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VoiceMale Magazine Summer 2010

By Donald N.S. Unger – Reprinted with Permission from VoiceMale Magazine []
When we examine change, we often look as well at why things often don’t change. I am particularly interested in the not uncommon resistance to the notion that the quantity and the quality of the time American fathers spend with their children have changed meaningfully. Ironically, I see this resistance coming from both the right and the left.
Philosophically, resistance on the right is easier to explain. Both men and women in more politically or culturally conservative families are apt to have a traditional view of gender: men are the breadwinners; women stay home and take care of the children. To publicly admit to sharing domestic labor would amount to an admission of emasculation on two counts for the husband: for his failure to earn sufficient money “as he should” in order to permit his wife to stay home with the children, and for his own taking up of “women’s work.
For the wife, it would amount to a public admission of her failure to take care of home and children “as she should” and her inappropriate usurpation of the prerogatives of the “proper head of the household.” Women work outside the home. That’s no less true in conservative families than in progressive families. The economic pressures are the same; the economic lifeline—a second salary—is the same.
What is often different is what happens with child care and, of particular importance to what I am arguing, how this matter is discussed publicly. We have a national ambivalence about preschool day care, but this is closer to hardcore resistance in blue-collar or lower-middleclass conservative households. Day care, entrusting one’s children to strangers—the financial costs aside—is more often viewed by such families as a shamefully unacceptable betrayal of family values and a potential venue for exposing children to a variety of dangers, both cultural and physical.
As a result, evidence shows a large and vastly underreported increase in the number of conservative households in which men and women are sharing parenting to some degree, as a matter of necessity, both real and perceived. Most often this is true in families where both parents do shift work: nurses, utility workers, police officers, firefighters.
On the left, I believe people resist acknowledging progress, in part, for fear that doing so will blunt the drive for further and more comprehensive change. I understand that concern; it is not my contention that we have reached some sort of postgender, egalitarian Promised Land where all are Free to Be You and Me, but it is simply counterfactual to claim that we have not made substantial progress toward equality, along a variety of axes, in the past 35 years or so.
This resistance, which I would characterize as essentially tactical, is buttressed by an emotional reaction on the part of at least some women and men of egalitarian bent that might be summed up as: You want me to listen to men’s problems and complaints now? Puh-lease!
In examining the cultural impact of Kramer vs. Kramer, the 1979 Dustin Hoffman/Meryl Streep movie, New York Times film critic Molly Haskell, writing three years after the movie’s release, was both irritated by and dismissive of the movie in significant part because of this perceived inequity. The supreme irony of Kramer vs. Kramer, she fumes, was that here at last was a film that took on the crisis central to the modern woman’s life, that is, the three-ring circus of having to hold down a job, bring up a child and manage a house simultaneously, and who gets the role? Dustin Hoffman.
I understand the emotion; I understand its basis. But I don’t believe that what she wrote was useful to fathers or mothers. A medical analogy might help illuminate this. In the 1980s, AIDS activists began to reshape medical care, from the drug testing and approval process, to hospital visiting regulations, to end-of-life care. AIDS was then almost exclusively a terminal illness; the patients were, as a group, younger than most other people in that situation, sometimes radical to begin with, sometimes radicalized by their experience with the illness; they fought to change the terms of their treatment and the terms of their deaths. Some cancer patients and their families resented the changes the AIDS patients and their allies were able to initiate. Why should they get privileged access to drugs still in clinical trials? Why should they have liberalized visiting policies? What gives them the right to challenge their physicians when the culture of medical care says we can’t challenge ours?
Some of those plaints not often voiced publicly were doubtless colored by homophobia. But they embody an obvious and powerful emotional logic untainted by that consideration: I’m dying too! Don’t I deserve the same attention?
Ultimately, that’s the narrative that won out, not a competition, not a zero-sum game in which the gains of one set of patients were construed to be the losses of another: The AIDS patients’ rights movement birthed a broader patients’ rights movement, rather than remaining at the level of sectarian warfare between patients suffering from different illnesses.
Attention to the issues around fathers married or divorced; custodial or noncustodial; working as primary parents, sharing child care, or working outside the home should not be taken to be competition for attention to the issues faced by mothers. Indeed, while there may be some short-term, emotional benefit to guarding the territory of child care as a women’s issue, doing so also contributes to the ongoing marginalization of what I would instead call parents’ issues in our political discourse. I understand Haskell’s irritation.
She brings up an issue, and an irony, that bears discussion. To launch that discussion as a public attack, however, amounts to parents arranging themselves in a circular firing squad.
Sometimes gender matters.
Sometimes mothers and fathers have different concerns in terms of what makes our home lives or our professional lives either easier or more difficult (men don’t get pregnant, for example). More often, however, our concerns overlap: We are more powerful when we stand together as parents than when we set ourselves up as fathers against mothers or vice versa.
So where are we now?
We may be on the cusp of fundamentally and to my mind positively shifting to a much more open definition of family and of caregiving generally, opening up and broadening what it is possible, or perhaps more accurately what it is acceptable, for a man to do with his life. A shorthand way of looking at this would be that in the next decade we may see the home open up to men in the same way that the workplace began to open up to women in the 1970s.
I believe this would be good for men, for women, for children though I would never assume that change is always easy or that it is ever neat.
Writer Donald N.S. Unger, a longtime contributor to Voice Male, is a lecturer in the program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This article is excerpted from his book Men Can: The Changing Image & Reality of Fatherhood in America, forthcoming from Temple University Press, May 2010, and reprinted with their permission. The author can be reached at

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