Let’s remember that dads who drop their kids at baseball games are trying their best—and that their best is often just as good as anybody else’s.
If you’re a connoisseur of viral videos—and who isn’t, these days?—you might have seen this one doing the rounds last week: a man at a baseball game holding his daughter up on the seat in front of him, who suddenly drops her so he can catch a foul ball flying into the stands. (He misses, and then gets a stern talking to from a security guard.)
Coincidentally, this video came just two weeks after a woman at another baseball game, in Virginia, managed to successfully catch a foul ball with one arm while cradling her 8-month-old son in the other. And these two stories taken together, as they have been on several news sites, nicely illustrate the contemporary cultural narrative about parenthood that Donald Unger identifies in his book Men CAN (Temple University Press, $25): looking after children is hard, and mothers are far better at it than fathers. (In this way of looking at things mothers are also more loving, more emotionally switched-on, and naturally more inclined to want to be a parent.)
Unger has a daughter himself who he clearly loves a great deal, and for whom he is an equally sharing parent now—and was the stay-at-home parent for her first two years—so he has a lot of experience being on the receiving end of these ideas. He has dozens of anecdotes about, for instance, his legal battle to force Mobil to put changing tables in its male highway restrooms; being looked on suspiciously for liking kids so much; and, most galling, being told that “it’s hard to be a mother” while he’s looking after his daughter in public one day.
Everywhere he turns, in fact, he seems to come face-to-face with the notion that men just aren’t as good at parenting. Even the two baseball stories, he would argue, are an example of our subtle cultural biases at work: the man is presented as a typically bad father—not an unusually bad parent—while the woman is presented simply as a good mother, even though the ability to hold one thing and catch another is not exactly the first item in Dr. Spock.
These sorts of small unconscious judgments make Unger pretty mad, and that anger was clearly the seed for his book—which aims not only to establish that the stereotype of incompetent dads pervades our culture, but also to argue that it is inaccurate and ultimately harmful, to men, to women, and to children alike.
The first word that comes to mind to describe Unger’s approach is “scattered,” but that’s mainly a testament to his thoroughness; it would be hard to define, explore, and debunk a sprawling cultural concept like “fatherhood” in a linear or methodical way, because its tendrils extend everywhere. And Unger, to his credit, tries to attend to as many of those tendrils as he can, triangulating his argument through case studies of real families, close analysis of movies and ads, formal statistics, and so forth.
Not all of his evidence is equally convincing. For example, as a writing and humanistic studies lecturer at M.I.T., he occasionally falls into the trap of academic over-reading: yes, maybe we can detect religious symbolism in that cell phone commercial, and maybe we can spin that into a Marxist “opiate of the masses” argument about how our cultural treatment of fatherhood is soothing the symptoms of problematic social arrangements rather than addressing their causes. But why should we?
Because that sort of detached intellectual analysis can’t demonstrate the real problems with our ideas about fatherhood as successfully as Unger’s more visceral, more immediate, more passionate testimonials, either his own or those of the families he profiles. Even his more abstract political arguments—comparing put-upon fathers to early feminists, for instance—pack more punch, for tapping into those wellsprings of strong feeling, than the sort of cool interpretation of film and television that only a cultural studies scholar could ever find moving.
If that seems like a small issue to be harping on, well, it is, and I do so only because it distracts from what I generally think is a compelling and important argument. By painting fathers as bumbling if mostly well-meaning dunces—and mothers, as a corollary, as naturally excellent parents—we’re drawing artificial boundaries around who can (and should) do what in a “normal” household. That makes it unnecessarily difficult for families to care for their children. Sometimes it even makes the quality of childcare worse.
So what’s Unger’s solution to all this? How can we reverse decades (if not centuries) of cultural beliefs? Like I said, he’s a humanistic studies lecturer at an elite university in Massachusetts—he’s obviously read his Marx!—so you might expect he has some lefty social engineering in mind. But while he admits to being politically pretty liberal, his take on the matter reads more like libertarianism. “Some would argue that ‘a good family is a functional family,’” he begins:
I would reverse the terms: “A functional family is a good family.”
It’s a bit easier—though still not without controversy—to agree on a rough, shared definition of “functional” than of “good.”
Do the people in a given household consider each other family?
Are they taking care of each other?
If it works for them, it works for me.
Obviously that approach still allows for a number of liberal goals—same-sex couples, equality of the sexes, acceptance of alternate ways of life—but it does so, crucially, without taking away “traditional” marriage from those who want it.
More importantly, it sets the stage for a concept of the family that is fluid and unconstrained. If we define “parenting” as making sure children are fed, sheltered, and relatively happy—in a place they identify as a stable home—there’s no longer any basis for distinguishing between men and women. It’s not a matter of fathers being more like mothers; it’s a matter of both being more like parents.
Unger’s contention is that, if we begin to look at things that way, then ideas about “motherhood” and “fatherhood” will naturally fade from importance, and that, he argues, will be better for everyone. Men like him will have to put up with fewer condescending remarks about fathers being somehow less competent; children will end up better cared for; and women will feel less pressure to be that perfect mother who can balance her family with work.
None of that is to say that women are never great parents and men are never awful ones, only that there’s considerably more overlap in ability between genders than we usually admit. So even after Father’s Day is over, this year, let’s still remember that dads who drop their kids at baseball games are trying their best—and that their best is often just as good as anybody else’s.
(Photo via karolajnat)