Fleishman is in trouble — and a lot of dads will be too, unless expectations change

I see first-hand how men get heaped with praise for basic parenting. And men need to be the ones to change this

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published January 20, 2023 8:59AM (EST)

Meara Mahoney Gross as Hannah Fleishman, Jesse Eisenberg as Toby Fleishman and Maxim Swinton as Solly Fleishman in "Fleishman Is In Trouble." (Linda Kallerus/FX)
Meara Mahoney Gross as Hannah Fleishman, Jesse Eisenberg as Toby Fleishman and Maxim Swinton as Solly Fleishman in "Fleishman Is In Trouble." (Linda Kallerus/FX)

D. Watkins is in trouble. 

Well, I'm not in real trouble, but I feel like I am after watching the FX limited series "Fleishman Is in Trouble," based on the brilliant novel of the same title by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. This 8-part series follows Dr. Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), a newly-divorced hepatologist who has discovered dating apps that provide him with an astronomical amount of desire, in contrast to his dating experiences when he was young, portly and unpopular. Toby isn't portly now. When we meet him, he's extremely fit — hasn't had a carb since God knows when, poor Toby! That's another reason to root for him.

As Toby embarks on this super-horny journey, we are introduced to his ex-wife, the perceived supervillain Rachel, a gifted, hyper-ambitious talent scout played by Claire Danes. Rachel — the worst mother on the planet, through Toby's eyes — drops off their two kids early (as only a horrible mother would do!), crushing his horn-dog plans, to attend some exclusive yoga retreat, only open to the bald eagle meat-eating 1%, with a 50-something pharma bro she's having sex with. Awww, poor Toby!

"Poor Toby" becomes a recurring theme as the series develops. He's a doctor at a time when the profession isn't as revered as it used to be. His $300,000 annual salary, in Rachel's world, is basically equivalent to broke. Poor Toby! He has been taking on the lion's share of parental responsibilities because of Rachel's 28-hour-a-day work schedule, poor Toby. His daughter hates him, his marriage has failed, he was passed over for a promotion, and a woman he likes can't come outside because she's a famous conservative man's beard. The AC in his new apartment doesn't work. Poor Toby, poor Toby, poor Toby!

I am in trouble, as a matter of fact. Men are in trouble when "poor Toby" is the default response to a story like this. 

I am the father of a 3-year-old. My baby girl was born a few months before COVID cracked the world in half. My wife, a planner whom the best planners would look up to, laid out directions for everything, from the kinds of masks we needed to the amount of time we would spend sanitizing our groceries, to the sanity car rides we would take around the city to help with the months of isolation. And all of this helped; she was that good. 

A newborn means multiple, regular doctor visits. COVID restrictions at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore meant only one parent was allowed to enter, and we decided it would be me. On the days of those visits, my wife would drop us off in front of the hospital, where I'd double mask, load our daughter into her stroller and place the plastic forcefield my wife purchased over her before entering. After completing that small task, I would be greeted with unearned glory. I wish a camera crew had been there to capture the praise I received for doing the bare minimum. Taking my kid for a routine check-up made me the best dad ever, praised for doing only what should be expected.

"He is such a good father!" Slow claps from approving grandmas, salutes from the hospital staff, winks from ladies who wanted me to care for kids I didn't make. Praise on praise. The bar for dads is set extremely low. For women, it is infinitely high. So high that the show, before it flips around to her point of view, allows viewers to villainize Rachel for doing what men do all time. 

Slow claps from approving grandmas, salutes from the hospital staff, winks from ladies who wanted me to care for kids I didn't make. Praise on praise. The bar for dads is set extremely low.

Most men who parent — the ones who aren't solo fathers or the rare stay-at-home dads — are given a nearly infinite supply of mental health breaks. We get to venture out into the world and conquer it in the name of our families. As a traveling writer, I get love for my work and I'm able to provide, but my wife provides as well. She doesn't just care for our daughter, she also makes money — that's two full-time jobs. I do my best to assist in whatever way I can, but even with me popping in to make a meal, taking the baby into a different room, or venturing off to try a daddy-daughter day, the weight falls on my wife because society says so. And I'm not sure if society has already influenced my child but she will always, always choose mommy. It doesn't matter if she's happy, sick or bored — her first instinct is to cling to mommy.

Like many ambitious women, Rachel wanted kids, but she also wanted a big life. Everything about Rachel screamed "big life" and Toby wasn't listening. He understood her ambition but didn't fully understand what it takes to make those dreams a reality — sleepless nights, missed family functions, no time off. If Rachel were a man, she'd be a hero. But we have a way of letting a woman's ambition make her look like a villain.

If we continue this pattern, we will all continue to be in trouble. This is shown clearly in Toby's rants about Rachel. He never mentions the childhood trauma she faced from being poor and abandoned by her parents, or how she was assaulted at her workplace before being passed over for a promotion, or how she was violated by a doctor who induced labor without her consent. No matter how hard she worked to create a different reality for her children than the one she grew up in, her ambition and her success are used against her. Meanwhile, the Tobys among us are praised for doing what pretty much every mother has been doing since the beginning of time. This mentality is the trouble. 

If we don't stop aimlessly praising men for contributing and demonizing women who are hungry to work, then parents, relationships and children will continue to be damaged. The current cultural expectations are lopsided. This isn't yet another problem mothers should be expected to fix for everyone. We who benefit from those lopsided expectations are responsible for leading the charge against them.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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