The Loving Work of a Father


In a few weeks, I’ll enter a new period of life.

Beginning a few months after the birth of my youngest child, I’ve been a stay-at-home dad.  Of course, this being modern America, that’s meant being a working-from-home, stay-at-home dad, which has leavened the shear gratification of parenting with a good bit of stress.  Babies and toddlers won’t sleep on command, and they’re a challenge to cart around, creating real costs in the professional activities in which I’ve been able to engage.  Child care challenges, for example, were the central wedge driving me away from the weekly “Wingmen” segment on Channel 10 in which I used to participate.

Two school years ago, I gained Tuesday and Thursday as days of relative freedom (between drop-off and pick-up times, naturally); this last school year, that shifted to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Come September, I’ll have five clear days a week for the first time in years.

This is to say that I’ve got some experiential authority to comment on Kevin Noble Maillard’s musings in the New York Times, titled “When Being a Good ‘Dad’ Gets You Promoted to ‘Mommy’“:

“Mommy!” she squeals, horseshoeing her tiny arms around my neck, before she quells the emotion with a demand for food. “Mommy, you have snack?” My partner, “Mamma,” who is female, is not there. When our daughter says “Mommy,” she’s talking to me — her father.

When my partner heard about this, she laughed. Neither one of us corrected our daughter. We assumed it was part of language development. Then she went all in, announcing that she has two mommies, to the amusement of the lesbian parents at school. …

It is a common division of labor for most heterosexual couples: Moms do more.

As a father and husband who has a tightly scheduled day between turning off my alarm as quickly as possible so as not to awaken anybody else in the house and passing out after they’ve all returned to their slumbers at night, I’d like Maillard to elaborate on that assertion:  Do more what?  One might infer from the section I’ve quoted above that he means “do more with and for the kids,” but the sense of his essay seems to be “do more all around.”

But let’s put aside the age-old (and formerly good-natured) debate about who does more.  It seems to me that the milieu in which Mr. Maillard has marinated has led him to miss something very important related to his daughter’s misgendering of him.  Our society evolved in its raising of children such that “daddy” was married to “mommy,” and “mommy” was married to “daddy.”  As a strong signal to children about their solid place in the universe, mommy was typically daddy’s wife, and daddy was typically mommy’s husband, with their children as the embodiment of their marriage.  If Mr. Maillard and Ms. Whatever-her-name-might-be are “partners,” perhaps it isn’t entirely clear to their children what the arrangement means in an existential way.

Readers can spot more evidence of the missing pieces in Maillard’s notion of these things when he references bits of pop culture from his (and my) youth:

When I moved in with my partner, we talked about gender norms. I wanted to take on (at least from my perspective, but studies show men overestimate these things) the “second shift” of household management that usually falls on working women. When I was younger, I welcomed gender subversions in pop culture staples like “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Mr. Mom,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and even that pre-Chucky “My Buddy” doll. As an adult, I am still trying to do “more.”

I can’t speak to Kramer vs. Kramer, but if this guy thinks Mr. Mom and Mrs. Doubtfire are gender subversions, methinks he missed the point.  Take a look at Michael “Mr. Mom” Keaton’s drawing the local house mothers into a smoke-beclouded game of poker (while the hot one comes on to him) and proving every bit the tough, practical, and carefree “stand up guy” toward the end of the movie.  In the final scene of action (for which I couldn’t find a clip) and right down to the “Schooner Tuna” commercial that closes the movie, the point is complementarity.

In 1983, the United States was coming off an era of staid conformity followed by an era of lunacy (at least as the popular narrative has it).  Mr. Mom returned the nuclear family as the hub of stability and the source of personal revival.  The movie doesn’t subvert gender norms; it refocuses norms from an artificial, overly simplified standard of everybody’s playing prescribed roles to a natural, richer reality of everybody’s utilizing their talents and tendencies to improve the family.

As for Mrs. Doubtfire, the problem for Robin Williams’s character isn’t that he’s not masculine, but that he begins the movie as an immature boy of a man.  The humor, throughout the movie, comes from the fact that he clearly isn’t effeminate, just unusual (and an excellent actor).  He doesn’t become more feminine by the end; he grows up, and when a divorce court rules against him on custody because his behavior is “unorthodox,” his ex-wife sees the injustice, and ultimately, she is able to resolve that injustice… just because she can.  (We get no details.)  Now, you could see this as an ironic twist on the idea of a “patriarchy,” or you could see it as evidence that the idea of a “patriarchy” is bogus.  She has the power over the most important aspect of his life.

Mrs. Doubtfire hit the big screen a decade later than Mr. Mom, and the momentum and consequences of the sexual revolution continued.  By that time, the closing message wasn’t that mom and dad will work out their problems but was, instead, more focused on the harm being done to the children, encouraging them not to blame themselves in our messed up world.

We’re 25 years past Mrs. Doubtfire, now, and an Internet search would no doubt turn up complaints that the movie’s closing moral lesson is bigoted because it doesn’t go so far as to say that children can have two mommies or two daddies.  We’ve gone from 1983, when mommy and daddy would work things out because they loved each other (and whether they loved their children could be taken as a given), to 1993, when mommy and daddy might stop loving each other but were still bound together in a family because of their love for their children, to Maillard’s 2018, when “partners” of any sex can be promoted to the rank of “mommy” by behaving as if they actually love their children enough to care for them.

Presumably such “partners” can also be demoted for failing to prove their love by some standard, which raises the terrifying question: by whom?  In Mrs. Doubtfire, mommy could turn to the government to enforce that sort of demotion of daddy.  If we’re now using occupational terms like “partner” to describe our central relationships, the the most powerful relationship in a child’s life is surely soon to be with the government, which can determine that neither partner deserves the mommy badge.

I don’t mind confessing that the milestones of losing my regular time alone with my daughter have choked me up a little, but this is just life passing, and these feelings quickly give way.  After all, I’m a father, and I’ve got a lot of work to do — not the least in providing stability for my children and working to rebuild the culture that the likes of Maillard are tearing down and do not understand.