The Washington Post hit upon a decidedly postmodern way to celebrate Father’s Day yesterday: a disturbing piece about a physically and mentally abusive father and a second essay arguing that more dads need to become the “lead parent” in bringing up kids. The second piece is headlined, “Don’t Worry, Working Moms: Just Leave Dad in Charge at Home.” In other words, this second Father’s Day story is really about mothers.
Honestly, however couples arrange their lives, whether the father works in the home or in an office, is up to them. One only hopes they will be kind and loving and function well together as a family. But Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the piece and president and CEO of New America, makes family arrangements sound like nothing short of a union negotiation. Slaughter is not allowed to interfere with schedules and dinner menus at home, for example, because her husband, the lead parent, and “a distinguished professor of international affairs,” drives a bargain that would make the SEIU look laissez-faire.
She writes, “For men to take charge, however, women have to be willing to step aside, despite all the cultural expectations that we’ll run the home front no matter what. Andy and I have, after some debate, come to an understanding that if he’s the lead parent, he gets to call the shots about schedules, how things are organized (I can never find anything in our kitchen), the punishments to mete out when the kids break the rules and myriad other parenting decisions. I don’t like it. But he says that if I want to change it, I can stop traveling as much as I do and focus less on running things in my office. Otherwise, he’s not about to be micromanaged.” Gosh, what a pleasant family.
But women have a gold-plated bargaining chip in these negotiations: the guilt trip. No matter what Dad does, evidently it is not enough to put poor, long-suffering Mom entirely at ease when she is out crashing through glass ceilings: “Even when their husbands fully share the housework and child care, it doesn’t help reduce the stress that so many women say results from the equivalent of two full-time jobs,” Slaughter writes.
As for how to be a good man and a good father in this “lead parent” world, Slaughter offers little advice beyond a warning that “men who prefer to do more at home still confront an outdated image of masculinity.” Evidently men should aspire to be more like the dads who are “secure enough in their masculinity to challenge stereotypes.” Here’s an odd image of the ideal father: Forget being a good spouse, raising children of good character, and helping support your family; what you should really be doing is challenging stereotypes!
The second Father’s Day story, Richard Morgan’s bad dad story begins, “I recently Googled [my father] for the first time — to double-check that he was still alive.” He then tells a harrowing tale that I read with rapt attention. Unlike Slaughter, and despite his horrible upbringing, Morgan retains a sense that there are certain innate, masculine qualities that are important in making a man a father, as opposed to simply a “lead parent.”
The Morgan story is sometimes too cathartic, and if I had edited it I might have cut Morgan’s final communication with his father, but at the end he movingly writes, “I spend [Father’s Day] thinking about fatherhood, whether I’ll ever have kids, what I’d like them to call me. (Papa, I think) . . . . I still think, despite it all, that fatherhood is the highest state of manliness, the highest compliment to children and the highest complement to mothers.”
He’s right. And that is the difference between being a good father and being merely a “lead parent.”