Free to Be Fathers?

This story is included in these collections

Home Game
An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood

Michael Lewis
W. W. Norton & Co., $23.95, 192 pp.
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The Daddy Shift
How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family

Jeremy Adam Smith
Beacon Press, $25.95, 256 pp.
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I was born in 1973, a year after the release of Free to Be You and Me, the children's album that celebrated individual freedom with the liberating message that we could all become whatever we wanted to, regardless of gender. That message was reinforced by my parents, unreconstructed Catholic hippies determined to defy traditional gender stereotypes. And, although I never really took to playing with dolls, and frequently managed to turn my Legos into weapons, I did take to heart the lessons of “Housework,” Carol Channing's classic monologue in Free to Be You and Me, which reminded us that “nobody smiles doing housework except the ladies you see on TV,” and enjoined little boys to grow up into husbands who share the burden.

I grew up to become such a husband, predisposed to share domestic work and child-rearing with my wife. When our second son was born, I took a paternity leave from my teaching position at Cornell—the first father on our faculty to benefit from Cornell's generous parental-leave policy by taking an entire semester off. The time away from work proved extremely rewarding, not least because it allowed me to form a special bond with Julio, our newborn. On the other hand, the disappearance of my usual daily routine was disorienting. I felt distanced from the faculty community. I must also admit that I was a little bit insecure about the whole idea of paternity leave. Being out and about, running errands in the middle of the workday, made me feel vaguely strange and self-conscious.

It was in the context of reflecting on this experience, and on my own struggles with it, that I came across two interesting new books discussing the evolving role of fathers in contemporary American culture. Home Game, by Michael Lewis (of Moneyball fame), serves up the author's very personal—and at times sidesplittingly funny—reflections on his experiences as a father of three children. The book draws on a journal Lewis kept as he struggled through months of sleep deprivation and thousands of dirty diapers. Instead of scrubbing his reactions with the detergent of hindsight, Lewis faithfully reports his emotional responses as he experienced them. For example, describing the birth of his first child, he candidly admits “how long it took before I felt about my child what I was expected to feel.” “I was able,” he says, “to generate tenderness and a bit of theoretical affection, but after that, for a good six weeks, the best I could manage was detached amusement. The worst was hatred. I distinctly remember standing on a balcony with Quinn squawking in my arms and wondering what I would do if it wasn't against the law to hurl her off it.”

Of particular interest to me was Lewis's discussion of the differences between his experience of fatherhood and that of his own father. “I didn't even talk to you until you went away to college,” Lewis's father tells him one day, watching him struggle to dress his six-year-old daughter. “Your mother did all the dirty work.” Reflecting on this generational difference, Lewis argues that “at some point in the last few decades, the American male sat down at the negotiating table with the American female and—let us be frank—got fleeced.” The new domestic arrangement “foisted all sorts of new paternal responsibilities” on today's typical father, “and gave him nothing of what he might have expected in return.” Lewis compares the contemporary American father to Mikhail Gorbachev after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Having shocked the world by doing the decent thing and ceding power without bloodshed for the sake of principle, he is viewed mainly with disdain.”

I can relate to Lewis's frustration. Women now expect men to shoulder a more equal share of domestic work, and rightly so. At the same time, most fathers who want to share the housework and participate in the lives of our children also hope to do what our own fathers did: pursue success in our careers and meet a lingering social expectation to be the primary breadwinner. The result is a feeling of being stretched to the breaking point. Of course, this strain has long been felt by women, who continue to bear the lion's share of domestic work while participating in the labor market in increasing numbers—often for remuneration that fails to match their comparably situated male colleagues. Seen in its proper context, the raw deal Lewis complains about represents a redress of the even rawer deal that our moms' generation of women received.

Even so, I think Lewis makes a valuable point concerning the greater role men play today in child-rearing and housekeeping. The problem is that the reconfiguration of the American family on a more egalitarian model has not been matched by a reconfiguration of cultural expectations and economic institutions.

