are not causative. It is not by happenstance that throughout mammalian species and across time and culture in the human species, mothers have been children's primary caregivers -- and that when they have not been, the substitute caregiver rarely has been the father. It's not an artifical "gender" issue, but a real function of reproductive biology.

What happens because of biology in the very early months sets in motion a different kind of attachment of the infant to the mother that -- the primary (first) attachment, that cannot ever be duplicated. As the child ages, the child will form other, secondary attachments, which may grow to be of equal strength, but these will always remain qualitatively different from the first one. It would require a considerable amount of effort to create a secondary attachment of equivalent strength in the child to the father in order to create an alternate primary caregiver for the child that the child prefers. (And it's probably not reasonable to expect except in the complete absence of the mother.) The problem becomes then that good parents recognize which of them the child prefers, and with which of them the child feels most comfortable, and comforted when distressed -- and good parents want their child to have that contentment. So it's not merely a coin toss, a question of who earns more, as to which parent will be the one who ends up in the role of primary caregiver.

"Pregnancy is mostly irrelevant, because though it takes time and can be an impact, it goes away, and the childrearing is there for 18 years if not more and is way more labor and time intensive than the carrying was in most pregancies."

Pregnancy is simply not "irrelevant."

Women are not merely containers, and then out comes a baby as to which the mother and father experience equal feelings and thoughts. Birth is a process. The baby may no longer be physically attached inside the woman, but remains attached for nurturing, emotional and psychological development. Some medical literature has theorized that human infants, being the only ones among mammals that are nonambulatory at birth, and looking at other developmental factors, actually aren't "completely born" until about six months of age.

Not all mothers feel irresistably instantly bonded, of course, of course, but many, probably most, do. If we care about children, we should consider whether it is worthwhile even to try to create a world in which a strongly attached parent, devoted to her children and prioritizing them, is considered pathological, underachieving, "enmeshed" or deserving of some financial booby prize, disregard, or punishment down the road for having made "bad choices".

It is only over a period of years, about three, as the child becomes ambulatory and social, that it can be said that the child actually has matured sufficiently to the extent that the attachment can be similar in strength to both parents (assuming the parents were co-resident), and perhaps to others, although the quality of secondary attachments will remain different from the first. Nevertheless, the development of strong secondary social attachments does not necessarily herald in a role-switching opportunity. Often, more children come along. The period of unavoidable career interruption and interference easily can be a decade or more.

Some degree of economic repercussions will occur, whether or not the primary caregiver also works outside of the home, even full time. disruption sneaks in, such as the inability to have the freedom to work certain hours, or to travel without extensive planning. Thinking about what needs to be picked up on the way home or leaving an after-work meeting to get to the daycare before it closes interferes with single-minded concentration on work, and career networking and socializing opportunities. Child illness in particular creates schedule upheavals because third party caregivers frequently will not take sick children, and cannot be charged with the responsibility of doctor visits. During the day phone calls, or issues with no-show caregivers, or arising because school days do not coincide with work days exacerbate the problems. Additionally, the primary parenting mindset is a hard one to shift to someone else who has not done it, because much of it involves emotional and intellectual time and energy, thinking, planning, and so forth. It's a subtle thing that starts before the child is born and is very difficult for someone else to take on cold, or for the mother to give up, and it's also not able to be shared. The pregnant mother spends months constantly aware of the child until this becomes an habitual undercurrent of thought, always present; no one else experiences this. (Consider how many more fathers "forget" that the child is in the infant seat in the back of the car.) At best "co-parenting" involves considerable added conference and time burdens, as well as unnecessary duplicated effort.

Ideally, at least one parent should be with the child from the moment of birth, more or less continuously, for the first three years. If no additional children come along, and both parents are very motivated to role-switch, then a shift in which one is the primary caregiver is theoretically achievable gradually over a period of time culminating when the child is about three. But what would be the motivation. Usually, the only one is an income-earning issue, and it is only rarely that mothers are the higher wage earner of the couple, or if they were, the mother still is by this time. Once the pattern is set in motion in the very early stages, it's just not realistic to expect that most, or half, or even a large percentage of parents will make, or would even be able to make, the huge efforts required to change the status quo, or that it necessarily would be feasible to do so. Some will, but not that many. So in summary, more women than men will end up remaining the primary parent years after the child is born because only women get pregnant, have to take time from work to recuperate, have the initial attachment hormones, breastfeed, and consequently end up with stronger qualitatively different, more attuned, natural bonds to their children, and a higher interest in them and desire to prioritize their wellbeing.

All of this is before considering whether and why experience -- generally highly regarded in connection with all the kinds of work men do -- should be viewed as a nullity as far as parenting. Or considering that because of the way our employment sectors and society currently are set up, the cumulative effect of career interruption means that the mother usually is so behind the father out of the starting gate, and he's so entrenched in his career, that economic factors come into play even more strongly as a deterrence to primary caregiving by fathers. Switching who is the primary caregiver, or even sharing primary caregiving somewhat equally, just cannot be reasonably expected to be the norm for most married couples.

