Friday, June 12, 2009

Readings: David Eddie's "Housebroken"

So I've been reading a lot of books by and about stay-at-home dads lately, including Jeremy's, which is of course required reading, but since he runs this blog you all know what his stuff is about and I don't need to go over that. I'm reading other stuff, mostly accounts by dads about what it was like to somehow or another wind up like me, a stay-at-home dad.

Some similarities, highly unscientific, are emerging from my equally unscientific literary survey sample. The guys who are writing books that manage to get onto my radar seem to be media types -- writers, aspiring writers, journalists, TV producers, etc. A number of them make a point of not ever having expected their lives to land them in stay-at-home-dadhood.

And, beginning with Neal Pollack's Alternadad, Philip Lerman's Dadditude, and David Eddie's Housebroken, they all present a narrative beginning in bachelorhood, or pre-pregnancy, that sets up the stark contrast between the upside-down world of reverse-traditional parenting with what came before (cad-ness, guy-ness, non-middle-class conformity-ness, overall bohemian-ness). Alternadad and Housebroken both portray classic male slobs going nowhere until they meet the woman of their dreams, the love of which brings out the inner father none of them thought they had.

Classic conversion stories. I once was lost, but now am found. Was riding a donkey on the road to Damascus a Jew, saw the light, fell off the donkey, and began writing epistles to the Christians of Asia Minor. For a marketable modern fatherhood memoir, you must begin with a fallen man, an incorrigible slob (Eddie), pothead (Pollack), or middle-aged hippie (Lerman), or a bumbling incompetent who finds his way (Michael Lewis' Home Game, though I've only heard the author on NPR). Only Lerman starts off fully embracing his new role and what comes with it.

And all of them, each and every one, according to the blurbs on the back covers, is "painfully funny," "leaves you chortling out loud," and is just "utterly hilarious" from start to finish. The stay-at-home dad book evidently comes with a laugh track.

I'm not sure what this means, whether it represents the conforming mold of publishing editors and marketing departments imposed from without, making fatherhood be as funny as possible, making caregiving dads into former cads, and adding the requisite dosage of guy-ness to every manuscript so as not to scare away the relatively small number of possible male readers.

After reading Philip Lerman's Dadditude, for example, and finding the author to be a pleasantly sincere, earnest, and reflective parent who willingly took on the role of stay-at-home father, I can't help but wonder who came up with the book's subtitle: How a Real Man Became a Real Dad. With a title like that, you'd think the book would describe the persistence of some elements of classical masculinity or machismo, or at least their transvaluation in the crucible of caregiving. Not so. It is a story of a middle-aged professional who quits a great job to spend time raising his son and writing about how much he loves him.

Which brings me back to David Eddie's Housebroken. It was published 10 years ago now, in that pre-Dot Bomb world that now seems as far away as Coleridge's Xanadu. In the style of most dad memoirs, it's unabashedly honest about gender expectations and stereotypes. "No man expects to end up a stay at home dad," Eddie claims early on, in a phrase that is reiterated on the book's back cover. He's ambitious. He works from home, he steals time away from the baby.

But he also really likes his job, and stands up for it. Towards the end of the book one finds a chapter titled "Towards a Possible Redefinition of Machismo," in which Eddie, already a non-conformist, takes a non-conformist and interesting approach to the masculinity of fatherhood:

[I]f any man reading this were to say, spitting a stream of tobacco juice into a nearby spittoon, "Househusband? Pushing a stroller, wearing an apron, collecting an allowance from his wife? What a wimp. What a wuss. Get a job. Be a man. You're embarrassing your entire gender," I would simply say, first of all, I've never been sexier or more attractive to women.

I wouldn't disagree. But that's the bone thrown to defensive guyish-ness, and it's comically effective. It's followed a few pages later by the following thoughtful paragraph:

We need to lose the old military models of masculinity, I think, in favor of a peacetime version which hearkens back to the old idea of a gentleman. Manhood should be about sincerity, passion, fidelity, and honor. A certain adherence to tradition, perhaps. One of the most manly men I know is probably my college roommate Charles. He's balding, heavy-set and prematurely gray, but he has one of the strongest, most masculine minds I know. A firm and fair-minded lawyer. I'm not sure I'd want him in my foxhole; but if I ran afoul of the law I'd want him to prepare my briefs.

Sincerity, passion, fidelity, and honor are all attractive qualities, but I'm not quite sure why they are exclusively masculine, or should be. And I'm not sure that these are "peacetime" as opposed to [Cold]wartime traits. They are, after all, the signal virtues of Knights Errant, chivalric figures of the Middle Ages who were occasional warriors for hire, when not romancing in the south of France.

What I take away from Housebroken is a fairly entertaining narrative of a reflective man who is utterly at peace with his situation. That's the significant thing here: Eddie isn't arguing about gender equality, equal pay for equal work, parental leave policies, government-sponsored day care, the evolution of capitalism, or other policies and abstractions. He is simply comfortable being a male primary caregiver and recounts his experiences. He himself is a sociological effect, an artifact of the complex changes Jeremy Adam Smith describes in The Daddy Shift. And he makes no apologies.

He hasn't jettisoned every trait that is typically masculine, but has preserved a mix of them and incorporated them into a new set of traits that is applied to a new set of tasks. Eddie has simply adapted, keeping his sense of vocational identity while committing to the role of full-time fatherhood.

The bottom line, probably, is that I derive most of whatever sense of machismo I have from my skills as a writer. I look at it like this: writers have always needed something to do in the afternoon to take their minds off writing. Hemingway had the bulls; Bukowski had the track; I change diapers and push a stroller around...

And some of us just blog.

David Eddie. "Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad". New York, Riverhead Books, 1999.


Anonymous said...

Very cool post. A well-written and thoughtful review.

I need to chew on it, and perhaps read the book, before leaving an equally insightful comment . . .

Thanks for the push!

Anonymous said...

Is there a book for dads who don't live within the influence of Mom?

I am a single dad, I have my son 50% of the time; and I have since birth. The other 50% of the time, I'm a single guy. ;-)

Which book do you recommend?

chicago pop said...

terwilliger- that's a great question and I wish I had a quick answer. The single dad is unexplored territory for me, but I'd be interested in learning more about it. Anyone out there to help with a reading list?