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September 1, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Generally, I like dads who write thoughtfully about being dads. I like to hear their experiences, to know how they cope with the rigors of fatherhood and working outside the home. I like their stories partly because they usually have the kind of dry, humorous reserve that mothers’ stories about kids and motherhood tend to lack. Fathers seem to manage to care for children without becoming children.

There are things I like about this piece by Peter Mountford (Slate, 7/10/13). Sadly, those things are a bit hard to see for the thicket of self-loathing Mountford lets grow up around his article. He just can’t get over the idea that, as a man, his days are scented and flower-strewn with privilege while his wife Jen is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, at least about work and family. Needless to say, in order to maintain such a worldview, Mountford has to ignore a lot of facts that directly contradict his notion that “no matter what I do, I can’t seem to get this thing wrong.” Oh well, it’s Slate, after all. What did you expect?

Mountford and his wife have two daughters, one three and the other nine months. Currently, he’s their stay-at-home parent. Jen works days and Mountford teaches writing at night, but, during the days, he’s a full-time dad. It’s a simple matter of finances. She’s got greater earning capacity than he does, so she’s the main breadwinner. It’s all done by agreement.

And of course, as the kids’ main caregiver, Mountford is often out and about with his girls. Much to his dismay, he’s often accosted by strangers bent on letting him know how wonderful he is for grocery shopping with his children, or doing whatever everyday chores. People seem to enjoy the novelty of his being the primary parent, so they comment. At the zoo, a man approaches.

The old man is grinning at my wailing offspring and me anyway.

Then he says, “Daddy’s day with the kids. Enjoy it!”

And I want to throw the half-empty carton of chocolate milk at his head…

At the grocery store, I look up and a woman who’s lurking by the dried pasta is smiling at Anna and me. “She clearly adores you,” she says with her Mother Teresa eyes squinting benevolently. 

I nod. I want to say that whether or not she likes me, my daughter spends a lot of time howling in sorrow at how infrequently she gets to eat cake. I want to tell her that this little angel — who was completely potty-trained a couple months ago — recently started peeing on the bed my wife and I share when she’s upset, like a dog marking its territory. But of course this person doesn’t want to hear about that. This person is cultivating a narrative about my child and me, and she wants me to participate.

“You’re a hero,” she says.

Wisely, Mountford doesn’t buy the ‘hero’ notion. He’s not a hero, just a dad doing the things fathers and mothers throughout the country do every day. He’s the stay-at-home parent for that most prosaic of reasons — money. And of course the less we here about fathers being heroes for changing diapers or dealing with a three-year-old’s meltdown in a public place, the better. The more usual it is for fathers to be seen caring for their kids, the less exotic it’ll become, the more accepted, expected. And the more that happens, the more state legislatures and family court judges will start to equalize custody between fathers and mothers. Once the culture changes, the law will follow, albeit unwillingly.

So, good for Mountford for doing his bit to make hands-on fatherhood commonplace. And good for him for writing an article that tries to acquaint readers with that idea.

Unfortunately, Mountford wants us all to believe that, as a man (and I suppose as a father), he has it made. Life is just one bowl of cherries for him, but not so his long-suffering wife.

I’d like to humbly suggest that I’m not a bad or good person based on my position with regard to this particular question. I don’t feel guilty or proud of how much time I spend with my kids now, and I didn’t feel guilty or proud when Jen was on maternity leave. I wish that Jen also didn’t feel guilty or proud about this issue, but I know that as a woman she is inundated with judgments.

I get judgment, too, I suppose: I’m accosted by strangers who want to praise me because I’m with my kids at noon on Tuesday. But when I was working around the clock and Jen was with the kids, people applauded my ambition. I’m a hero either way, which is nice for me…

I earn two-thirds of what Jen makes as a high school English teacher, but just surviving in this beleaguered profession (writing) is now widely viewed as a coup — but no matter what I do, I can’t seem to get this thing wrong. Meanwhile, Jen is always wrong. At home with the kids, she’s an anachronistic housewife; at work, she’s ditching her kids to nurture selfish professional ambitions. Somewhere, lurking at the root of this all, is the tenacious idea that men should have a career, whereas women must choose between a career and being at home. Parenthetical mine.

As long as we’re being so all-fired humble, allow me to humbly suggest a few things to Mountford. First, whatever Jen tells you about all the scorn heaped on her, take a look at some facts and ask yourself whether a mother’s life is such an unhappy one. For example, Peter, according to the Bureau of the Census, there are over 5.7 million stay-at-home mothers in the United States. And, due to the Bureau’s extremely restrictive definition of the term, there are in fact millions more who most people would think of as stay-at-home parents. Does it really make sense that all those millions of women suffer the slings and arrows of public judgment as “anachronistic house wi[ves]?”

