Friday, September 13, 2013

My Husband is Having a Baby! Just kidding...but what if...

I recently got to be part of a conversation about maternity/paternity leave, and how companies view men, and men view other men, who take time off to be there for the birth of their children, of for their first weeks of life, or to partcipate in school activities, take them to the doctor, etc., all things typically considered, “Can’t their mom do that?”.

The responses?  Here’s a sampling. They ranged from “They should be able to” to “It’s an amazing thing” to “Why would any man want to do that?”  to “Nice if he can afford it–most man can’t, especially if they are the only wage earner”.

There was no real consensus, although there was general agreement that men should not be looked down on or penalized for doing this.

What there was, though, was completely hetero-centric, marriage-centric language. Husband-wife. Husband-wife. Husband-wife.

This reflects an ongoing struggle in the workplace—how to handle leave when you are in a non-traditional relationship, particularly male-male, although not excluding unmarried or lesbian, and the company rules only make allowances for “spouses”.

If it’s somehow viewed as “weak” or “unmanly” or “unprofessional” to take time off to care or your wife and baby, and companies struggle with how to handle paternity leave/family leave, what will they do when faced with a man who needs leave to help his (legal) husband with their newly adopted baby? How will the man asking for it be received? What about taking a child to doctor’s appointments or dance class when there is no “mom” to do it? What if a guy wants to take family leave to help a cancer-fighting partner?

The company may readily except this and comply without a problem. But that doesn’t eliminate the social or career penalties that go with taking time off, especially when that “taking time off” puts a spotlight on your otherness.

The face of the workplace is changing, no doubt. In most places, open discrimination is a thing of the past. What still exists is more subtle. The games of avoidance and exclusion. The lack of invitation to join higher-ranking committees or groups or projects. The promotion opportunities, all other things being equal, that never seem to happen for those who don’t “toe the line” of traditional masculinity.

If a man is already perceived as being “unmanly”, or if his homosexuality already makes people uncomfortable, how much will that multiply if he has to take on a caregiver role? If he is excited about baby-arrival pictures and wants to show them to everyone, what reactions should he be prepared to deal with?

Or what if he never has to worry about these things, because he’d not be granted the opportunity to take time off for them?

Because in too many of our real-life companies and their policies, gay families aren’t just “lesser” families. They are invisible families, or not families at all.

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