In the new movie "The Boys Are Back" (which, for the record, I haven't seen), Clive Owen plays a young widower, Joe, figuring out how to raise a 6-year-old son, Artie, on his own. His "chosen style of child rearing," writes Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly, "is distracted permissiveness. Bedtimes are indistinguishable from playtimes, meals are indistinguishable from delivery pizza, and if his younger son wants a joyride on the hood of a car, Dad is happy to get behind the wheel." When Joe's son from a previous marriage, Harry, arrives to visit for the summer, the apparent strictness of his upbringing is contrasted unfavorably with what Artie's getting from freewheeling Dad. But, says Roger Ebert, Joe's parenting style, presented here as liberating, actually reads as selfish, and "[s]ome of the film's more successful passages involve the ways Harry becomes the father his poor little brother doesn't have."
Although the film is drawn from a memoir by Simon Carr and is thus, as they say, "based on a true story," Schwarzbaum notes that the movie version "dulls whatever edge the story has in conveying the bewilderment of an overwhelmed single father." In other words, what we're seeing is the typical Hollywood version of fatherhood -- wacky, childish and occasionally dangerous -- minus the standard killjoy Mom for balance.
Judah Schiller, writing in the London Times this weekend, offers a much more realistic portrayal of unexpected and tragic single fatherhood. After his wife died from complications of giving birth to their third child, Schiller struggled not only with profound grief, but the realization that he had, until that point, been nothing like an equal partner in parenting. "A friend took [baby] Satya every day for a solid year while I was at work. But I had to learn how to be a parent and not merely a working father who lets the mother do all the parenting ... I had failed to appreciate how hard [my wife] had worked to raise the children and take care of the house. Many men grossly undervalue their wives' contributions. So I tried to pay attention to that: How do I reinvent my life to be a better person?"
Schiller was charged with raising three children and becoming a better person while mourning his beloved wife, an element of the story that's often elided from the Hollywood version of loss, or at least glossed over. In "The Boys Are Back," Joe has conversations with his dead wife, as both real and fictional people will, but thanks to movie magic, the wife is right there with him, diminishing the sense of loss. (Ebert: "please, please, give us a break from the scenes where the ghost of the departed turns up and starts talking as if she's not dead.") Schiller, on the other hand, writes that "for the first six months, it was difficult for me to cradle Satya without tears streaming down my face, silently screaming that his mother could not hold her baby." Like many grieving people, he was overwhelmed by an outpouring of support -- but only at first." After three months, however, the support died down, and the number of people who remembered grew fewer and fewer. I felt isolated as a father among mothers, and seeing families together was so poignant. I didn't go to the mums' groups. I think mothers found me difficult to approach, so they just got on with their lives." As it turns out, widowhood isn't just a 24/7 party with no stinky girls allowed.
I haven't read Carr's memoir, but reviews suggest it, too, is far more truthful about the grief, frustration and fear that went along with his "manly" neglect of tidiness and refusal to be overprotective. In an age and culture where we routinely shame both "helicopter parents" and those trying to raise "free-range kids" -- and where mothers usually bear the brunt of that shaming, feeling pressure to do not only what they believe is right for their children but what will be perceived as right -- such a perspective from a single father can add much to the conversation. Is it really such a sin to leave the living room a mess? To let the kid play on the monkey bars even if he might fall off? And why are we so likely to give men a pass on those things, yet mothers who evince a similar laissez-faire attitude are demonized? These are important, interesting questions about parenting, gender roles, how we see ourselves and what we teach our children. But when an honest memoir about single fatherhood gets shellacked, as Schwarzbaum puts it, "with a gloss of sunshiny affirmation," what we're left with only reinforces the same old stereotype of the contemporary dad: Bighearted yet intractably doofy, and so congenitally ill-suited to adult responsibility, a stabilizing (read: buzzkilling) female influence is necessary to save his children from malnutrition and suspicious hygiene, if not death by misadventure.
Moms and dads alike, single and partnered -- not to mention their children -- deserve more than this myth that women instinctively know what they're doing with kids while men, left to their own devices, will neglect their young at all times except at playtime. In reality, the world contains terrible mothers, amazing fathers and a whole lot of people in between, just trying to do their best. As long as we keep promoting the fiction that women are naturally nurturing and capable, and men are naturally reckless and self-centered, moms won't get all the help they deserve -- and dads won't get all the credit they do. Even casting single fathers as heroes for stepping up and becoming primary caregivers when the only alternatives would be unthinkable to most, is disturbingly patronizing. Under the circumstances, says Schiller, "How could I do anything but step up and try to be an amazing parent?"