Once the children are in school and the child care needed is such that mothers have more time available to work, the primary caregiving still continues in the double shift sense. Mothers are the ones in the habit of thinking about it and doing it. The way one parent's mind already works is difficult to switch to the other absent tangible other changes in their lives, and deliberate efforts aiding the learning curve. A good deal of being the primary parent is mental; that constant on-the-mind stuff is the result of learning -- after the mother has been the one to go for months while pregnant during which time she can never not be away from the child (and maybe multiple times), and then spends a period of time during which the children's whereabouts must be on her mind 24 hours a day, attitudes of initiative and responsibility toward the children's needs aren't going to be something one just "assigns" to another person suddenly and arbitrarily, especially one who has not developed the stamina for it over time.

"The issue isn't the bearing of children; it is what happens after they come out, and the mother recovers. He's also a parent and he should care for the child as much as she does, right from the beginning. If she doesn't let him, she's making a choice and deserves to have negative economic repercussions from that later on."

When does birth end? Although the cutting of the umbilical cord is seen as significant, that may be part illusion. The two bodies involved, mother's and infant's, do not suddenly forget nine months of attachment as soon the child is born. In fact, the mother's body continues with reproductive changes. Birth, like death, is a process. There's no instant separation. Birth is a process of separation over time, just as is all of childhood in multiple ways.

Following delivery, a rather traumatic first upheaval in the infant's life, the baby optimally needs to reassert a very secure attachment with one caregiver. Who will that be. It's not a question of arbitrary choice, it's nature. It's bucking biology to expect most mothers who have just given birth to prefer to hand over their babies to someone else. That not only requires high effort on the part of the mother to quell feelings of loss and panic, but it also requires far higher effort on the part of a the substitute caregiver than it would of the birth mother to be so interested in the infant as to provide unrelenting continuous attention and care. The post-partum period is not just a question of medical recovery, but that alone -- being the one who must take some time off from work to recuperate and consequently is with the infant more -- contributes to the outcome of primacy of the mother-infant attachment. Other interrelated and reinforcing factors also are in play.

Notwithstanding the trendy gender-neutral social pratter, post-birth, to most new mothers, if they were to be honest, it's their baby -- not anyone else's, and has been their baby in their very body for nine months-plus. That fact and that feeling doesn't change following an additional unilateral effort by her alone -- the exertion (pain) the mother has had no choice but to invest into the outcome of labor, delivery and post-post-partum lifestyle changes. If these feelings don't usually manifest negatively toward the father's beliefs that he's "equally a parent", that's the part that would be attributable to "socialization". The father usually is the adult person the mother loves most dearly (and that oxytocin likely is slipping over as well). So she's warm and generous about "sharing" with him when she's the person he loves most, and he's been the person who has been the most help and support to her. By contrast, in situations in which the parents are estranged or hostile, are undergoing divorce, never had much of a relationship, or when the father has been abusive or unsupportive during the pregnancy, that woman is going to resent involvement demands from him even more than she would from mother-helping family, friends, and other neutral third parties. Under such circumstances, her feelings are normal, reasonable, appropriate, naturally protective, and deserving of respect -- not pathological.

Most of the time, men who are not abusive, men who are emotionally healthy, loving and supportive, don't make demands.of a mother that she is uncomfortable with. They defer to her wishes, and the "help" they offer is for her benefit, not forced on her or the child for their own gratification. They behave appropriately because they care first about the woman. That in turn, motivates her to keep them involved. Married men in good relationships will defer to their wives, but ironically, it is hostile men who more often make the demands for involvement. These demands are not motivated out of love for the child. If men felt the same way women do about their babies, we'd be hearing about the married abusive ones beating up on women who didn't let them do the bulk of the baby holding and care at least as often as we hear of the violent ones who go berserk over relationship jealousy, or because she didn't cook dinner the way he wanted it.

Women's pregnancy and post-pregnancy hormones, move a good deal of their feelings about their babies. Some of these are heightened by caregiving, but most are part of the biological reproductive process. These hormones resolve over time, but the reality is that men's feelings are different about their babies. They are not the same, and they seldom become as strong, because this attachment relationship only first starts at birth. It's behind what the mother already has, and for a time, the gap just widens.

We should not create ideals about what women "should" feel or want to do that most women -- or men -- are not going to be able to live up to. Moreover, if women's economic viability is the issue, it's specious to expect women to have to function like men do in order to optimize their lives in this world. It is employment standards that should be changed; not human nature. "Like a man" is not the standard of appropriate human behavior.

We make a huge mistake to tell women that an experience as significant in their lives as pregnancy is mostly "irrelevant" and should be viewed as insignificant, and not affecting subsequent events and feelings because this is just not true. The only people who actually believe in that fantasy are individuals who are not mothers, were never mothers, or forgot what it is like to be a new mother.

Oddly, family laws and employment expectations pathologize women who find themselves very attached to their infants, as if something's wrong with them that they feel so strongly about their babies, rather than wanting to "share" the baby with a hostile man, or wanting to go right back out to work. In the absence of such artificial standards, strongly attached mothers are the best kinds of parents that infants and young children could have. It's not "controlling" or "stupid" or "gatekeeping" or "choosing not to work" or "being forced not to work" (notwithstanding that that historically has played a role), or any other judgmental negative. These attitudes are denigrating of women, their unique biology, their different experiences and their lives.

