Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Book Review Time: "Opting In"

So I was lucky enough to get my hands on a new book about motherhood called Opting In by a really bright feminist named Amy Richards. Amy and I have touched base intermittently over the years on a number of topics, and though I usually dread the spring arrival of the how-to-be-a-good-mother books (see Hirshman, Linda or Flanagan, Caitlin), I was looking forward to seeing Amy's effort.

Now Opting In is unquestionable aimed at moms (just like 95 percent of the other literature out there) but what sets the book apart, at least from my point of view, is that she spends a chapter looking at how dads plug into the whole motherhood/parenthood thing. It's clear that Amy has spent more time thinking about this than any other writer on the topic of motherhood. Indeed, most of the discussions of modern motherhood just skip over dad altogether and therefore make no sense to me. It's not that dads are lionized or vilified in these hot-button books and magazines. They're just ignored. Which is weird.

So Amy has tackled the question of how to build an equitable home life, and despite the book cover's promise that she'll "reveal to confidently forge your own path," she's pretty light on prescriptions when it comes to dads around the house. She hits all the major points: the need for multiple family models, the need for clear expectations in a marriage, the gulf between what society defines as a good dad and what moms actually need, marriage contracts, learned incompetence, etc.

But when it comes times for grand summaries, there's not much to be found. Fatherhood is in such flux right now, it seems hard for Amy to make definitive statements about what mothers or fathers should do. This is not a flaw: I can't offer any solid suggestions either. 50-50 parenting works for some families and not for others. Having dad a little more involve is viable in some cases, having mom as the primary caretaker works in other. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, and Amy is to be commended for not offering one.

The big change we need is still the big-picture one: dads must be viewed (and view themselves) as equally capable of childrearing and equally responsible for the kids. That doesn't (always) mean splitting everything right down the middle, but it *is* a pretty good starting place.

(For the record, this is only one chapter of the book. The rest of it reads wonderfully, too, but I really can't/shouldn't pontificate on the rest of it ...)


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