What Happens When Men Put Family First
reviewed by J. Steven Svoboda
This book surveys and interviews fathers aiming for the “triple crown” of success at work, intimacy with family, and time for friends. While conveying the sensible message that hard choices have to be made and while one may be able to have anything, one can’t have everything, the book itself proves somewhat mixed.
The author presents a number of first-hand stories about the pitfalls and payoffs of twenty-first century fatherhood. While at times the book’s through-line is hampered by her explicitly feminist viewpoint, this bias is happily tempered by some healthy doses of common sense and an imperfectly executed desire for fairness. Before I could even get out of the preface and into the body of the book, I had to get by some cursory allusions to how men allegedly “have so much going for them in the status quo.”
The tiresome mantra repeated over and over in the early pages about how women frequently roll their eyes when asked about their husbands’ contributions to childraising itself had me rolling my eyes before I was fifty pages into Father Courage. It seemingly never crosses Levine’s radar screens that the women passing these ostensibly Solomonic judgments on their husbands’ skills might themselves be biased and loaded down with their own baggage. The author can’t seem to stop herself from tossing in her own condescending allusions to those guys, who just never seem to “get it” despite the number of times saintly women explain “it.”
Mercifully, things quickly get a lot better and a lot more interesting too. Amidst excerpts from her interviews with fathers, Levine delves into some perplexing issues. She explores how to avoid having women’s knowledge about household matters rule by default when there is never enough time to develop alternate approaches or even to train Dad about what works.
Levine laudably laments the building of parenting advice on the Mommy model, analogizing the dilemma with some cogency to the issues raised when women first entered the professional workplace in droves. She acknowledges the unfortunate fact that men are still suspect if they take advantage of paternity leave, while women can be relatively open in the workplace about their dual commitment to job and family. (I appreciated her mentioning additional stresses created by the new 24/7 nature of the electronic workplace and addons to each workday such as international calls and increased travel.)
And yet, inexplicably, Levine gives air time to women’s complaints that men do not shoulder half the “housework” but fails to factor into her discussion the differential workplace demands on men. Irritatingly, she also fails to adequately incorporate into her definition of chores the many projects that men tend to take on involving maintenance, outside work, dangerous work, etc. I found uncompelling her suggestion that even domestic help does not help that much and the burden still falls dramatically harder on women. She does offer a justification–to my mind, a wholly inadequate one–for not doing so; she claims that women’s traditional work is what no one wants to do and requires regular attention, while men do the intermittent tasks that everyone allegedly prefers.
“Triumphing over a leaky faucet or sitting high up on a lawn mower for an hour of pleasant privacy amidst fresh scents of new-mown grass with a clear goal in sight is the antithesis of picking up dirty socks, sopping up baby spills, and emptying the dishwasher, in varying combinations, a zillion times a day.” Talk about unfairly stacking the deck! Sorry, Suzanne, but this man actually prefers unloading a dishwasher to fixing a leaky faucet, and I haven’t been committed to the insane asylum yet!
The book improves greatly in the middle section. Levine delves into a detailed examination of such issues as the lack of infrastructure for men outside of work and discomfort around fathers with young children. She intersperses her general discussions with excerpts from a number of engaging interviews she conducted with fathers grappling with the issues. Options developed by some of the men in concert with their wives include sharing one job, not moving up the ladder as much as they would if they weren’t parents, creative scheduling, alternating the role of full-time worker every six months or year, or doing day/night shifts so that one parent can be home whenever the kids are awake.
Obviously these strategies won’t work for everyone, but an exposure to them helps inspire creativity. What may be good for children, Levine notes, may not be good for a marriage, as a few of the arrangements she examines don’t give the couple any substantial awake time together during the work week.
Levine returns again and again to the theme of “the dreaded tape” which most mothers supposedly have running in their heads all the time, a background hum of tasks which need to be taken care of to ensure that everyone’s needs are accomodated. Men may help, Levine writes, but they rarely take on women’s nearly universal burden of taskmastering and retaining in their memory all that needs doing. While according to the author, mothers almost universally run “the dreaded tape” practically every minute they are awake, the male counterpart is the “grinding gears” that men feel when they try to engage in several tasks at once. Men tend to compartmentalize, and, she claims, always have the option to opt out of the rigors of parenting duty. She suggests that virtually all men take advantage of this possibility to some extent.
While initially I was highly resistant to her rap, she does score some points and eventually I had to admit there are some lessons in what she says, even some insights I have tried to start applying in my own, so far childless partnership. Women and men do have some basic differences in their operating system, and her summary is quite useful. I greatly enjoyed the ongoing exposure throughout the book to repeat characters whom we “met” in interviews earlier in the book. Levine adds deft little characterizations of them to remind us of who they are.
Levine provides an empathetic exploration of the difficulties men experience in accepting a newborn baby’s common preference for its mother, and a similarly sensitive exposition of how any nurturing instincts we might have are systematically driven out of us as we grow. Her interviews nicely complement and elucidate her theoretical analysis. She tells a nice story about a man who knew when to break the rules and allowed his five-year-old girl to hit him repeatedly to take out her frustration when he was caught in traffic and quite late to pick her up. We are also treated to an engaging tale of a gruff lumber mill worker who becomes a primary parent after his wife is forced to move to another state for work and–surprise!–he does a dashing good job of it.
Even better is the saga of the man who stubbornly insisted on staying with his newborn through the battery of tests they ran on the baby. And it gets “better,” as the man relates: “Another thing that bugged me in the hospital. They kept saying, ‘Mother’s name?’ Her name is Stella. ‘Child’s name?’ Aaron. And I was like ‘Don’t you have another question?’ ‘No, that’ll be all.’ I said, ‘What about father’s name?’ And the woman actually said, ‘How do we know you’re the father?'” That’s the sort of “ouch” that the author seemingly wants to root out almost as desperately as some of us do.
In the end, as Levine notes, one generation cannot fully transform a culture, though those currently in their twenties and early thirties are giving it a solid attempt. And feedback between the generations can help; the author adds some insightful analysis at a couple of points in the book about grandfathers. Often grandfathers express with their grandsons emotions they could never give to their sons, but attentive sons can take in those feelings nevertheless, with compassion for the barriers that made transmission of them impossible for their fathers. By being loving grandfathers to their grandsons, these men in the autumn of their lives may show their sons how to be better fathers than they themselves were able to be.
Throughout most of her book, Levine acknowledges the tough choices that have to be made between fiercely competing priorities as individual men struggle to achieve their own version of the “triple crown,” and the various types of programming that make rational decisions almost impossible. Unfortunately, she ends on a sour note, striking a pose of camaraderie and supposedly shared reminiscence over feminist struggle that rang false in my ears. Seemingly grasping for an upbeat ending, she abandons the complexities that distinguished the bulk of the book and reaches for an unrealistically rosy vision of smoothly reconciled conflicts between work and personal life. She apparently forgets that her purported subject is men, who due to both societal and personal factors, can’t blend the two as easily as women can!
We thus should hardly be surprised by her subsequent, inadvertent revelation that she neither likes nor understands either the pro-feminist nor the men’s rights branches of the men’s movement. All this notwithstanding, any reader with a trace of Levine’s ability to transcend one’s inevitably limited point of view will find much of value in this occasionally irritating but mostly sensitive, engaging, and fresh look at fathers struggling to live balanced, family-centered lives.