Who’s the Boss?

man and baby


So two weeks ago I mentioned another tweet by Jessica Valenti commenting on this. And I swear to God, NYT, I love much about you, but if you want to be the august paper of record you’ve got to stop publishing drivel.

So what I linked to there is a conversation between two NYT columnists about this nonsense notion that the reason men don’t step up about parenting (assuming they don’t) is that women want to keep control in that arena. Blergh.

I’m not denying that, in some households, there is a dynamic by which the husband really, really, really wants to be an equal partner in the parenting and really, really, really wants to make all parenting decisions together, but the wife, in a jealous attempt to guard her womanhood, won’t let him. I’m not denying it because all relationship dynamics exist. All the ones you’ve thought of, all the ones you’ve seen, and a billion ones you’ve never thought of, they all exist. The planet is 7 billion strong and people are people and everything exists. If the Internet has taught us nothing, it should have taught us this: everything exists. (And there is a porn of it.) (Link totally SFW, BTW. It’s just an xkcd comic.)

But that doesn’t mean it’s prevalent or constant and even if it is a legitimate trend (and one should never conclude that something is a legitimate trend just because it’s mentioned in the New York Times), this “debate” offers little real insight. In fact, it seems to me that the “debate” is more like, she says x, he says x is wrong, and she says, haha, okay, you’re right, x is wrong, silly female me!

She starts the debate by saying she never wanted to be the one in charge, and she and her husband really do things very equally, but when she went out of town, she still had to pull over to the side of the road to walk her husband through some basic, daily, “On Tuesday Kid One goes here and Kid Two goes there; drop off Kid One first but pick up Kid Two first,” kind of stuff and how is that she got to be in this position of being in charge like that?

(I should use their names, right? He is Bruce Feiler, of This Life, and author of these two books. She is KJ Dell’Antonia, of Motherlode, and co-author of this.

[Wait, what is this? I like Motherlode and everything, but we need a book of instruction on how to read to our children? Here’s how you read to your children: 1) Place child in lap, next to one on couch or comfy chair, or in bed with you lying next to him/her. Or, if there’s more than one child, arrange children around you so that all have equal access to the pictures. 2) Choose book you like. The younger the child, the less it matters. I used to read aloud from my romance novels when Zoe was an infant. When they get older, choose ones with good pictures, so even if the book sucks, at least you’re looking at something interesting. 3) Read. 4) Pause as often as your patience can handle to answer or pose questions about the book. Sometimes your patience can handle zero interruption. That’s okay.])

Anyway, the dude responds to her opening by defending dads, linking to all that research showing that women edge out their male partners when it comes to parenting on purpose because they don’t want to give up the mommy power, and says, “When a mother criticizes her partner’s child-care efforts, it causes him to lose confidence and withdraw. When she praises his efforts, he takes a more active role.”

And she doesn’t say, “Oh, my God, you fucking wilting flower. The whole problem is that men’s child-care efforts wax and wane in response to their female partner’s responses whereas the mother is JUST EXPECTED TO DO SHIT. Mothers don’t have the LUXURY of WHINING that you didn’t PRAISE OUR DIAPERING ADEQUATELY and therefore we will not diaper, because THE DIAPER STILL NEEDS TO BE FUCKING CHANGED. You fucking tool.”

Nor does she say, “Hey, wait a minute, the question on the table is, ‘Why is the mom always the default parent?’ You’re not answering that question. You’re accepting that the mom is always the default parent, and then answering the question, ‘How can moms get their male parenting partners to help out more?’ That’s faulty logic, and it’s not helpful to this discussion.”

She does, at least, point out something important, which is that women are the ones who feel the pressure to be good parents. And not “good,” like, nurturing and caring and with an eye toward emotional development. “Good” like, “on top of shit.” Knowing which day the forms for the soccer team are due and which classroom can’t have peanuts and whether that movie is appropriate for their age group. That’s a really important point in this debate, that women bear the social costs of parenting and so of course they’re going to feel more pressure to do things “right.”  She talks about how she can only feel okay about going on business trips, etc., if things go smoothly while she’s gone; if things go wrong and she’s getting a call about why no one is here to pick up the kids 20 minutes after school is out and she’s in, like, Spain, then she feels like she’s fucking up as a parent. But not the dad, who’s the one who’s actually late to pick them up. He’s a real trouper for taking care of shit, even if he is the one who’s 20 minutes late, while his irresponsible, career-obsessed wife is off doing her own thing and not caring about her kids. “You see that whole dominant parent thing as something women want to protect; I see it as something we can’t escape.” Sing it, sister!

