When I opened today’s New York Times Style section, I had to wonder how the lead piece -- titled “Mr. Moms (by way of Fortune 500)” -- made it past the assigning editor. Surely by now every journalist still employed in a newsroom (and the majority of the staff at the New York Times) has taken a crack at the story about how un- or underemployed husbands are potentially changing the gender politics of dating life and the family? Can banker dudes still get dates when they can’t afford bottle service? Will entitled housewives divorce their husbands when they can’t pay their Bergdorf bills? Will more househusband dads and breadwinner moms lead to more feminist families? Or will most of those unemployed men be so depressed about their waning masculinity that they will be staring into their unwashed coffee cups? Will we get so exhausted from reading about the declining fortunes of former Fortune 500 executives that even class rage becomes a cliche on par with the stay-cation (revisited again! today! in the Times!) and shopping one’s closet?
This morning’s piece has all the hallmarks of the genre: retro gender politics that seem not to acknowledge that families have changed at all since the 1950s, a narrow focus on the wealthiest families, quotes that seem straight out of evolutionary psych 101, not to mention a title borrowed from a nickname that was insulting when used to describe the Michael Keaton character who took care of his kids after losing his job during a recession in the John Hughes comedy way back in 1983 (a time, I might point out, when many of today’s parents were children and thus may have had a few decades to get over the alleged novelty of such a spectacle). But unlike many others it does suggest that some fathers, far from staring into their unwashed coffee cups, may be taking to parenthood with the same business-oriented tenacity we saw in all those Ivy League educated, hedge fund managing, Fortune 500 executive turned stay-at-home moms depicted in Lisa Belkin articles and Alison Pearson novels.
But first, some eye-rolling: When the first half-dozen or so fathers are spotted "in the crowd of mothers and nannies" during pick-up time at an elementary school in Pelham Manor, a wealthy commuter suburb in Westchester country, they are regarded with the kind of gawking usually reserved for exotic birds, like, say, the feral parakeets of Flatbush Avenue. They are deemed so unusual that the principal calls a meeting to deal with "the implications of fathers showing up for pick-up" ; the presumed "anger," "aggression" and "sadness" of their children; and their fathers' "pain and potential shame" of being out of work. "A man is supposed to hunt and gather and bring home and provide, and when they don’t, that goes to their identity," says Jane Robbins, a local PTA president, before going on to deliver this zinger, "If they can find some solace in being the parent, if they can take that out of it, God bless them." (Note to Wall Street guys unfamiliar with the Blair Waldorf school of smiling savagery: in mean-girl parlance, comments like such as this that wrap a high insult within a thin compliment are known as "undermining." And thus that father who claims he communicates in PTA meetings with a "bluntness honed in the financial industry" in contrast to the women who "communicate more diplomatically" -- not to mention those women who might also have honed their rhetorical blades in the financial industry -- just might not be fluent in the dominant language of PTA put-downs.)
And it looks like some fathers, far from sitting on the couch with the remote, are actually finding plenty to do at home. Andrew Emery picks up the kids, makes their snacks and dinner and plays a game of "Tickle Monster" with the kids before his wife comes home from her job at an art gallery. Jerry Levy -- who with 18 months salary in the bank, a stay-at-home wife and a nanny sounds like the male Caitlin Flanagan -- coaches two soccer teams, one basketball team, became a financial liason for the PTA and is considering running for a seat on the school board. Now Emery is considering professions that might give him more time with his kids, like teaching, and Levy says, "You want to try and hold onto the good things you’re able to do now." The article cites research from the recession of 1981 -- the one that inspired that previously mentioned John Hughes film -- that shows men who spend time with their children when unemployed are more likely to prioritize family when they go back. You might even see them writing articles about "work-family" balance.
As many people have pointed out, on Broadsheet and elsewhere, no one -- certainly not feminists -- thinks that the best way to get more fathers involved in their families is to force them home. As Tracy Clark-Flory wrote earlier this year, “Feminism is about actively bringing about social change, not looting through the rubble of a national disaster.” But as long as we’re talking about the tiny subcategory of the highly educated, well-compensated occupational elite -- and dear God, doesn’t it seem like every Times article does? -- let’s just admit that, regardless of what our long ago ancestors were doing in caves, both men and women of this generation have invested enormous amounts of their time, ambition and identity into their work and their children.
When Ivy League women allegedly left their jobs in law firms, Fortune 500 companies, hedge funds and the like to raise their children, it was seen as a purely voluntary act and we have spent more than seven years under the spectre of the "opt-in revolution." So what shall we call the guys who make have first left the work force by force, but end up seeking that mythical "work-life" balance by choice? Any ideas? Either way, let’s make a deal: A man who looks after his own children is not, under any circumstances, a Mr. Mom. The word you are looking for, Sarah Kershaw, is "father."