Why are men expected to participate in their own deprecation?
I took the picture featured here one afternoon while walking in my neighborhood. It’s from a shirt that had been hanging in a display window of a clothing store. The shirt made a strong impression on me, helping me realize just how thoroughly our society enjoys the joke of the incompetent father. It’s offensive, asinine, and points to massive cultural immaturity.
Fatherhood is a strong part of my identity, and I take great pride in raising, not babysitting, my children—the favorite part of my day is when I get to spend time with them, and I miss them horribly when I am away. I’m intelligent enough to make two or three times the amount of money I’m making, but I chose a career in education so that I’d have more free time to be present, to play with and teach my kids, as I’m a very skilled teacher.
Even so, I very often rethink this choice. I can see what a positive impact I’m having on my children simply by being around to read books or garden with them. But I wonder if we wouldn’t all be better off, my wife included, if I were “pushing pieces of paper around for no apparent social purpose” as Michael Lewis describes Wall Street traders doing in The Big Short.
I’ve experienced poverty, as a visitor to poor countries and as a young man who put himself through college. I’m not poor now. We live in Oak Park, Illinois, a relatively wealthy community, and we eat well. Our neighbors are college-educated people and I meet professionals of all stripes in the library, local cafes and parks, open spaces where both mothers and fathers spend time with their children. Seeing that shirt in my neighborhood, right there in a front window, is a massive indictment of where we stand as a culture, and where our self-consciousness lies, when crap like this is being purchased even among the educated class.
I don’t believe this shirt is being marketed to men. Is a father expected to look at that, tell himself, “Oh, yeah, I’m a crappy babysitter,” and buy it for his own child? Should one of my best friends see it in the window and think, “This will make a great birthday present for Gint’s son.” Think of a man and a context that go together, that equal a man pulling out his wallet and buying that shirt.
I don’t understand what our society believes it wants. If we want men who are sensitive fathers, skilled and involved parents, why are we making fun of them, expecting them to take the joke, bury their emotions, deprecate themselves? If the mothers of our society feel their partners are incompetent, why are they leaving them alone with the kids? There’s a very simple solution to the incompetent father: assign him a task other than “babysitting”. Keep him away from the kids and you won’t need any jokes at all.
Of course, we don’t believe they are incompetent. We just want them to take a joke.
My wife told me, long before we were married, that she accepted my proposal because she imagined me sitting on the floor with kids crawling all over me. I was beaming bright with happiness and throwing them around. She said it seemed like a vision, like she was seeing the future.
Now that we have kids and jobs, sometimes we’ll go two or three days without talking about anything besides daily logistics. At the end of long days, we’ll crash like planes run out of fuel. She’s a violinist, and there are times, especially on the weekends, when she’ll be away for 48 hours or more and all the child rearing falls on me. No, I’m not perfect. There are plenty of things I’m horrible at, including getting the temperature of my son’s bottle just right.
Interestingly, she never makes fun of me about any of it. With shirts like those hanging in the windows, I’m forced to wonder why. A good place to start should be the reasons people make fun of each other in the first place. When I think about those, I realize she must be pretty confident in her own capacity as a parent, or at least content enough to think she’s doing fine. When she feels that way, what reason would she have to make fun of anyone else, especially the man she agreed to start a family with? Of course, if she felt some incapacity, then she might make herself feel better by finding fault with her partner.
But she doesn’t.
Photo by Gint Aras