I’m a new man. I’ve just slept through the night for the first time in weeks because my newborn son has just slept through the night for the first time in his young life. Don’t get me wrong: most nights, he still cries for a feeding at 1:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. But last Monday he terrified his parents by sleeping straight through until 4:00. After bolting out of bed at 2:30 in a Sudden-Infant-Death-Syndrome-inspired panic to discover him sleeping (and breathing) soundly in his crib, my wife and I shuffled back to bed, dimly aware that the first, most physically and emotionally taxing era of parenting would soon be over. Sure enough, it happened again a few nights later—and this time, we allowed ourselves to luxuriate in the glorious expanse of six uninterrupted hours of rest. 

Ever since my son’s birth in late July, as I’ve stumbled through life bleary-eyed and irritable, male friends from an older generation have asked me why I get up with my wife to feed the baby. The implication being, of course, that this should be entirely my wife’s responsibility, especially since, unlike me, she doesn’t have to go to work in the morning. (She’s on leave from graduate school at the moment.)

It’s always hard to respond to such insinuations. My wife and I have a thoroughly modern, egalitarian marriage in which equality of obligations is the default position; the marriages of my older friends, on the other hand, are based on a more traditional division of labor. The result is two very different experiences of married life.

When I was born in 1969, my mother was anaesthetized, and an obstetrician delivered me with forceps while my father waited for word down the hall in what was called the “Stork Room.” Dad wasn’t brought in to see mom and baby until both had begun to recover from the trauma of delivery. It was a typical procedure for the time. (Somewhat less typical, though by no means unheard of, is the story of my next-door neighbor, a warm and friendly man in his sixties, who dropped off his wife at the hospital to deliver their son—and then drove back home to await the news.)

Thirty years ago, mothers stayed in the hospital for five to seven days after giving birth, which gave them plenty of time to regain their strength and fathers plenty of time to get back to work. My father took some vacation time for the first few days after I arrived home, but his role in the family was clear: he provided for our financial well-being; my mother handled the feedings and the diapers and the crying at all hours of the day and night.

My experience has been quite different. I was my wife’s constant companion during childbirth and the weeks leading up to it. We attended birthing and breast-feeding classes together. I stayed up with her when, late in her pregnancy, discomfort kept her awake for hours every night. I sat beside her and allowed her to grip, twist, and, at one memorable point, claw my neck, arms, and legs during the agonies of labor. I acted as her coach and source of comfort during four hours of excruciating contractions and three hours of pushing, while a nurse-midwife remained discreetly in the background until the final moments before delivery. My son entered the world just inches from my face.

They move women out of the hospital much faster now than when I was born—usually within forty-eight hours. The result is total exhaustion, especially for those, like my wife, who avoid anesthesia during birth and then attempt to breast-feed. Imagine running a marathon without training—and then trying to recover while never allowing yourself to sleep longer than two hours at a time. At least that’s how my wife described it. Although at first I couldn’t contribute to feeding the baby (we’ve since begun to supplement breast milk with formula), I wanted to be there by my wife’s side in the middle of the night for support, for company, for reassurance when ignorance inevitably led to worrying. Is he really still hungry? Is he peeing enough? Are his stools the right color? Why won’t he stop crying? Like all new parents, neither of us were capable of answering these questions with authority, but going through the uncertainty together brought us closer than we’ve ever been.

Conservatives often point out that modern, liberated women have to endure a profound tension at the core of their lives. Most of them want both the public recognition of the workplace as well as the private fulfillment that comes from motherhood”but the two can rarely be blended as easily and painlessly as feminist activists like to claim. Starting a career means putting off starting a family. Continuing a career after a child is born means returning to work quickly. Returning to work quickly means leaving the baby with strangers, whether it’s day care or baby-sitters. Such are the trade-offs that women confront from the moment they decide to pursue a career.

One way to resolve the tension would be to return to the parental division of labor that existed in the “traditional” family, where the mother remained at home, forsaking a career and taking full-time responsibility for raising the children. This is the option often proposed (or silently pined for) by conservatives, who believe that such a return would not only ameliorate the tragic choices faced by so many modern women, but would also ensure the long-term health and vitality of the family, which today often seems to be in the process of slow-motion collapse.

However much I sympathize with the motivations behind such suggestions, I can’t help but think that, for most people, returning to the premodern family is both impossible and undesirable. Not only does it face powerful opposition from feminist ideology, which isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon, but more fundamentally, it ignores the fact that the structure of the family has changed over the last two centuries in ways that make women’s longing to work outside the home quite reasonable.

In the premodern world of the traditional family, life was predominantly agricultural. While the mother cared for the young children and supervised the chores of her older daughters in the home, the father worked in the fields along with his older sons, usually within walking distance of the front door. The nuclear family would come together for meals and social gatherings, frequently joined by members of the extended family who, when they did not reside under the same roof, usually lived nearby.

For most of us, things are very different today. For all the hype about “telecommuting” in the 1990s, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of people travel outside the home to work—a journey often involving a substantial real-world commute. Moreover, most Americans now live in suburbs, far away from extended family members. Ever since the 1950s, a woman choosing the life of the stay-at-home mom has faced the prospect of isolation far more profound than would have been typical in earlier times. After her husband walks out the door in the morning, she is usually left alone with only her child for company. Such a life is hardly traditional; nor is it, for many women, appealing. And understandably so.

An alternative—one that works with rather than against the egalitarian tendencies of modernity—is to embrace the kind of order that prevails within families like mine. Instead of asking women to suppress their desire for the goods that come from pursuing an occupation outside the home, men could begin to put somewhat less emphasis on their own careers and recognize the very real goods that flow from sharing more of the joys and the burdens of parenting—even if it means that they must live with the same tensions faced by modern women. (Of course such tensions could be somewhat diminished for both parents if the government would expand the provisions for maternity leave that are part of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. We could also follow the lead of many European countries in providing for paternity leave. Surely a nation as wealthy as ours could afford the costs of policies that would so clearly benefit the modern family.)

Would my life be easier if, in premodern fashion, my wife took on almost all the responsibility of caring for our son? Perhaps. I’d certainly have gotten more rest during the first few months of his life. But then I’d have spent so much less time feeding him, changing his diapers, holding him in my arms, rocking him to sleep, and comforting him during hour-long crying binges. For all the stresses and strains of life as a new man, there’s no substitute for the act of devoting oneself to another person, especially one so helpless and needy. It—and arguably it alone—grants a gift of spontaneous, unconditional love that every human being, and not just women, should experience. I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.