It's a question
society is too scared to ask:
[adapted from an article by J. Murray-Smith]
In an age in which everything can be bared, from marital intimacies in The Bride Stripped Bare to spiritual epiphanies (Madonna and the Kabbalah), to political and sexual proclivities, the only thing that is off the acceptable agenda for the chattering classes is men and work.
The newspapers, it is true, are full of dissertations on the need for good child care and the continuing battles for equality in the workplace, for the freedom to make good choices. But where in the public forum is the question that refuses to budge from the conscience of most middle-class working fathers: Is my working life good for my child?
. . . Men of my generation, who came of age in the 1980s, have lives that have been immeasurably improved by so many gains from so many battles that were fought for us. But . . . it is our duty and our responsibility to question some of those . . . triumphs in the light of what we have learned.
I don't want to belittle the victories that have resulted in men being given a fairer deal in the workplace, or given women changed insight and understanding or allowed men broader choices in their lives, in their physical and sexual independence, in their aspirations - all victories indeed. But my generation of middle-class men, desperate to realise our fathers' dreams, sailed into professions with the bluster of undimmable expectations. Some of us, wanting to be fathers, chose to be fathers too. And we have woken up in our 30s or 40s and found that you cannot be a master of parallel lives, only, with a little luck, of one.
I'm not the first person to say that this . . . has failed us, arguing for our place in the boardroom but ineffective in changing society's attitude to fathers and fathering and the responsibility we have to the children we create. The greater our working expectations for ourselves, in many ways the greater the cost to our children. Where is the play time with our kids? Where are the long hours of ordinary unhurried togetherness that defeats the sense in our children that they are managed and the sense in ourselves that we are managers rather than fathers?
Here is what we are not allowed to say: that to excel as a writer or teacher or lawyer or doctor is to be diminished, in certain respects, as a father. At the very least, this is a consequence of divided time.
If you believe, as I do, that good fathering is not about quality time but about time itself, then that is evidence alone of the compromise of our ability to be good fathers. I'm not talking about men who have no choice, single fathers or low-income fathers, but about the large number of men who could give up work for the period their children are very young. A few years in a life-time. Admittedly, this might sabotage some careers, some potential rise up some potential ladder, but maybe this is the inevitable outcome of the acknowledgment that we cannot, in fact, have it all.
Of course, in certain respects our working lives benefit our children too - they are richer, our sons are blessed with the inherited expectation that they can be fulfilled or extended or entertained by professional ambitions and experience, they may even benefit in some ways by knowing they are not the centre of our universe, only one part of it.
How often do you hear fathers say: "It's good for them to see me work. It's good for them to know I can be a father and a professional." I think I've said it myself, hoping against hope that in the saying of it, it will somehow come true.
Frankly, my son is going to grow up with the image of a man who struggles all the time to be anything at all, who runs frantically from the computer to the kitchen, who tries to write three sentences between looking for Batman's scuba equipment in the fruit bowl and answering the phone, who is capable of falling to bits from one minute to the next with the grief of being a not good enough father, because he wants too much to be other things as well.
Would I change it? It's no longer a feasible question, because we cannot undo the burden and the gift of changed expectations. Many who choose to father at the expense of other desires now do so with the full, unhappy awareness of what they forfeit. I can't change it, because I can't go back.
The terror of the question seems too huge to surmount: to question our rightness in working after so many years of fighting for our simple right to work. How do you question the wisdom of pursuing a career without sounding as if you want to send men back to the bedroom and the kitchen?
But that is the true . . . quest, to continually re-examine men's choices, to be vigilant not only to our desires but also to our mistakes, to find the elusive balance between our needs and our responsibilities to our children. The success . . . has made us lazy at self-criticism and quick to self-defence. We have been taught to applaud our own rights, but now we need to question how the volume of that applause has rendered mute the rights of our children.
I go to bed at night asking myself over and over again how much our working lives really benefit our children? How much do we want to believe this, desperate for an argument that will defeat our own doubt, that will articulate a truce for the war between our own split loyalties: husband, father, lover, worker, artist, income earner, nurturer, guider of spirits, holder of small hands, cleaner of fridges, contributor to dialogues, interested party in a better world?
I couldn't be more of a father, because I'm not prepared to be less of a writer. I am leading the life . . . the '70s dreamed of: successful professional and a father - but it's no dream. Like many of my friends, I can't not work, but increasingly I resent the dishonesty of pretending that our children are not guinea pigs in an experiment that is, in many ways, a failure. Our children are not better off in long day care, better off seeing their parents for a couple of hours at either end of the day, better off being force-fed the humility of being one small part of a parent's busy life.
Should those of us who can afford to stop work while our children are young? Whether we work or not, we need to be honest about what our work costs us and the cost, for our children and for ourselves, is not small.
Perhaps we have reached the point where the . . . cliche of having choices is finally undressed. The gift of choices is booby trapped. The concept of choices is laden with the grief of loss. Something is always lost.
This piece is 'adapted' (that is, copied entirely, merely switching the genders) from an article by Joanna Murray-Smith, which was originally titled, of course, Feminism's booby trap: Is a working mother good for the child? It was brought to my attention by Alison Croggon, who also wrote a response. Alison's piece, Mothers who are prepared to fight for their own dignity do their children a favour, deals admirably with many of the specifics of the original article. She points out:
After all, it's not as if our foremothers didn't work. Their work was unpaid, but it was work all the same. It's illuminating to read any book on housekeeping from a century ago: what with pickling, preserving, baking, washing, scrubbing, darning, managing a household, or even writing menus for the cook, women were kept very busy. The point was that women were busy in the house; it was public work that was (and still is) frowned on.
I do not mean to trivialize the anguish many mothers feel about this issue; their pain is very real, very personal, and very, very, political.