September 2, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
As if in answer to the piece by Peter Mountford I wrote about yesterday, comes this (Slate, 8/27/13). It’s a sweet little cartoon by Bill Watterson and it deals with many of the same things Mountford did, but in far more creative, positive and less ‘woe-is-me’ ways.
Mountford, you’ll recall, has the notion that women, but not men, are subject to all sorts of judgments about their work/family choices. Or, to be more accurate, the judgments directed at men are all good and those at women are all bad. And, given that someone out there (whom Mountford never identifies) is judging them so harshly, women are all the helpless victims of those judgments. His wife Jen is damned (by someone) as a throwback if she stays home with the kids and as a child abandoner if she goes to work.
As I pointed out, there are actually very few people, if any, who actually condemn women for those choices. Oh, it’s true that stay-at-home moms may catch some flak from feminists, but aside from them, pretty much everyone agrees that (a) children need parental care and (b) somebody needs to earn the money to pay the rent. Vast numbers of mothers work outside the home, no one seriously says they shouldn’t and, even if they do, it’s irrelevant. Almost without exception, adults in this culture need to work and earn in order to pay the bills. That includes women and they mostly know it and follow through.
Of course there are millions of stay-at-home mothers who, for whatever reason, have the wherewithal to not need to work. Usually that means a husband or male partner who’s doing the job for them. Again, apart from a few irate feminists, there’s little adverse judgment given those women. And, as I said in my previous piece, how intimidating can that judgment be if so many women are opting for full-time motherhood?
By contrast, Watterson’s message is far more sensible and upbeat than Mountford’s “my wife is an eternal victim” screed. Watterson’s cartoon acknowledges that there are many messages in our culture encouraging us to do one thing or the other, but what he understands and Mountford doesn’t is that we don’t need to allow those messages to control us. That’s not only good advice, it’s necessary. After all, what are you going to do, slavishly obey each and every message you hear? I mean, how many cars can one person own?
Watterson’s main character is male, but what he’s saying is applicable to men and women alike. His character blows off his cubicle job at an advertising agency in favor of a less prestigious and lower paying occupation he can pursue at home. When he and his wife have a child, he’s the one to stay home while she goes to work. In short, like Mountford and his wife, Watterson’s characters reverse the usual gender roles. But where Mountford tells us that no role his wife adopts can be anything but unpleasant for her, Watterson says that the very act of rejecting cultural stereotypes can itself be fulfilling.
Of course there’s a rich American cultural tradition that promotes exactly that point of view. From Catch-22 to On the Road to “My Way” to “Go Your Own Way,” and countless others, the word ‘No’ is seen to be powerfully liberating. No to a crazy culture, No to the expectations of others. Watterson’s cartoon is very much part of that tradition that has its roots in the settling of this country by white Europeans.
It’s one that psychologists point out has its limitations. After all, if you define yourself by your rejection of anything, that thing pretty quickly comes to define you. What Watterson and others don’t acknowledge is that your bliss may lie squarely inside the most traditional and culturally expected of roles. Hey, you may find working for an ad agency exciting and fulfilling.
But I don’t think Watterson’s so naïve as to believe that satisfaction with one’s life requires rejection of certain accepted roles. I think his message is simply to go your own way irrespective of what others may do or what the movies may depict. If you’re a man and that means staying home with your kids, so be it. But if it means going to work and building a career, that’s OK too. Ditto for women.
You’ll be told in 100 ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out… and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
All true, and for women, you’ll be told in 100 ways that your natural bent is motherhood and you’re somehow lacking if you don’t make that your life’s main work.
But here’s what Mountford can’t grasp due to his assumption that the one role women can’t reject is that of victim. Watterson understands that, in the final analysis, all those cultural messages are just noise, just static. You need to be responsible to the important people in your life – your spouse, your kids, your parents as they age, your best friends, but you don’t have to be their slaves. If they love you, they won’t ask you to be. Beyond them, you don’t owe anyone - except the IRS - anything.
That said, Watterson’s blind spot is the same as Mountford’s, although I must admit, including it in a comic would be a bit awkward. Watterson’s main character embraces stay-at-home fatherhood and enjoys (almost) every minute of it. What he doesn’t show and Mountford doesn’t mention is the specter of family court. Yes, a father can do what Mountford and Watterson’s character are doing, but that’s far from a guarantee that their wives won’t decide they’re losers for not earning more and march off to divorce court.
Being a devoted dad doesn’t inoculate you from false allegations of abuse or losing your children to the ruling of a family court judge for whom the notion of a stay-at-home father is anathema. Like Mountford, Watterson’s main character is blissfully happy caring for his child, but that look on his face would likely change if he were paying alimony and child support to a woman who doesn’t allow him to see his kid. Many, many dads know just what that feels like and bliss it isn’t.
Still, as far as it goes, Watterson’s cartoon tells it like it really is. Does the culture tell you to make as much money as possible? The hell with it. If that life isn’t your life, don’t live it. Does the culture tell you you’re a bad mother if you don’t spend all your time with your kids? The hell with it too. If you’re happier as a lawyer than as a mother, that’s perfectly OK.
Watterson gets that. Mountford doesn’t. It’s not the first time the feminist narrative of the helpless and put upon woman has been wrong.
Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.
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