The truth is Peter, that those women stay at home because they want to; it’s their choice. Whatever opprobrium they feel or receive must be mighty slight for so many of them to opt out of paid work. Indeed, with bewildering frequency, we see articles (most recently one in the Times by Judith Warner) about mothers who’ve checked out of the rat race. Guess what, Peter, years after doing so, not one of them said she’d go back to her old job. Maybe that was because every one of those mothers had a husband or partner whose income allowed them to make the choice they did. But whatever the case, how likely is it that they suffer unduly from “judgment” when they all say they’d do it again? Permit me to (once again humbly) suggest that you’re overly impressed with Jen’s suffering.

Here’s another fact: there are about 67 million women and girls over the age of 16 working full or part-time in this country. Many, many of them are mothers with minor children. All of them manage to endure the public judgment you claim to see that they’re “ditching the kids to nurture selfish… ambitions.” Maybe you should ask them how they do that, because frankly, it can’t be that hard if so many of them do it.

The fact is that these weighty judgments you claim are placed on women but not on men either don’t exist or are so trivial as to go unnoticed by most people. Look at your last sentence, Peter. You say, “No, this here — this is economics.” Bingo! You and Jen decided how to arrange your roles on the basis of your family’s finances. You and she did the best you could with what you have, i.e. your own chosen fields, your educations, etc.

Now guess what; so does everyone else. With the exception of the 1%, everyone makes the best decision they can about who works, how much, at what, etc., based on what they have to offer. And, given that, it really doesn’t matter what some hypothetical magazine, commentator, next-door neighbor, etc., thinks. It doesn’t matter if old Mrs. So-And-So disapproves of Jen’s working or thinks that you should be the one to bring home the pork belly. What matters is what’s best for your family, especially your kids. If there truly are people who have the time to disapprove of your family’s arrangement, who really cares, Peter? Do you? Does Jen? If so, I suggest you locate your ego wherever it’s gone and stop.

All those judgments you dream Jen toils under are largely imaginary. Who, after all, is making them? Who is it who’s telling Jen she shouldn’t work for a living or, if she’s at home with the children, that she shouldn’t do that either? Send me their names and I’ll email them and tell them to butt out.

But, since you believe you’re free of judgment, except for the nice kind, the kind that calls you a hero, let me humbly acquaint you with some facts about fatherhood. The main fact is that you’re almost entirely at Jen’s mercy. I sincerely hope it never happens to you, Peter, but the fact is that almost half of all marriages end in divorce. That means yours may too.

And if it does, the issue will arise, ‘Who gets the kids?’ Here’s an almost certain fact: it won’t be you. Oh, maybe Jen will be the type of understanding mother we all hope she is. Maybe she’ll know that your daughters shouldn’t lose their father in the jaws of the machine called family court. Maybe the two of you will work out an amicable joint custody arrangement and live happily ever after. I hope so.

But whether that does or doesn’t happen isn’t up to you, Peter. If Jen decides to be vindictive, or even just self-interested, you’re in trouble. She can level false accusations of abuse at you and make you look like a monster, and, even if you’re cleared of the charges, the chances are good you won’t see much of your lovely daughters. Chances are, she’ll get custody and you’ll get to see your kids something like four days a month, if she allows it. If she doesn’t, you may find yourself incessantly in court begging a judge to enforce your visitation order. Your pleas may or may not register with the judge. He/she may or may not give a tinker’s ‘damn’ about your need to see your children or their need to see you. Meanwhile, you’ll be paying child support and possibly alimony.

Oh, and that precious writing career of yours? You can kiss it goodbye. That’s because the judge will be made to understand that, given your education, you can make a lot more money doing something else. Your child support payment will be calculated on the amount of that imputed income and woe betide the father who doesn’t pay in full and on time. Whatever that job may be, look forward to doing it for the next 18 years.

Will Jen decide to move the kids to another state? You won’t have much to say about that either. And if it means your relationship with your daughters goes from slight to non-existent, well, that’s just the way it goes.

If all that sounds like male privilege to you, you’re welcome to it. But whatever you call it, remember that you are married and you do have children, so, at Jen’s whim, at any time you can find yourself being processed by that family law machine I mentioned earlier. You don’t have a choice about that. The ship is far out to sea and you can’t get off.

One last thing. While those judgments you told us Jen labors under are mostly figments of your imagination, the judgments of family courts are as real as it gets. Disobey one of them and you’re looking at further distance from your kids and maybe jail. They’re the type of judgments Jen doesn’t face for doing paid work or staying home and raising the kids. They’re the kind that find the police at your door with a warrant and handcuffs.  See the difference?

So Peter, I humbly encourage you to take another look at your assumptions about your life and Jen’s. If you do, you may come to see that the way forward isn’t as straight and easy as you thought. I’m sure it’s comfortable believing in your own privilege, but believe me when you’re tagged a child abuser, not a lot of people will come up to you in the store with the word ‘hero’ on their lips.

Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.

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