Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Me vs. Linda

Today's entry is all about me. I'll try to make it interesting and relevant to readers who are not-me.

First: Beacon Press has offered me a contract for my book, Twenty-First-Century Dad, which will argue that the role of the American father is rightly becoming more flexible, giving moms more options and enriching fathers' lives in the process. I haven't signed anything yet, but in many respects Beacon is an ideal home for the book and I look forward to the partnership.

I'm searching for more dads to interview, and I'm going to be in Chicago next week. I'm especially interested in talking to Chicago dads who were thrown into a primary caregiving role by sudden unemployment or disability, as well as former stay-at-home dads who are back at work. If you happen to fit the description, send me an email at jeremyadamsmith(at)mac.com.

Second: Toronto Star family reporter Andrea Gordon quotes me in her column today, entitled "Enough of the Mommy Wars Debate." I'd probably be linking to this column even if I weren't quoted, because it contains so much truth:

The problem with so much of the working mom versus stay-at-home debate is it is conducted outside the realm of the intense emotional rollercoaster that comes with parenthood. It doesn't incorporate that gut-level yearning that some mothers and fathers feel, to be with their children, even though it can be at times thankless and boring and hard. Or the non-financial rewards that family life can bring. As writer Joan Walsh of Salon.com wrote earlier this month, the pro-career arguments are often "deaf to the way a child and family-centered life calls out to a lot of women, and to some men."

Other times, it comes down to what your kids are like. Some children need their mothers. Or fathers. Some take early separation in stride. In the words of writer Jane Juska: "As mothers, we know which of our kids is which." And there's nothing that pulls harder than knowing your child needs you, no matter what the price.

The good news is this is gradually moving beyond being strictly a women's issue. Not that you'll see that in the mom lit, where dads are generally portrayed as useless, uninvolved or worse, written out of the whole equation. The newest wave of dads is more hands-on and increasingly willing to adapt their work arrangements around child care needs or their spouse's work.

Third: It's finally time to respond to Linda Hirshman's March 25 attack on me and Rebeldad. (Hirshman is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Brandeis University and author of Get to Work, which argues that "housekeeping and child rearing [are] not worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings.") Here's what she wrote:

Men are not going to carry their share of the family until women force the issue by not choosing inequality. All the paid leave in the world does not change that fact. If I didn’t believe it before, I’d believe it now that I have studied up on the autobiographies of the legendary stay at home dads of the Internet, “Rebel Dad” Brian Reid and “Daddy Dialectic” Jeremy Adam Smith. Rebel Dad spent under three years at home with one baby, while creating his (now defunct) online personam [sic] of rebel dad and pitching a book proposal all over the internet. Once the second baby came Rebel took his rebellious self right into full time work in public relations, leaving his former lawyer wife with a newborn and a kindergartener [sic]. The Dialectical Smith didn’t even stay home a year, but lived exactly the life the mommy activists dream of. He posts: “You know, my wife and I tried [both working part time] (she . . . is fortunate to have a unionized part-time teaching job that provides full health care) and I must say that it was extremely difficult to maintain . . . I'm interviewing for jobs. For our family, it might better for one of us to work full-time while the other stays home . . . I'm sort of thinking that maybe it's my wife's turn to stay home.” A few hours later: “Well, for us the issue is resolved: yesterday I accepted a full-time job . . . Poof! I'm no longer a stay at home dad and now it's my wife's turn to stay home -- actually, she's still thinking about whether she wants to go back to work. I hope she doesn't; I want her to have time with the boy.”

Poof. I’d hate to be the woman with the desk next to Dialectical Dad, taking family leave while he minds the workplace.

Hirshman gets the details of both our lives wrong, but I'll let that pass, because I don't want my personal biography--which involves my wife and son as well as me--to be a point of debate. Yes, I do talk about my personal life here and elsewhere, but careful readers will note that, as a matter of policy, I restrict my observations to my own responses as a father and caregiver. Most of the blog is consumed with thinking politically about my experience, sharing research with readers, and debating ideas. My wife is seldom mentioned, except in passing. That's because I don't want, and she doesn't want, her life and choices to be subjected to the same public scrutiny that I sometimes receive. The same goes for my son, of course, though at the moment his biggest life choices consist of picking out which toy to play with.

