Men and Women, Work and Family: What Kind of Dad is a “Real Man”?

Well, here we are again. By “we” I mean my family; and by “here” I mean with one of us out of a job.

Several years ago, my husband left a job that was literally sucking the life out of him (thanks to a bullying boss and a badly-run organization, he lost: 15 lbs. and his natural, glass-half-full outlook. What he did not lose, thank heaven, was his remarkable, resilient, family-forged work ethic). Anyway, though he made the correct decision to leave that job, he had no way of knowing that smack on the heels of it would come the first rumblings of the great recession, or Great Recession, or whatever we’re calling the most recent economic downturn. He was out of work for a year and a half.

Now he’s once again out of work — I’ll spare you the details because every time I try to explain his odyssey of the last few years it starts to sound like I’m defending something indefensible, or worse, whining on his behalf. I whine all the time, sure, but he doesn’t. Suffice to say, and notwithstanding the fact that I’m his wife and have that love-and-fidelity bias, he was making the very best of a bad situation, and ended up being forced out for not-good reasons.

I’m of course nervous and heavy-hearted at the prospect of going through what we went through before. It wasn’t pretty. The fun included going to the bank to close the boys’ meager bank accounts to squeak us through another month. I’m not sure if I was crying because of what I was doing, or because the teller didn’t even blink as she cut the check. Another bright spot? Dropping our health insurance when the choice became that or the mortgage; thank goodness we’re knock-wood-healthy. But despite knowing what might be ahead this go-around, I’m not upset. In fact, weirdly (or maybe not so weirdly as I’ll explain), I’m feeling both upbeat and optimistic right now.

My optimism stems from a couple different places. One, put simply, we did this before and we can do it again. Two, my husband is now closer to figuring out what he really, truly wants to do with his life, his passions and his talents. It’s his time — and it’s my job as his partner to help him figure that out. It’s what we do. That feeling — that it’ll be hard but ultimately rewarding; that we are in this together — is, to my mind, the very best part of having a good marriage. Go team, and all that.

But another reason has to do with how we work here in our humble suburban home, in our nearly 10-year marriage, in our thus far eight-year-long foray into parenting.

A month or so ago, I was listening to a segment of the Leonard Lopate show on (yeah, that’s me; NPR radio streaming on my computer is the soundtrack of my working life), in which Lopate was interviewing Joan Williams, author of the book Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. Here’s the interview, if you care to listen. Many of the points Williams makes were riveting (I love this stuff), and also puzzling (because it just doesn’t work this way in my home.)

Williams brought up stats we’ve probably all heard before, about how even as mothers have entered the full-time workforce over the last several decades, they still do the vast majority of housework and childcare. She also mentioned something that really made me take notice, about how much time fathers spend with their kids as a function of socioeconomic class. Here’s essentially what she notes:

White-collar fathers are more likely than their blue-collar counterparts to “talk the talk” about being around for their kids day-to-day, but end up not walking the walk (whether that’s because when push comes to shove they don’t want to play “SpongeBob Operation” or coach the soccer team; or — Williams’ main point — because they are under enormous pressure at work to perform like serious, career-minded men are supposed to, which does not involve skipping out at 5 or, heaven forbid, actually taking paternity leave. More on that later). Meanwhile, blue collar men may not be talking the talk about equal care for and time spent with their kids (possibly they don’t even know the lingo — this is me editorializing — not having been schooled in the gender-wars zeitgeist). But, they do, in practical terms, end up being more apt to walk the walk. To change a shift so they can be there for the recital, for example, or to show up at the elementary school for career day.

The issue seems to be, to my mind: Who do you feel more sorry for — the corporate lawyer chained to expectations that “real men” don’t skip out after a mere 80 hour week to get LuLu to her ice-skating competition? Or the union truck driver who’ll never make it in the circles of power (but can coach Little League)?

I tell ya, I feel sorry for all of us modern moms and dads in these scenarios. Another thing Williams points out, and is also nicely discussed in this recent Newsweek article entitled “Men’s Lib,” by Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil, is that overall workforce expectations and set-ups are woefully inadequate to the ways today’s families, or many of them, strive to make a living and raise their children. As Williams pointed out in the radio interview, the typical corporate entity/company still sees the ideal worker as someone who gets a job, works full time, full tilt for 40 or so years, and then retires. The only people who are able to do that without losing all their marbles are men with stay-at-home wives. For everyone else, it just works better when it’s fluid. And the American economy and workplace norms (all the nods to paternity leave and so-called family friendliness and the precious few places with subsidized or on-site daycare and — in rarer cases — nice, pleasant places for working/nursing mothers to pump breastmilk to one side) are not fluid. In most cases, moms suffer for taking time from their careers, dads suffer when they try to be more family-friendly, and kids just…suffer.

Which brings me back to our little family. When we first had Daniel, my husband had just finished graduate school. I had a well-paying editor’s job, and downshifted my position and salary to a three-day week. He taught a couple of college classes, had a couple of personal-training clients, and a part-time job in a hospital weight-management clinic. We had a babysitter for the three days I worked. Most of the time, my husband was long gone by the time Daniel and I woke up, and I handed off the baby to the very capable and loving Maggie. And much of the time, though Maggie was able to be there until I got home at 6pm, I’d arrive home to find Robert starting dinner while our happy, fat son bounced in his babyseat or munched on a Zweiback in his high chair.

By the time we moved from the city to the suburbs, my husband had taken a different job, ditching the multiple-part-time schedule that had seen him through graduate school for a full-time, but at home position. Again, the juggling resumed: I welcomed the nanny, he drove me to the train station, then returned to his home office. Later, when I switched to freelance life after James was born, we were both in home offices (Daniel would say, “Mommy works upstairs, and Daddy works downstairs,” which I think is a pretty cool thing for a kid to say, not because my son’s particularly clever, but because it was actually quite cool that he had no experience or memory of it being any other way.) We did wonder what the neighbors thought, when we’d return from dropping them both off at daycare. (“So, the kids are gone, but they’re home…”)

I wish that weren’t so odd a situation.

Eventually, my husband left that job for the one with the evil boss, who very nearly robbed him of his enthusiasm. One thing about this woman — and she was a woman, a mother of a teenager — that he found incomprehensible was how dismissive she was of men in the office, like my husband, who would routinely leave before, say, 7pm. She was not just dismissive, in fact; she was derisive and scornful toward men who had such inconsequential jobs that they were home to make dinner. She was speaking not of my husband in this instance, who in those days never got home in time to make dinner, much less eat it with us, but of her own husband. (I’d tell you about the time she kept my husband late to fruitlessly and humiliatingly harangue him for a mistake he’d already corrected, while her own daughter was waiting for her to pick her up from an after-school job — “eh, she can wait. Or call her father” — but I’d just get depressed).

That’s just wrong.

As I write, my husband is on his way to a job interview. I hope it gets it, of course; I hope this or whatever other plans and schemes he’s working out for his next career step make him feel good about himself, as a man and a husband as well as a father. But am I wrong to admit that, absent thorny realities of paychecks, retirement savings, and health insurance, I wish he could stay home, too? Because when we’re both working productively, but also both parenting equally (or equally-ish; he still isn’t quite sure of the pediatrician’s phone number or what goes in the lunchboxes) we’re all happier.

The subtitle of the Newsweek article I linked to above reads, in part, “Why it’s time to reimagine masculinity at work and at home.”

Couldn’t agree more. Because that, my friends, would really constitute some honest-to-goodness family values.

I’d love to hear what you think about men and women, work and family, class and (in the case of certain ex-bosses), the lack thereof.