Perhaps it’s the time of year, and the concomitant madness of this back-to-school season, but as I read all the tributes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I fixated on one unforgettable quote: “This child has two parents.”
That was Ginsburg’s retort to a teacher who kept calling her — not her husband — about their son’s problem behavior in school.
“This child has two parents. Please alternate calls. It’s his father’s turn.”
How refreshing would it be to have that sense of entitlement to pursue your own work? To reclaim and give voice to that intense sense of fairness that everyone has as a child, which has nothing to do with biology or guilt or societal norms? Fair is fair.
How many mothers are saying those words now, in 2020? Many women don’t have a second parent at home, of course. But even those who do might stifle the instinct and revert to one of their ready rationalizations: “It’s easier for me to just deal with it.”
“I’m better at that. He won’t do a good job.”
“He does a lot.”
Note the gendered pronouns here; I’m talking about mothers with male partners. Fathers, of course, are working harder right now, too. But how many are willing to champion their wife’s career the way Marty Ginsburg did — prioritizing her ambition and protecting her time to pursue it, at the inconvenience of his own?
I have a hard time imagining many of the mothers I know saying the words, “This child has two parents” at the moment. And yet, those were the words that got Ginsburg through law school, that allowed her to carve out space for herself to study, to work, to excel. Those are the words mothers should be willing to say if they truly believe they are entitled to equality.
How many stellar careers will be lost during this pandemic because women can’t or won’t say those words?
Study after study showed that when the pandemic struck, women assumed more of the accumulating burdens of domestic life — and as workplaces shuttered, and child care centers foundered, more mothers will likely be squeezed out of their careers.
“In families where moms are the main caregiver, she has a lot on her plate in normal times. Now, it’s simply unsustainable,” said social psychologist Francine M. Deutsch.
The co-editor of “Creating Equality at Home: How 25 Couples around the World Share Housework and Childcare," Deutsch studies couples who juggle as equitably as the Ginsburgs did. But many couples fall into a manager-helper dynamic, she said, in which the mother assumes larger responsibility, and all the mental load, of parenting.
“Here’s the distinction we need to make: Helping is not equality,” said Deutsch. “Manager-helper dynamics are not the most we can hope for. We can strive to be really equal.”
The coronavirus pandemic has radically altered what’s involved in parenting, Deutsch noted. The terms for handling it may need to be renegotiated in every home.
“It’s a question of sitting down and really thinking about everything that goes into taking care of children right now, which has changed,” she said.
For mothers who feel overburdened, she said, that may mean “really trying to articulate: What is it that I’m doing that he’s not doing?”
And for fathers, that may mean taking on more of the mental burden of parenting, claiming oversight of some portion of remote learning, and being confident in their role.
“Even fathers who participate a lot — there’s this underlying belief that she’s better at it,” said Deutsch. “Don’t underestimate yourself. You can be one of two primary parents. You don’t have to just be a helper.”
This might not seem like an ideal time to reset the order in a family, given the disorder in the world. A pandemic has everyone anxious, overprotective, counting their blessings. Who has time for a fight while trying to get the first-grader online? It would be much easier to do what mothers are expected to do, to get the job done and play nice.
But as feminists mourn the loss of Ginsburg as a leader and fear for the future under a court without her, there is a tribute they can make from the discomfort of their own homes.
“What She Said” is an occasional column on gender issues. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.