Paul L. Caron

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Chaos, Accomplishment, And Work: What A Duke Law Prof Learned On Paternity Leave

Ernest A. Young (Duke), Chaos, Accomplishment, and Work, or, What I Learned on Paternity Leave, 27 Duke J. Gender L. & Pol'y 269 (2020):

Late in life, minding my own business, I was blessed with a baby girl. My wife, Erin, was a federal employee and thus—somewhat surprisingly—not entitled to any maternity leave other than accumulated vacation and sick days. As a pampered law professor, on the other hand, I received a full semester off, so long as I was the primary caregiver to the child. Put that together with the usual summer vacation, and I had a full six months to spend with our little bundle of joy after Erin went back to work.

I found it a difficult experience. This was not because Caroline was a particularly difficult baby. There was, to be sure, the usual quantum of screaming and sleep deprivation. And as a scholar of the structural Constitution, I find the completely unaccountable power of an infant who can neither be reasoned with nor overruled difficult to accept.1 But I came to realize that the real reason for my discomfiture was that what I was doing in caring for my daughter did not fit comfortably with my accustomed notions of work and accomplishment. Working through why that was so can, I think, tell us something useful about how we think about work, the messages we send our students about what they should aspire to in their careers, and even—perhaps—a philosophy of social change and the good life. ...

All this talk of high political theory—in an Essay on paternity leave, no less— might raise a suspicion that your humble author has inhaled too many fumes from the diaper pail. But how we feel about work, and what we count as an accomplishment, go to some of the most basic questions in philosophy and law. This Essay has sought to pursue what Judith Resnik called “the feminist enterprise (and difficult task) of identifying, understanding, reassessing, and reallocating ‘housekeeping’—the daily, sometimes powerful, poignant, and compelling, sometimes repetitive and nonengaging, activities that nourish oneself and others.”

The truth is, as parents have always known, that caring for children puts one in touch with life’s fundamentals. Our mistake, I fear, has been in tending to assume that those fundamentals are localized in the home and family. It is common to extol family life as ultimately more important and rewarding than the world of work and its standard model of achievement. What is less common, I think, is to see that the distinctive aspects of home work—in particular, its repetitive and preservative nature—actually occur throughout the sphere of work outside the home. Acknowledging this is important both to help those millions of individuals already engaged in this sort of work to value it appropriately, and to help our society more wisely calibrate its relative devotion to preservation and change. There’s a lot of chaos out there, and we need to place more value on holding it back.

That, at least, is what I learned on paternity leave.

For a critical Twitter thread by Lawprofblawg (Anonymous Professor, Top 100 Law School), see here.

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