This unevenness is the focus of Jeremy Adam Smith's book, The Daddy Shift. Smith, himself a stay-at-home dad and a journalist, mixes accessible summaries of social-science data with anecdotes drawn from interviews with couples in which the men have chosen, or have been compelled by economic circumstance, to become primary caregivers to their children.

Smith's serious and methodical book represents a very different sort of enterprise from Lewis's. It does a nice job of chronicling the dramatic shifts in fathers' roles since the industrial revolution, in the process showing the historical roots of both the current trend toward greater paternal caregiving and the older breadwinner model. Profiling a number of families with stay-at-home dads, The Daddy Shift helps dispel the myth that such families are the exclusive domain of the white upper-middle class. Smith also discusses recent research on the benefits for children of spending more time with their dads.

The fundamental problem at the heart of Smith's discussion is the failure of the culture of fatherhood to keep pace with our lived experience. While fathers are taking on greater responsibilities in the home, stay-at-home dads are still stigmatized for failing to live up to their obligations as breadwinners, and men feel enormous pressure in the workplace to carry on as if their sole obligation to their families were to put money in the bank. A great deal of that pressure comes from the persistence of sexist norms about men's proper role, and these norms are the principal focus of Smith's discussion. Smith's message could have come right out of Free to Be You and Me: people should be able to divide tasks with their spouses however they want to. To the extent that our culture continues to hold people back from making those choices freely, he argues, it should change.

Smith's decision to frame his discussion primarily in terms of freedom and choice gives his book an unfortunate defensive quality. The Daddy Shift mostly fails to make a more affirmative case for involved fatherhood, one that goes beyond the mere absence of cultural constraints on choice. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch recently told the Society for Human Resource Management that “there is no such thing as work-life balance.” Those who take time off for family, he warned, are typically “not there in the clutch,” and should expect to be passed over for promotions. In other words, employees who wish to reach the top of the corporate ladder must be willing to put their jobs before their families. Welch's workaholic credo acts as a powerful filter for women especially, keeping them out of leadership roles. But it burdens men who have families as well. Smith's focus on “freedom” makes it difficult for him to critique the credo, or to levy arguments in favor of a balanced family structure in which both parents are obligated to be actively involved in the lives of their children. He describes sympathetically the life of one couple with a high-achieving wife who works sixty-hour weeks, but he never really questions the propriety of a workplace that consistently makes such demands—or of the parents (men and women alike) who voluntarily accept them.

A more affirmative vision of family life would create the conceptual tools to combat the workaholic ideology reflected in Jack Welch's comments. It would also help initiate a badly needed effort to connect the increasing pressures on present-day parents to rising economic inequality and lagging middle-class wages. Smith occasionally gestures in this direction, praising the paid parental leave of Scandinavian countries and noting the connections between economic stress and high divorce rates in the U.S. Bible belt; but the failure of our economy to support healthy family life, no matter who is taking care of the kids, does not form a central focus of his book, and that is too bad.

At times, Smith's excessive psychologizing about his interview subjects can be off-putting, but it hardly detracts from the book's many virtues. Indeed, I found both The Daddy Shift and Lewis's Home Game well worth reading. Then again, I was already sold on the value of paternal caregiving: I enjoy spending time with my kids; I like cooking and don't mind cleaning up; and I find it wonderful to be married to a high-achieving spouse who contributes to the family income and in whose professional accomplishments I take pride. Still, these books, and Smith's discussion in particular, helped me situate my own views within the broader cultural currents that have reshaped men's domestic role over the past thirty years. If a woman is the primary breadwinner in a family, men should not be ashamed to stay home and care for their children, nor should they be punished by their employers for making that choice. At the same time, however, no one—man or woman—who chooses to pursue a career should be forced to give up family life as the price of success. Our society must find ways to support involved parenting, by both men and women, at all levels of the economic ladder.

Published in the 2009-09-11 issue: 

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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