My kids sniggered a little nervously when I came home with The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage. They lost interest when I turned to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood, a collection of columns by Salon contributors. Catching up on recent reportage from the Anglo-American home front (an antidote to tales from the battlefield), I also dipped into Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Lisa Belkin’s Life’s Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom. And, like many thousands of other working mothers, I read Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother. I could have gone on, of course. As Margaret Carlson remarked in Time, “Nearly every female lucky enough to have both a child and a byline” has written about the harried life of the working mother. (Here I am doing it myself.)
But my girls’-night-out binge left me curious to hear from the dads for a change, especially after the dissing they endured in some of these pages. (“How Many Working Fathers Does It Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?” is one essay title.) It’s hardly news that most men aren’t shouldering their share of the “second shift.” But do fathers of our “post-second-wave” era deserve to be given quite such short shrift? I was ready to get their side of the story from, say, I Don’t Know How He Does It: The Life of Richard Shattock, Kate Reddy’s Husband, or All in a Day’s Work: On Being a Father, or The Daddy Diaries. What would The Bastard in the House have to say? I wondered.
Unlike its female counterpart, however, the working-father tell-all has yet to take off as a genre. And so the moms proceed to hang dad out to dry. Specifically: He cannot be counted on to figure out “that things left at the bottom of the stairs usually need to be carried to the top of the stairs,” or to “remember to pick up cat food” (or toilet paper, or coffee filtersevery mother-memoirist or -novelist has her item), or to “dress the kids appropriately while allowing for their individuality,” or to “bake peanut- butter-free cupcakes” for the class, or to worry obsessively about nanny issues. However hands-on he may be, dad fails to juggle everything with mom’s idea of the requisite finesse and air of intense seriousness. He needs prodding, which she finds irritating; or, if he does take matters into his own hands, watch out. (Kate Reddy’s husband crams the baby into clothes meant for a doll.) What’s even more infuriating, one “anxious and frantic” mother fumes, is “his ability to relax when I never seemed to.” Not that the rare father infused with a mother’s multitasking mania and anticipatory angst makes mommy any happier; indeed, he makes “Mommy Maddest,” the title of the section in The Bitch in the House that includes an essay called “Daddy Dearest: What Happens When He Does More Than His Half.”
This pro-feminist assessment sometimes sounds oddly, and depressingly, like a vindication of conservatives who’ve inveighed for decades against an androgynous ideal of parenthood, warning that fathers can’t, and shouldn’t, be reshaped in mom’s soft and solicitous image. We hadn’t “bargained for how deeply the gender roles of ‘nurturer’ and ‘provider’ are ingrained in us all,” sighs a contributor to The Bitch in the House in an essay titled “The Myth of Co-Parenting.” Kate Reddy comes right out and concludes “it’s biology” and offers nuggets that the most retrograde dad would never dare utter. For example, men think about “child care with their wallets,” where women “feel it in their wombs.” And how’s this for progress? Thirty years ago, in the Ms. magazine classic “Click! The Housewife’s Moment of Truth,” mom told dad he could pick up the toys—“You have two hands,” she boldly snapped—and turned on her heel. Now “the horror-at-home,” as one working mother calls herself, is more likely to stride in from the office and, without saying a word or even kicking off her heels, stomp around doing the straightening herself, angrily (and guiltily) daring anyone to accuse her of letting the household slide. But, as the bitches half-acknowledge, they aren’t just reviving the old roles. They’re revising them. Amid fervent discussions of the dangers and virtues of the touchy-feely “new” father, left and right both failed to factor in the hard-driving mother, who has proved less than graceful or entirely grateful about sharing household power. Contemporary portraits of elite motherhood are notably lacking in “natural” empathy and calm, the virtues traditionally thought to suit females for the “caring” labors of nurture. In fact, forget innate feminine compassion, much less maternal intuition. The turn- of-the-millennium mother flaunts an organizational competence and competitive drive that are enough to make a man cringe. She’s a super-scheduler and events coordinator who envisages child-rearingideally, anywayas an intricately engineered process over which she is expected to exert ultimate control. It’s the kind of delusion dad used to bring home from the office, only to be tripped up and often enraged by the emotional chaos that sabotaged his methodical efforts to instill order. Now it’s mom who whirs with a high-tech efficiency that she considers utterly lacking in his genetic hardware, or software. “Nature gives Mother an advance-warning system, ... [and] no minder or man can match her for speed or anticipation,” Kate Reddy announces; Father operates on a more old-fashioned, let’s-take-each-day-as-it-comes-and-not-borrow-trouble sort of timetable. Mother also comes with a PalmPilot configured in her brain, able to store grocery lists, carpool arrangements, play dates, sports practices, music lessons, food preferences, dental appointments, shoe sizes, and endless to-do lists. Male neuronal capacity is deemed inadequate to such feats, which means fudging and forgetting and a general failure to keep up the frenetic pace.
And so, not surprisingly, the working mother also whirs with anxiety in a household that all too often fails to operate according to planand she’s fit to be tied by the dilemma that Karen Karbo, author of the comic novel Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, has framed this way: “A woman can ask a man to do something, or she can tell him how to do it, but she can’t do both.” Maybe it’s time we stressed-out mothers tried a different approach: Ask him how he does it—or, rather, doesn’t do it. Yes, it rankles that he can fall so readily into the mellower role of muddler; men have the luxury of knowing they “can only be better fathers than their fathers,” Kate Reddy gripes, where mothers are plagued by insecurity. Still, the working father—I’m quite sure the kids would concur—may well have something useful to tell us, if we slowed down for a moment to listen.
This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.