Unsex Mothering Responses: Katharine Silbaugh

Unsexing the End of Men

A Response to Darren Rosenblum’s Unsex Mothering: Toward a Culture of New Parenting

Katharine Silbaugh[1]

Darren Rosenblum’s wonderfully engaging case in Unsex Mothering: Toward a New Culture of Parenting,[2] pulls the reader into what has to be an unobjectionable argument that biosex and motherhood need to be delinked.  If the logic is as follows, who could argue?: (1) mother is the nurturer when there are role divisions, and there usually are; (2) men sometimes play the nuturing role, increasingly so; (3) men perhaps especially play that role where all of a child’s parents are biosex men.  Rosenblum’s own story intertwines with law and policy delineating mothering and fathering in a way that exposes the descriptive inadequacy of the legal concept “mother.”

I kept wondering, as I read the article, how to put it into dialogue with the “end of men” anxiety gripping popular media of late.[3]  That anxiety, seemingly born out of men’s higher unemployment rates during the recent “Man-cession”[4] extends beyond unemployment concerns to reinvigorated concerns over men’s role in families.  Consider, for example, Newsweek’s recent report, entitled I Don’t, on a Pew survey finding women less interested in marriage than in prior surveys.[5]  Or consider the Atlantic Magazine’s celebration of non-marriage for women entitled All the Single Ladies.[6]  These stories and many others move the story of men’s unemployment rates directly into line with their diminished marriageability. 

Much of the popular media has called on men to reinvent themselves, but it founders when describing the way forward.  Should men become more feminine?  Setting aside the counter-literature that counsels men to reclaim a heartier masculinity, the mainstream end-of-men literature does not ask men to become more feminine.  It does, however, ask them to be flexible enough to incorporate the skills that are said to be fueling women’s success.  In particular, it invites men to perform women’s tasks—change diapers, cook, get advanced degrees.  But when held up beside Rosenblum’s notion of men who mother, the popular media’s adaptation of masculinity isn’t a recognizable relative.  It might be better characterized as modified fathering than the unsexed mothering that Rosenblum advocates.

Reading Rosenblum’s piece drives home how oddly absent gay men are from the end-of-men narrative.  The central media articles, The Atlantic’s End of Men[7] and Newsweek’s Man Up!,[8] don’t discuss gay men at all.  How odd; aren’t gay men both a substantial cultural presence and a widely understood challenge to the map of conventional gender roles?  We can only speculate about their puzzling absence from major splashy stories about upending sex roles.  Could it result from the (damaging) stereotype that gay men are so financially successful that the man-cession does not reach them?  Or is it that media attraction to this topic returns forever to the tiring battle of the sexes model for understanding the operation of gender in society?  Maybe gay men are absent from these stories because they’re actually stories about women—women winning—dressed as stories about men’s troubles.

Rosenblum’s piece suggests a third possibility for the seeming absence of gay men from the man-cession media coverage: a gay man who is mothering, as Rosenblum sees it, isn’t humbled by the forces of change into performing a woman’s role.  To the contrary, his performance of motherhood reflects a tremendous accomplishment in his own eyes, given the extra effort that has gone into becoming a parent.  Rosenblum isn’t in mourning; his biosex male mother is not neutered, to invoke Martha Fineman’s iconic term for a post-formal equality female parent.[9] While end-of-men commentators live somewhere between coaxing men into progress and mocking them for their haplessness, Rosenblum is asking for the respect that’s due to an evolution that’s off those scales.  In drawing attention to what a post-biosex mother can be, Rosenblum exposes the limited courage or vision within the cultural narrative around the end-of-men.

Surely the implications of gay male absence from the end-of-men narrative could be better addressed by Rosenblum himself, but a few thoughts come to mind as conversation starters.  First, the impending fluidity in roles imagined by the mainstream media differs in some ways from Rosenblum’s unsexing.  The mainstream media’s vision has a man turning some breadwinning over to women and taking up some traditionally feminine parenting task.  But at that point, he would not be mothering as Rosenblum conceives it.  He would be cross-dressing, and uncomfortably, like the men in the famous cross-dressing comedies Tootsie and Bosom Buddies, and the current flash-in-the-pan that arose directly from this man-cession, Work It.  Taking on female roles isn’t subversive in today’s media narrative.  It isn’t a celebration, and it isn’t a challenge to the straightjacket of masculinity. It’s just a sign of how far we’ve fallen.

In addition, Rosenblum’s unsexing has, at least secondarily, the goal of improving the difficult role navigation in the labor market for women who mother.  Rosenblum sees creative possibility from unsexing breadwinning and mothering, but his perspective on the way women are confined in the marketplace by gender roles is unrecognizable in the end-of-men narrative.  For Rosenblum, women as breadwinners are still constrained and suffer in the workforce because of that constraint.  But much of the end-of-men narrative rushes past women’s workforce constraint, marshaling some counter-cultural data points to completely wash away the gendered construction of the labor market.  But even crediting the complication that men’s greater unemployment has introduced into discussions of gender in the labor market, it is an additional layer in need of comprehension and analysis, not a blank slate that ungenders the labor market.

Finally, Rosenblum’s article exposes how underdeveloped the end-of-men narrative is at this moment.  That narrative caricatures men as pathetic, two-dimensional, permanent adolescents, while embracing every stereotype of female hypercompetence thought attractive to high social capital women who have the feeling that they are the true boss of the men at work and at home.  To sell that story, the cultural narrative must ignore contrary evidence, whether it is about constraints women experience in the labor market, the experience of gay and other biosex men mothering, or anything else that unsexes.  I look forward to the time when Rosenblum’s cultural story complicates and develops this picture.

[1] Professor of Law and Law Alumni Scholar, Boston University School of Law.



[2] Darren Rosenblum, Unsex Mothering: Toward a New Culture of Parenting, 35 Harv. J.L. & Gender 57 (2012).



[3] Hanna Rosin, The End of Men, The Atlantic Magazine, July/August 2010; http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/8135/ (last visited February 3, 2012); Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil, Men’s Lib, The Daily Beast, September 20, 2010; http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/09/20/why-we-need-to-reimagine-masculinity.html (last visited February 3, 2012).



[4] Daniel Bukszpan, Economy: The Man-cession and the He-covery, USA Today, January 29, 2012; http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/story/2012-01-29/cnbc-mancession/52826370/1 (last visited February 3, 2012).



[5] Jessica Bennett, ‘I Don’t: The Case Against Marriage, The Daily Beast, June 11, 2010; http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/06/11/i-don-t.html (last visited February 3, 2012).



[6] Kate Bolick, All the Single Ladies, The Atlantic Magazine, November 2011; http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/all-the-single-ladies/8654/?single_page=true (last visited February 3, 2012).



[7] Hanna Rosin, The End of Men, supra note 3.



[8] Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil, Men’s Lib, Newsweek, September 27, 2010, at 42.



[9] Martha Fineman, The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies (1995).





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