It's one thing to say "this is what women can do if they want to," and quite another to tell women how they should feel, what they should do, and what their reproductive lives are about. Or, that if they simply function as women, as mothers, as it may feel natural to them, they have made some kind of stupid or selfish or shortsighted choices for which the penalty is economic subservience for the remainder of their lives, or contempt of court sanctions.

"This is an excuse for women to stay home and be supported, or get alimony or child support. She only stayed home in the first place because he was the better earner. She could have married a man who earned less. The feminists complain that women have obstacles in their careers, but if in the first place women would choose men who would be in a position to share in the child care, then when the time comes for raising the children, the men would be the ones doing more of it, and women could work too."

You speak of "choosing" the right kind of man as if young women have crystal balls. What kind of parent a future spouse will be, and what priorities they will hold, and how they will feel, once there is a baby, are just not predictable even by the person him- or herself. Nor is parenting capacity and interest a function of career and lifestyle. Research indicates that how mothers feel about their babies is not a function of how much the women earn. Additionally, research indicates that men's earnings do not affect how they feel about their children. Just because he is unemployed, or underemployed will not cause him to suddenly put the child's needs before his own and become a nurturer. It does not follow that the spouse who can't earn as much or achieve as much doing other things is the best choice for primary parent, and that "gender" is irrelevant. Finally, from an anti-economic dependency standpoint, it's hardly feminist to make a women's economic viability be dependent on their choice of mate, whether that be a breadwinner choice, or a nurturer choice.

Your position also assumes that a substantial reason that women are usually the ones who stay home with the children is because they have less talent or ability than their husbands to earn money and do other things. This is denigrating of women and their feelings about their children.

Women aren't getting stuck with the housekeeping or the child care (the two go largely together -- it's nesting) because they are less competent than their husbandsr to do other things.

They aren't choosing to do the child care because they don't want to work hard or also do something "serious" in the outside world. They are not prioritizing their children, either, out of some implicit acknowledgement that they, as between the parents, are the less capable, smart, or ambitious in other respects.

While it is a factor, certainly, the comparative earning power of the two parents is only one factor affecting all of these dynamics. Women who are needed to be the breadwinners in their families are in a particularly difficult bind in this regard.

What a newborn baby needs is a mother. Most men, regardless of their wage-earning ability or lack thereof, simply cannot be this, and simply cannot nurture in the same way. They are very different with babies and around babies, exceptions noted. It's not just about a different kind or degree of caregiving, but also about a different motivation and desire. When that baby cries and a mother's milk lets down, along with a panicky kind of urgency to get to that baby immediately, that's because it's her baby. Men, no matter how loving, do not feel the same way, and do not behave the same way (nor do women with other women's babies.) Some of it could be argued to be attributable to attachment that develops over time, from caregiving and proximity. But to the extent that's true, it does not consider the position from which each parent starts.

Most honest men will admit that, while they "loved" their babies (in the sense of protectiveness and wonder and pride of possession), they weren't "attached" to them in the way the mothers were, and didn't honestly enjoy being with them, certainly not for unending hours on end, until they were at least a few years old. That's not how most mothers feel. Most mothers will tell you that when they had children of their own, women who might have raised their husband's children from a prior marriage, or women who dearly loved and helped raise nephews and nieces, etc. they realized that they felt very different. Exceptions noted, chief among them, perhaps, being women who were birthmothers first and then later sought to adopt more children, women who already were developed into primary caregivers, uber-mothers. But on the other side of the specturm, even women who are not particularly interested in children, never had a strong desire for them, never were "baby crazy", usually feel very differently when it's their baby. This is not to be confused with the erroneous notions that once the child gets to be a few years old, many women don't also start getting bored with doing nothing else. It's also also not to be confused with needing a break, or wanting some time off.

We make a real mistake setting up "solutions" that don't look at the realities of life. We make a huge mistake denying that any differences at all between the sexes exist, because to the extent they do, denying them means that no allowances for those differences will have been made, and thus the proposed solutions -- whether feminist or family law policy -- will be unrealistic, and, being based on flawed predicates, ultimately will fail. It's quite one thing to acknowledge that there will be exceptions to any rule; it's quite another to take the position that such exceptions are substantial in amount, or that they should set the rule.

If we take the punitive attitude toward strongly attached mothers -- a good thing for children -- by considering that they deserve punitive consequences from that "choice", it is fallacious reasoning to posit that a solution to women's "bad choices" to expect half of men to "choose" to take the same punitive route. This is folly from unenlightened factions in the second wave feminist movement. If women "shouldn't" want to do it, why would men? Three decades later, retrospect shows us just how unenlightened those ideas really were.

Being the primary parent (primary caregiver plus primary attachment) is a developed function, but it develops because of inalterable facts of biology, and situational consequences that flow from them. Men could be children's primary parents, sure, and some are, most often when something happens that removes the mother from the scene altogether. But even then, some men just shift the primary care responsibility onto another woman, in which case the children have no primary parent.

For research, the Myths and Facts research pages.



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