Friday, January 9, 2015

If You Found Paternity Leave Boring, Do Us All a Favor and Don't Write About It!

I don’t really like writing about motherhood.   It’s been a soul-nourishing and (I think) mostly successful role in my life.  After more than ten years, I’ve gained insightful perspectives on raising children.   I also follow social policy debates concerning the intersection of feminism, family life, motherhood, and/or work.  I follow them closely, and read a lot.  I have stuff to say.

The reason I don’t like writing about motherhood is precisely that it’s deeply important to so many people.  For a wide variety of good reasons, both personal and political, almost everyone has an emotional stake in the topic.  Strong and visceral disagreements lurk at the core of many issues, and many of those issues – like maternal instinct, nature versus nature, sexual parity – will quite literally never be solved.  Sometimes I feel like, if I have to read one more argument between a primary caregiver (i.e. stay at home mom) and a woman who works full-time outside of the home, my head will explode, all over my office.  And that would be really bad.  Because I’m 100% sure that my husband doesn’t even know the name, let alone the phone number, of our cleaning company.

Generally speaking, I’m not a woman who shies away from conflict, or controversy.  Just ask the people who hate me.  I’ve written on this blog about feminism and school reform and therapy and sustainability.   Some of these posts (especially the feminism one) drew the attention of several male internet trolls, who subsequently used my comments section to equate feminism with a female supremacy movement.   Well.  It’s not.  But I will admit that dumb shit like that often makes me wonder why all women don’t just abandon conventional mixed-sex society and join a global version of the Combahee River Collective. The best answer, I suspect, is that we’d miss gay men.

I do like to joke about controversial issues, though, and satirize sensitive political topics.  (As – for the record, internet trolls – I just did in the preceding paragraph. No.  We aren’t all about to run away and form a black feminist/gay male commune, or enslave you as dishwashers, or disembowel you while you are drifting off into your manly Asperger alone-time at the breakfast table. So, no need to leave a comment. Thanks.)  

So what is my problem, then?  Why don’t I write more hilarious missives about motherhood?  The answer is that some things I read about the subject leave me feeling so humorless and annoyed that I can’t conjure up anything funny to say, that I would actually want to read.   It becomes so personal for me that my heart clenches, my brain freezes, and I get defensive.  Like a liberal defending teachers unions.  A conservative defending guns.  Or a weird internet man reading a nothing little post about feminism.  I hate feeling like that.  I am 82% certain that the best way to avoid any illness – from breast cancer and heart disease, to varicose veins and goiter – is to take everything with a grain of salt, and a dose of good humor.   (Also, I spent my twenties crying, while getting a PhD, and I’m sorta tapped out.)

Then I read this piece, which my friend Barbara posted on her Facebook page with the comment: 

[Go ahead, take a minute.  It’s a short essay, with a simpleminded point.]  Or, allow me to summarize the essay for you, in case you start reading it and it burns your eyes: My work made me take paternity leave.  But moms always do more parenting.  So I had nothing to do, and I was bored, and I became an alcoholic.  Then I went back to work.

Now, I am 54% sure that the best way to counter this buffoonery is with SATIRE.  But here I am, in one of those rare moments, when I am actually so pissed off, I am going to write a serious post about it.  So thanks, William Giraldi.  Now I’m going to get goiter.  Whatever that is.

There are people who find this kind of straightforward man-talk refreshing.  And I get that.   Essays should make you think.  Some fact nuggets also undergird his argument.  Men, for example, don’t have functional milk-boobs.  Also, it’s more dangerous to sink into an Mansperger trance when you’re in charge of your own offspring on a street corner, because they don’t know usually know their own address until they’re 7.   And mothers may have stronger maternal instincts.  That instinct doesn’t make caring for an infant easier for them, but it may (and I said may, don’t freak out) make them just enough attached to the infant, that they are more physically driven to keep it alive.

Well, I didn’t find it refreshing. Or as I like a good essay to be: enlightening.   It actually wasn’t Giraldi’s insensitive and narcissistic description of himself as being “bushwhacked by [his] surfeit of free time” that nauseated me.  That didn’t bother me, because frankly, I don’t even understand it.  FREE TIME?  I mean, there are plenty of things to do, other than strapping on breasts, when you have a new baby.  FREE TIME?   Clean the dishes.  Go to the grocery store.  Make mom a sandwich.  Do the laundry.  Do it over again because now there is more poop on it.  Buy your wife a DVD of Sex in the City, so she has something to watch on TV when she’s sleepy and needs female company.    Jerk off once a day, so she doesn’t have that to worry about later too.   Or go out and spend three hours picking out the absolute nicest bottle of Prosecco you can find, and enjoy it with her at night.  You might even get lucky if her lady bits are healed.

