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New York Times Relegates Fathers to the Grammatical Sidelines

A front-page news article in today’s New York Times on a representative working mother is the first, we are promised, in the “Balancing Act” series, which “will look at the ways working mothers from varied backgrounds are balancing careers and family responsibilities.” I fear for the rest of the series. The article is well-meaning, but completely fails to account for ways that anybody or anything else, from the subject’s husband to her employer to the government, could aid her in her “balancing act.” In its endeavor to prove her heroism, it lets everyone else off the hook.

On the one hand, it understands that its main subject, a Wisconsin woman named Sara Uttech, is entitled to a life in which she can find both career success and personal happiness through a robust home life that includes three children; that she is representative; and that things like flexible work policies—the article’s prominent example is the ability to work from home on Fridays—make this easier.

On the other hand, it treats men generally and Uttech’s husband specifically as incidental to parenting (Rebecca Traister tweeted several smart thoughts about this), and Uttech’s status as a mother—and the massive demands that come with it—as something that has to be snuck in interstititally among her job commitments.

First, there are the men in the article. They are literally parenthetical. To wit:

“I never miss a baseball game,” said Ms. Uttech, uttering a statement that is a fantasy for millions of working mothers (and fathers) nationwide. …

Unaccounted for in the latest books offering leadership strategies by and for elite women is the fact that only 37 percent of working women (and 44 percent of working men) say they actually want a job with more responsibilities. …

With support and guidance from the Book Nuggets (and her husband)…

She says the greatest “pearl of wisdom” she can offer other working mothers—and fathers, too—is to not be afraid to ask for such accommodations, even if the response might be no….

Part of the problem may be that most women (and men) don’t feel as if they have enough leverage to ask for accommodations…

So in fairness, men aren’t always parenthetical: Occasionally they make it all the way into subordinate clauses set off by em-dashes. It implies that all domestic tasks are the woman’s until proven otherwise; and where the woman wants or needs to take on tasks outside the house as well, that is the stretch. Consider this passage:

And she emphasizes that she gets a lot of help: from her husband, Michael, who picks the boys up from their after-school program, and spends many evenings coaching their sports teams; and from other family members, like her mother and her brother, who live nearby and help watch the children during school vacations.

So Uttech’s husband—the father of these children—gives her “help” in much the way “other family members” do. How sweet of him! It’s so nice when the mother can get help from unexpected sources. (It’s entirely possible that Uttech’s husband has little interest in being an active father to his children, but then that should be mentioned.)

As the ranks of working women, working mothers, and working mothers in two-parent homes rise, it seems insane that a major news trend story would so violently relegate men to the sidelines. Doing so distorts the reality the article seeks to describe, which is the increasing preponderance of two-working-parent homes in which, more and more, men are primary caregivers or, at least, a little less distant than Michael appears to be.

So curiously dispensing with the Y-chromosomed also obliterates what should be the natural alliance between mothers and fathers, and between Uttech and Michael. “The housing bust battered her husband’s construction business,” we learn, making her “an increasingly important breadwinner.” At the least, it should follow that this makes Michael an increasingly important caretaker, but the article, by so myopically focusing on Uttech, places no responsibilities on him. And that sentence is suffused with the assumption that if it only weren’t for that damn housing bust, Uttech wouldn’t be an important breadwinner—which may be true from a purely economic perspective, but elides her understandable desire (since we are also told she does not want to be a stay-at-home mom) to find fulfillment and income in running member communications for the Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies.

Which provides a nice segue to the article’s other flaw, which is that it casts the individual as helplessly negotiating the uncaring landscape of the professional world rather than employers accomodating millions and millions of working parents. In fairness to the author, that is a largely accurate description of our current, bizarre reality, and she can’t be expected to advocate for that to change in an news story.

However, the author goes out of her way to reinforce the status quo by relentlessly emphasizing personal autonomy. Uttech asking to work from home on Fridays, and suggesting others do the same, is the great heroic moment of her story. We are told that only one third of employers allow some employees to work from home some of the time, but then immediately pivot to a working-women advocate’s admonition that “part of the problem may be” employees’ reluctance to be as brave as Uttech was to ask for remote Fridays. But when that advocate’s organization states that it wants jobs in which women “can fulfill their responsibilities at work and at home,” it isn’t only talking about the brave ones.

If you want to see into the heart of any news article, check its kicker—that snappy quote that wraps things up.

“Because I’m a mom I know how to multitask, and I have all these other skills I didn’t have before like juggling, mentoring, educating, problem-solving, managing,” she said. “And I’m so much more productive now during the hours when I am working. Motherhood should be a feather in my cap, not a drawback.”

Parenting as career asset! That is deeply depressing. It is understandable that Uttech would see it that way, because she does not know a reality in which employers understand—or are forced by the government to understand—that their employees are also stakeholders and that the right to parent is a crucial demand for these stakeholders that should be preserved regardless of whether it is a cap-feather, a drawback, or indifferent.

Perhaps the Times thinks its job is only to depict this woman’s mind-set. After all, it is not publishing a series “examining the way companies from varied backgrounds are balancing their employees’ careers and family responsibilities,” although such a series would be more original than this one. Still, reporting a trend requires giving it context, and in this case the context is employers’ serial unwillingness, enabled by lack of sufficient regulation, to make room for the rest of its employees’ lives. At best, that context is hinted at.

These two problems—not holding men and not holding employers responsible—are related. As evidence that Uttech actually has it better than most working mothers, the article notes that her boss is a woman who raises dogs and sheep. That’s great for Uttech—seriously—but more people have bosses who are men with children than are women with dogs, and until that changes, the two problems of omitting men from the parenting discussion and omitting personal dignity from the career discussion are going to be linked.