It’s not dissimilar, actually, to the question, “Why don’t women want casual sex as much as men do?” I mean, sure, there’s the fact that we get pregnant and men don’t. And the fact that we’re less likely to experience pleasure with a casual partner than a man is. But there’s also the social pressure. It’s still true that a man having casual sex is The Man while a woman having casual sex is, at best, Making A Poor Choice Right Now and at worst A Whore. So, duh. Higher cost, less likelihood of benefit.

But I digress.

So KJ makes this perfectly valid point about women bearing the brunt of the societal pressure to “do” parenting “right,” and face constant judgment if we’re wrong.  And it’s true. Let’s say I change Zoe’s diaper and not Jason. Nothing remarkable has happened. (I mean, now, something remarkable has happened, because she’s four, but let’s pretend this example is happening back when she was a baby.) Mom did the most minor part of her job, Dad did not do something that was not his job in the first place. Now let’s say Jason changes the stinky diaper but puts the new one on backwards. (Those of you who know Jason know that this never happened once. But let’s just say for the sake of example.) Now Jason is a super-awesome dad for being willing to change diapers, and also adorably incompetent because dads! They don’t know things! Someone should make a hilarious and heart-warming movie about that! Whereas I can either turn the diaper around, thereby discouraging Jason from diapering again because why do I have to criticize his parenting and don’t I realize it’s all my fault that women do so much more of the child care than men? Or I can leave the diaper as is, which makes me a (mildly) negligent mother. Now let’s say Jason changes the stinky diaper and does it right! Goddamn it, he’s a fucking superhero! Wow, he knows how to diaper right?! Go him! Whereas I must be some sort of castrating superbitch to have forced my husband into a position where he’s changed diapers so often he actually knows how to do it right.

And don’t think this doesn’t pollute marriages themselves. Get told enough times that, as a male, diapering wasn’t really your job in the first place, and doing it right makes you a goddamned superhero, and a tiny part of you might start to believe it. So that when your wife is upset at you about something else, and when both of you are tired and frustrated and in bad moods, even if you don’t fully believe it, you will come out with, “Hey, do you know how many husbands won’t even touch a dirty diaper? You’re lucky to have a guy like me!”

Sometimes I think the whole problem with men and women these days is that the bar of expectations is so low for men that even when they clear it by miles, they still get obnoxious about it.

I’m still digressing. Sorry.

So does Bruce say, “Gosh, it must be difficult to live with these societal expectations. I don’t even know what it’s like. Having the privilege of being male has protected me from that. I will take your experience seriously because obviously you know your own life better than I do.”?


No. Bruce is totally dismissive! She’s so nice in her entries, all “I totally see where you’re coming from, and yes, I can understand how it would feel like this if I were a man,” you know, like girls are taught to be. And he’s a jerk, because men aren’t taught to be non-jerks. He says, “Are we all Princess Diana now? We have a ‘third person’ in our marriage?” He suggests that she simply ignore societal pressure. “So the next time you hear (or imagine) those whispers or see (or invent) those raised eyebrows,” you say, “Hey, Dad was on duty today,” and he apparently thinks that will make everything better because he didn’t listen to what she was saying in the first place.

And then KJ totally caves! She claims that “the whispers and the eyebrows really are in my head” and that, in the “mommy wars,” “we’re not really judging one another. We’re judging ourselves.”

And I cry foul! What a cop-out! KJ, why did you just let Bruce claim to understand your experience better than you do?! Why did you just agree it was “all in your head” and that you would just be stronger about dealing with it?!

Look, social pressure, societal expectations, these are real things! They aren’t fake; they aren’t in your head; they are out there in the world!

And seriously, if you don’t believe there’s real judgment about how to mother in the world, go ahead. Come up with a question about parenting – anything at all – and type it into Google and see what kind of crazed, judgmental, vitriolic shit comes out. And it’s not just on Google! It’s just more subtle in real life. Sometimes.

I mean, God, the history of feminism is a long, long history of men telling women that various things were all in their head and women finally saying, “Fuck you, no, it’s not, and we’re going to pass some motherfucking laws about it already.” I feel like starting a mommy consciousness-raising group or something. The pressure is not all in our heads! It is out there; it is everywhere; it is not going away and we need to do something! The personal is political! Who’s with me?! Do you hear the mommies sing?! Singing the song of angry moms! It is the music of a people who will not get sleep again! When the beating of your heart echoes the beat of other moms, there is a movement that will start when tomorrow comes!

And if anyone has any flag color suggestions, let me know!


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