No, that wasn’t even the LEAST ENLIGHTENING part.  It’s the stuff about the drinking that torpedoed my sense of humor, and reduced me to someone who needs to be serious on the internet. 

On his paternity leave, Giraldi said, he was reduced to “medieval hangovers that vanquished entire days.  Sleep interrupted by migraines and dehydration that felt downright malarial.  Iffy decisions involving the diaperless infant on an antique couch.”    Iffy decisions?   Interrupted sleep?  Dude.  Let me tell you about feeling medieval.    And listen up good.  Because if your wife hasn’t left you by now and joined the Combahees, you might still have the capacity to learn something in your wasteland of a shrunken cerebral cortex.

For years now, I’ve been wanting to write about a phenomenon I call: MOMAHOLICS.  It’s a mostly non-descriptive word that I use to describe that thing that so many new mothers do, mostly in the evenings.  Which is, drink a little too much.    Almost every mother I know – and not just white, middle-class, stay-at-home moms – will at least recognize this issue, if not in themselves, then in a friend.  

When you have little kids– as soul enriching as that is -- you can feel so drained, and so exhausted, and so deprived of personal fulfillment in so many of your familiar and traditional ways, that you come to look forward to a drink, hopefully at the end of the day, with a passion that you may never have had.   In my head (and my experience) I used to think about that coveted wine bottle sitting on the counter as the modern incarnation of the “mother’s little helper.”  In most ways, I thought, it’s not as secretive or dangerous as the 1950’s valium epidemic, because more women now have more opportunities to choose a different lifestyle, outside of the home. 

But in other ways, it’s actually worse.  Because so many women now make the choice to raise their kids all day long -- or make the choice to try and balance their work and home lives – that they feel it is mostly their fault if their life isn’t totally balanced.  Taking valium because your husband came home late from work, and demanded a hot meal seems easy to justify.  That life sounds sucky and annoying.  But drinking an entire bottle of wine by yourself every night -- because you need a release from a choice that you’ve made, and can’t stop feeling guilty and worried about -- is a bit more complicated.

I’m not here to call anyone an alcoholic.  Not even myself, actually.  And I drink a lot.  Based on my knowledge of alcoholism, the actual disease is not just about quantity or doing it for the wrong reasons.  Even Giraldi drank entire cases of Heineken over his “paternity leave,” and let’s start putting that in quotation marks, but stopped again when he was back at work.  The real alcoholic problem comes when the alcohol is ALL you look forward to anymore.   The kids bring me down, the liquor lifts me up.  That kind of thing.

I’ve never felt – and I’ve never, to my knowledge, had a mom or dad friend who felt – like that.   Having said that, I did develop a rather desperate taste for my nightly glass or two (or three) of wine when my kids were especially little.  And it wasn’t until years later -- when I could direct their daily activities from a more or less seated position -- that this sense of desperation about having JUST ONE THING only for myself at night, that was not a responsibility or a chore or a weight on my shoulders, really faded.  Sometimes, I do worry that some moms --or primary caregiver dads -- may not recognize these feelings, and will fall down a slippery slope.

Did Mr. Bored Dad’s essay bother me extra, because I’m aware of the alcoholism in my own family line?  I’m sure it did.   I admit it.  Also, I wholeheartedly take responsibility for any subjectivity affecting my reaction.  So subjective essay meets subjective essay once again.  But I couldn’t help thinking how in this day and age, this kind of unenlightened crap doesn’t deserve to be published.  Who does it enlighten?  Where is the self-awareness?   ALL that Giraldi’s faux-paternity-induced alcoholism exemplifies is the sexist and self-involved nature of his own subjectivity. 

YOU DRANK TOO MUCH ON PATERNITY LEAVE BECAUSE YOU WERE BORED? !   BORED?   Did you once think about how bored your wife might have been, staying sober, while playing Elmo songs?  Did you think to offer her a beer, and take the baby for a walk?   And what about those days when you aren’t just bored, but also EXHAUSTED? 

Reality Check: I once had to call my husband at work, and beg him to come home early, which was REALLY hard if not impossible for him in that job, because I threw my back out due to weak stomach muscles, and I was lying on the floor in utter agony, trying unsuccessfully to comfort my infant, with nobody there to help.  I cooked and pureed vegetables every day, and portioned them into ice cube containers, so my toddlers would always have healthy food, even when I couldn’t make it to the grocery store.   My older daughter had a diarrhea explosion all over me in Central Park one day that was so severe, I had to borrow an extra shirt of a guy in my playgroup just to get her home.  

