The unpaid labor gap between Japanese men and women is one of the largest in the world, with women spending nearly four times as much time on caretaking and more than eight times as much time on housework than men. In an attempt to nudge couples closer to domestic parity, governors of various prefectures in southwest Japan launched the Kyushu Yamaguchi Work Life Promotion Campaign, which, according to Reuters, “hopes to encourage the nation’s notoriously workaholic men to adopt a more balanced life and share household chores.”
In order to spread the word, the campaign recently released a video featuring three governors donning sixteen-pound pregnancy vests to get a better sense of what it feels like to be a woman in her third trimester. Set to jaunty music, the video shows the men cooking, cleaning, and food shopping as well as struggling to bend over at the supermarket, put on their socks, and get in the car—you know, all the really hard stuff women who choose to become mothers have to deal with.
“I really didn’t understand,” Tsugumasa Muraoka, governor of Yamaguchi and a father of three, says in the video. “Now that I understand what my wife put up with for so many months, I’m full of gratitude.”
I hate to be the one to puncture this moment of revelation and newly discovered good will, but there was a rather conspicuous absence in this video, one that calls into question any epiphanies achieved during the making of it: children. Yep, at no point during this exercise in empathy do we witness men engaging with the care work of real-life children. To be fair, at the end there is a short scene featuring a businessman awkwardly holding a baby in what looks like the hallway in an office building, but we are offered no reason to believe that he was the one who got the child dressed, packed the diaper bag, or is watching the clock to make sure she’ll be back in her stroller or crib in time for her nap.
Pregnancy vest stunts are a longstanding tradition that I hope never to see again. Some do it to gain insight into what it feels like to be pregnant; others see it as a way to become a more involved father. Either way, the gender politics of these experiments are better suited to a 1990s romantic comedy (a man did what?!?) than the present moment in which we are, finally, grappling with the value of care work. Also, on a more personal level, I doubt the experiment’s ability to make more than a tiny dent in a clueless man’s ignorance of the demands of pregnancy and motherhood.
Even pregnancy vest wearers with the most modest ambitions—those who just want to get a sense of how being pregnant physically feels—won’t gain much insight from strapping on heavy bellies and a pair of breasts. Being pregnant comes with a panoply of sensations, which can include organ displacement, insomnia, exhaustion, depression, anxiety, slowed digestion, nausea, shortness of breath, incontinence, headaches, back pain, sciatica, hemorrhoids, itchy skin, heartburn, and other physical and emotional delights. Not every woman experiences all of these, but most of us experience enough of them to well understand that the burden of carrying around an extra twenty- to thirty-some pounds in the third trimester is just a tiny sliver of the pie. Far more useful than wearing the vest, and demanding praise and attention for it, would be for a guy to take a second and remember the last time he had any of these symptoms and how it felt, and then imagining having a few of them at once.
And for those, like GQ’s Benjamin Percy and the triad of governors in Japan, who believe it will make them better fathers, it won’t. For that, try, yes, fathering. Spend a whole day taking care of your children, or, if you don’t have any, shadowing a parent or assisting at a childcare center. Dress them, wipe them, feed them, stimulate them, relax them, discipline them, and, bonus round, get them to bed. You can even record it on video and set it to jaunty music, blooper reel optional.
I suspect that, on some level, men understand that revelations gleaned from wearing a pregnancy vest—being eight months pregnant is hard! even for big strong manly men!—are vapid. They know pregnancy is more complex than donning extra weight for a short period time, and parenthood exists within a different class of physical and emotional challenges altogether. But admitting this would hold them accountable in a way that playing dress-up never will.