Friday, July 23, 2010

The Politics of Fatherhood

The other day, we boarded a packed flight from London to Boston, two rows away from an exhausted woman traveling with her toddler and infant, both of whom spent the next six and a half hours in fluctuating stages of meltdown.

The Grape was hitting a wall himself, and R. and I passed his squirmy, fussy self back and forth until the attendants made us strap him in for take off. The tired woman's kids continued to howl as she desperately bounced the younger one on her lap, and R. made a passing remark about feeling sorry for the immaculately attired business man in the seat next to the fidgeting three year old. He was trying very hard to keep his nose in his newspaper, sip his drink and tune out his neighbors.

An hour later, The Grape, fortified with Benadryl, was snoozing contentedly in his airline issued baby seat on its shelf overlooking the cabin. The lady with the two kids under three paced the aisle with her screaming baby, pausing every half minute to try to persuade the toddler to stay in her seat and watch something - anything - from the in flight entertainment. At one point, she gave the tot a juice box, which the child promptly dumped on her lap.

"She spilled!" complained the man in the adjacent seat. The woman balanced the baby on her hip and dabbed at her older daughter's lap ineffectually with a couple of cocktail napkins. The little girl started whining for another juice box. The man rolled his eyes and returned to his Financial Times. As soon as the mom got her infant to sleep in her arms, the toddler announced she had to use the bathroom. The baby (unsurprisingly) woke up as the three of them tried to shuffle into the cramped lavatory. R. asked, more than once, if we should offer her the remains of the Benadryl. We ultimately didn't, but I'm sure many fellow travelers would have been happier if we had.

Things continued on this torturous trajectory until the flight attendants came through the cabin with U.S. landing cards. They offered the woman one and then passed one to the businessman, who handed it back saying, "We're the same family." The flight attendant, who surely sees all sorts every day, had to turn away from him to hide her stunned expression.

As I wasn't employed by British Airways for the purpose of making his flight more pleasant, I made no effort to mask mine. I'd never seen anything quite like this guy. Even my own father, who was legendarily incompetent when it came to parenting small children (total kids, 3; total diapers changed in lifetime, 1), managed to lend my mom a hand with things like retrieving items from the overhead compartment or watching one of us while she took the other to the washroom.

Sadly, the foursome on our flight served as an egregious example of a phenomenon that remains all too common. For every super-capable dad like R., useless ding dongs like the guy on the plane exist in droves.

I can only venture guesses as to why his wife put puts up with his boorish attitude. Maybe he makes big bucks while she cares for the kids. The problem with this arrangement, as every stay at home mommy knows, is that even if the breadwinner works an ungodly number of hours, the caregiver's day is longer and her contribution is valued less. She is on 24/7 without exception. I'm sorry, but nobody should be expected to be on all the time, every day of every year.

Perhaps the 1950's dynamic works for some families, but it wouldn't fly at my house. If that's the way a father wants to roll, the least he can do is get out of the way, find his own place and mail a check every month to help feed and clothe the children he helped create.

It's not like that would be any worse for the kiddies he already ignores as if they're beneath him. The father on the plane may not realize, or he may not care, but his kids will register his checked out behavior pretty soon, and they'll remember it forever.

I would hate to be responsible for raising a son who grew up to think that women should do all the heavy lifting in a household. And I believe the best way to ensure that The Grape gets the right idea is for him to see R. being a hands-on dad. I wonder what the plane woman's kids will internalize about gender roles?

The airplane episode reminded me of Pat Mainardi's brilliant 1969 essay, "The Politics of Housework." It's well worth a read, or re-read:

I just might print it out and start carrying it around my handbag, so if I ever see another family like the plane people again, I can slip the woman a copy.

Basically, all the ploys Mainardi lists can and have been used by more than one father to get out of baby care at one time or another. And before you go and accuse me of bashing men, I'd like to emphasize that the women in such scenarios are just as culpable, for enabling the lazy behavior. Too many of us have bought into the idea that only we - the mommies - can properly feed, soothe and otherwise maintain our tiny offspring.

Maybe I'm a cynic, but did you ever stop and wonder why so many modern dads are absolute zealots about breast feeding? Sure it's healthy, but it also means they're not the ones responsible for the most tiring and time consuming aspect of newborn care. Fortunately, where nature has thrown guys a free pass, technology has provided a partial equalizer. Any healthy adult male is fully capable of administering a bottle - regardless of what's in it. The average newborn eats anywhere between seven and twelve times a day. You are not a bad mother if you demand that your partner manage a few of those feedings.

Because it's up to us women- even those who are "just moms" to insist on a bit of help. If Caregiver needs to remind Breadwinner that he's not the only one who's tired at the end of business hours, so be it. An uphill battle? Of course. But I think it's one worth fighting.

As for the family on the plane, when they disembarked in Boston, he looked smashing, albeit somewhat annoyed, in his unwrinkled linen jacket. She looked like she'd been shoved into a washing machine and set on the spin cycle for the preceding seven hours. Their kids continued to fuss and hang on their mother. They might not have been able to articulate it, but I think on some level they knew already, that their father wasn't going to be bothered to lift a finger for them. And their mother - for whatever reason - wasn't going to make him.

No comments:

Post a Comment