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May 11th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The cover of the May 7 issue of The New Yorker magazine is either a landmark of some sort or wants to be.  It’s a cartoon by Chris Ware entitled “Mother’s Day” and you can see it here albeit not well (The New Yorker, 5/7/12). Actually, here’s a better one (The New Yorker, 5/7/12).

It shows a scene in the children’s section of a park.  There are benches, a large sand box and a slide.  About ten different parents shepherd their kids through various activities.   One is giving an infant a bottle; another holds a child’s hands as it learns to walk; yet another lifts a little boy up to smell the flowers on a tree.  One parent has just arrived pushing a little one in a stroller.  You get the picture.

But here’s the kicker and the part you probably didn’t anticipate:  all the parents at the play area are dads – all of them except one, the new arrival.  She’s a mother, the only female parent in the lot.  Moreover, the expression on her face is one of chagrin and disappointment; she’s come to the park with her daughter and all the parents there are men.  Bummer!

It’s a little difficult to grasp the iconography of the piece.  Of course it’s meant as humor, however subtle, but seems to suggest that, in some way, mothers are being displaced by fathers in the parenting game.  To the extent the piece promotes that idea of course, it’s dead wrong.  It’s not too hard to surmise that, since it’s the middle of the day, the parents are of the stay-at-home variety.  The 10:1 ratio of fathers to mothers, then, belies the 37:1 ratio of SAHMs to SAHDs in society generally.

And of course in custody cases in family courts, mothers still receive sole or primary custody in over 83% of cases, a fact that has altered not a bit in the past 18 years.  So the idea that, in some way, fathers are pushing mothers out of their role as primary parent, an idea the cartoon asserts, is just nonsense.

Moreover, the expression on the newly-arrived mother’s face strikingly reflects the feelings many stay-at-home fathers report on encountering just such a scene of mothers in the park with their children.  Those fathers report being shunned by the mothers as though they consider that a father in the park with a child in the middle of the day is sure to be a pedophile.  Indeed, stay-at-home fathers who have tried to join parenting groups have reported being asked to leave.  My guess is that, if the roles were reversed, as the cartoon depicts, the dads would welcome the woman to their group.  So the mother in the piece should have no call to feel unwanted, just the opposite.

But of course maybe it’s not the feeling of being an alien the woman on the NY cover experiences.  Maybe it’s the same feeling those mothers in the parenting group have about an interloping man – anti-father.  That is, the cartoon woman doesn’t feel alien, but just good old-fashioned misandric.

As with most images, The New Yorker cover is subject to a number of different interpretations.  But it is decidedly a statement about the current-day nature of parenting among educated and relatively affluent Americans.  And pretty much any way you look at it, it’s wrong.  Men no more dominate parenting than women dominate on-the-job injuries or deaths.  The facts about the parenting just don’t line up with what the cover portrays.

But there’s one other possibility.  Maybe the cover is just about some women’s perceptions about fathers and paternal child care.  Maybe the only reality it seeks to depict is what’s going on in mothers’ hearts and minds when they view the growing public clamor by fathers to be part of their children’s lives.  Whatever the factual reality, many mothers may feel their “territory” to be trespassed on when a father says “I want to work less and parent more.”  It’s an understandable response.  After all, women are told daily that motherhood is perhaps their highest calling and one no “real woman” would abjure.  So why not a wan look of defeat when seeing fathers doing competently what supposedly only a mother could.  How would you feel if your highest calling, your life’s work, turned out to be something pretty much anyone could do as well as you?

That feeling is driven home by the fact that, of the 10 fathers, none has a face.  Only the woman does.  One man sitting crosslegged on a bench obscures his face by drinking from a large cup.  The man beside him looks down at his daughter allowing his ball cap to block his face.  Still another turns away to watch a child slide down the slide.  So, unlike the one mother in the piece, all the dads are anonymous.  The message?  I’d say it’s something like this: fathers are less individuals than they are an undifferentiated threat to mothers.  They’re a faceless horde overrunning a mother’s rightful realm.

If that’s the message, it’s been brought to us by feminism.  The movement toward fathers’ rights to children and children’s rights to a father is a direct outgrowth of the feminist movement that rightly wanted more women in the workplace, but wrongly tried to engineer the break-up of families and the marginalization of fathers.  What we’re finding is that, with more women doing paid work, more fathers are doing childcare, and that’s as it should be.  Feminism’s twin antipathies for men and families have fetched up against the clear social science that says children need both parents and a generalized belief in the equality of the sexes that’s revealed in survey after survey.

So the mother in the cartoon can thank her sisters in the movement for the regret on her face.  But if she’s smart, she’ll replace it with a smile, sit down next to one of the dads and say “So, is she your first?”

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