I actually agree with much of what Hirshman writes about women and work. It's hard to say what, exactly, Hirshman is criticizing about my life and choices as she understands them, or what the examples of Rebeldad and Daddy Dialectic are supposed to prove. That men will always choose work over family and force their wives to take care of children? I submit to the reader that our choices, even as mischaracterized by Hirshman, show that this is not always the case. Men can and do choose to stay home with children, and they can and do find the experience to be one of the greatest things to ever happen to them.

Sure, many dads will continue to freelance or consult or work part-time while serving as primary caregivers; most stay-at-home dads ultimately go back to work. This is also true of moms, about eighty percent of whom go back to work at some point after the birth of a child. As those of us who live in the real world know, parental leave can last from two weeks to a lifetime, depending on a range of circumstances, most of them economic, some of them cultural.

It's true that men appear to put more emphasis on work, even when they are the primary caregivers, but I fail to see why this is a bad thing. When Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet studied 125 caregiving dads, she found that almost half of them kept a hand in the labor market and most planned to go back to work. While people like Hirshman might see this as an example of hypocrisy, Doucet sees it as a viable alternative to the career homemaker model. “I think that men do not face the same fatherload because they do carve out time for themselves, even when they are at home with the kids," Doucet told the Ottawa Citizen. "Perhaps there are some interesting things that [women] can learn from men.”

So what's really behind Hirshman's attack on caregiving fathers? Dads like me and Rebeldad are not really her target. Instead she is attacking the very idea of caregiving, a position ably dissected by my colleague Chip. Hirshman has argued that if taking care of children "were the most important thing a human being could do, then why are no men doing it?" I'd like to turn that around: if no men are doing it, Linda, then why are you attacking me and Rebeldad? It is as if she finds the very fact of our existence threatening--as do a lot of people.

In fact, men take care of children every day, which in her masculinist mind might make childcare a more worthy activity. But instead of allowing the reality of male caregiving to modify her ideas, she simply denies that it exists. To Linda, childcare isn't something to be shared equally and happily between men and women; that's not her agenda. Instead childcare is an unpleasant, undesirable task that the privileged classes should outsource to women who have less education, less money, and fewer options. I don't see how this is going to make the world a better place.

One last thing on this comment: "I’d hate to be the woman with the desk next to Dialectical Dad, taking family leave while he minds the workplace." Actually, the woman who sits next to me (well, in the office next to mine) is my boss, a Ph.D., and a former stay-at-home mother of two girls--and although our backgrounds are in many ways quite different, our shared experience of daily caregiving and trying to strike the right work-family balance has made us friends and allies.

Time to wake up, Linda. America has changed, but you seem to have slept through the past thirty years.


Anonymous said...

i'm one of the dads who had to stay at home when he was unemployed, and got a very small taste of what women have endured for who knows how long [the notion that men are the ones doing real work while they are just sitting around eating bonbons and watching soaps; taking care of a child is FULL TIME WORK, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without pay or sick time or vacation. the only dividend is love, which admittedly is substantial.] on top of that, having to endure the perception that one is taking care of the child because of some sort of laziness or moral failing or, worst of all, faulty masculinity. most of the freeloading, lazy fathers i have encountered are busy spending their ample free time on their boat, on the golf course, or skirt chasing - not changing diapers. it's not something a lazy person would ever take on!

thank you so much for this post.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

You're welcome! And thanks for the comment.

Chip said...

for me Hirshman's worst bit was the claim that taking care of children is not "worthy" work for people who had any ounce of intellect. That statement alone tells you all you need to know about her and her values.

Nice comeback.

Stephen de las Heras said...

Congratulations on your book deal. I greatly look forward to reading it someday!

I agree completely that SAHDs get ignored by the media because people on both sides of the debate find our existence undermines their arguments. Literally ;)

That said, you seem to agree with Hirshman's main point--that SAHDs are generally more ambitious than SAHMs.

Hirshman makes the (lucrative) mistake of assuming this is primarily a cultural problem. And you agree with her since you say that it is due to "economic" and "cultural" reasons.

I think you are both wrong because I think it is clearly rooted in biology. Liberal thinkers need to take a close hard look at the evidence for innate statistical gender differences. Is it so hard to accept that men may be born with more ambition than women (on average)?

Not for the first time I will highly recommend reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate.