Monday, June 21, 2004

The hip thing to do last weekend, if you were a newspaper editor, was to run a story about at-home dads. I have a sky-high stack of such stories that I'll run through as soon as I get the chance (probably tomorrow). Instead, today, I'd like to take a look at how the nation's paper of record dealt with Father's Day. (Thanks to Amy and Greg for the links.)

The Times ran two different stories, each lamenting the present situation of the modern husband. Let me take 'em one at a time.

The this Week in Review piece by Judith Warner, titled "Guess Who's Left Holding the Briefcase? (It's Not Mom.)," is the latest in a tired genre of Mommy Wars stories that pits working women against at-home moms. But give Warner credit: unlike past efforts (see Flanagan, Caitlin, Belkin, Lisa or Garnder, Ralph), she comes up with a new twist, drawing men into the battle (on the side of the working women). Her point? That women should work because at-home motherhood financially shackles men into working too hard. An added drawback: being an involved mother all day long leaves women drained and forces working men to -- horror of horrors -- play a role in the household management and upkeep.

I don't want to say that the modern gender roles are straightforward or easy. They're not. And there is no magical family setup that maximizes family time and income while minimizing family stress. Warner never spells out exactly what she thinks the ideal family should look like, but it's pretty clear it's one where men work less, and where less is expected of them around the home. She writes longingly of a time when men came home from work and were "appreciated" -- a code word, I suppose, meaning "not asked to do anything else." Warner may choose to pine for a Nick-at-Nite world, but modern life -- with all its complexity -- suits me just fine.

The second piece, which may be even more bizarre, is by Rick Marin and titled Count Me Out of Hard Labor (and runs under the heading "Beta Male"). It is a straightforward piece of advocacy suggesting that fathers not join their wives in the delivery room if they'd prefer not to. Now I can understand that the "joy" of childbirth is an event that many men (and women) would just as surely do without, but even this is a bit extreme, for a couple of reasons. 1) Seeing your child born is a life-changing experience. It's neither pretty nor particularly fun. But it is important. 2) If I may speak for women here, the more support they have, the better. Marin says up front that he had his wife's blessing to skip the whole delivery room thing, but I'm guessing couples like that are in the vast, vast minority.

Now even the Lamaze folks have acknowledged that ever dad need not play the role of the super-involved "coach," and that there are other ways for a husband to help his wife through labor. But it's hard to take seriously the option of sitting it out altogether. Though Marin says he was forced into it by the OB (here invoking the phrase "Stepford Husband), he's the exception. Dads are not holding their wives hands through labor because of some sort of maternal mandate. They do it because this is important.

Of course, all this suggests that Marin won't be super involved after the baby, either. He mocks celeb dads who dare to be fathers: "But Chris Robinson, Ms. Hudson's husband, and Chris Martin, married to another new mother, Gwyneth Paltrow, seem to have had their rock-star mojo sapped by pram-pushing duty for ever yummier mummies. Guy Ritchie, one of the mas macho directors around, strollers Madonna's little ones to play dates with a cabala bracelet on his wrist."

Apparently, Rick Marin won't be caught dead strollering his kids to play dates. I wouldn't want him to lose his mojo. Of course, he's setting himself up to lose a good chunk of his kid's childhood. Rick: it's your loss.

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