BORDEM MADE YOU DRINK?  CRYING MADE ME DRINK.  Literally.  I cried from exhaustion more times than I can remember, and only the glass of wine at night, by myself in the kitchen, made me feel better.  Those were some of the easy days.  I once had to fight off the instinct to shake my baby, because nobody was there, and I was so tired, and I wanted her to sleep so badly, and she wouldn’t.  Thank God my mom intervened with a bottle, and let me sleep one night.  My husband couldn’t get up at night in my place.  He didn’t have paternity leave. 

I have still never forgiven myself for almost shaking my baby, yet this guy has forgiven himself for drinking his paternity leave away?  Look, I haven’t completely lost my sense of humor.  I also get how having a slight drinking problem because you are so intent on succeeding at motherhood that you are stressed out might be a problem of privilege.  It might even be a problem that feminism helped to create.    And, there might be mothers, single and/or economically underprivileged ones, who don’t have the "luxury" to drink too much, without terrible consequences.  But given the LIKELY universality of this issue, and the certain universality of how hard parenting is, my personal reaction to someone who drinks too much because they’re bored on paternity leave is that you are a one-man slap in the face to every parent, mom or dad, who struggles every day to find fulfillment in the very difficult job of parenting.

Maybe instead of writing a puerile essay, he should have figured out how to work harder.


Elana Matthews said...

Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Also, the slippery slope thing worries me, too. For myself. Still.

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Yes. Thanks for your comment, Elana.

hks said...

Yes, the outrage is that someone published that article. If you are going to be an idiot and get drunk for an entire paternity leave and then write about it, at least THINK a little harder first. About why you were an idiot. That might be slightly more interesting. His essay is about as useful to society as those beer commercials that excuse men from having to engage in moral, thoughtful, or unselfish behavior.

Ann Imig said...

Yes, he lost me at his equation of raising kids with men being laid off or retiring, but then he does go on to fully admit that his wife was caring for their child while he was using. The title should read "What I did when I was paid to not watch my kid"

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Right. If it were titled differently or included some self criticism. Nothing. None of us are perfect. Betters of us admit it and try to improve.

Anonymous said...

Whoa - this really hit home. I spent a large portion of the evenings in my second kid's first year at least partially drunk. I also lived in a neighborhood where all of us privileged and educated mommies were meeting every morning to drink coffee (with rumchata) and commiserate about the miserable, boring, tedious, emotionally exhausting lives we were leading. By choice. We should be so lucky. Slippery slope - yes. Maybe. I also have alcoholism in my family AND am a typical, Puritanical American, so drinking of any sort worries me and makes me nervous, even though I do it with regularity. Momaholics are pretty much the norm in my world. But his essay offends me as well, perhaps because mostly I am unable to say all of this out loud to society at large and laugh about it?! Mom guilt at work. Again.

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

So much mom guilt. We should all try to reframe it as what it is: struggles with a hard job.

i signed up for what? said...

I think looking at why men think they don't have a role in the infanthood of children is more accurate. I refer to a man luke this as "jealous." Why? Because he's not the cener of wife's world. The tit sucker has been replaced. Sadly, i do know about the alcoholic checked out dad. ...these men have failed as
Adults and, i do believe, failed as partners, friends, husbands, lovers and sons. Women are taking on role of father AND mother because men are losing their role...or choosing not to step up and parent. Or is it that they are so selfish that they can't believe they were replaced by an infant?

Moms have a difficult time.....dads who drink to check out are stuck in adolescence.

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

I wish so much that men would talk more about THAT. jealousy. Adjustment. Their role. We could all talk about that. Instead a missed opportunity. Right?

i signed up for what? said...

Some men aren't equipped to talk: emotionally,; physically; logically. ...
They are trained to believe the woman raises do the career.... not in all cases..bur some men just aren't ready to be #2 or 3 or 4 on the list..

this is where their mothers' and fathers' failed..

Paul P. said...

Maybe it's my particular group of male friends, but not one of them (or me) has expressed any feelings of jealousy over the birth of their first child. Adjustment over accommodating a squalling infant in their previously quiet lives, yes, but that's not unique to either gender. All of them acknowledged the difficulties and the stress but we all have only felt joy over having children. Your comments (I signed up...) feel a little too general to be accurate.

There are poor parents of both genders. Playing Devil's advocate for a moment, perhaps the author's wife was one of those mothers who refuses to let her husband participate because he's "not doing it right", whether it's putting on diapers, giving the kid a bath, or holding them in the "right" position. Finding that he wasn't wanted, he chose to drink instead. He wouldn't be the first Dad indirectly barred from participation via condemnation of his "incompetence". Not an excuse, because he should have engaged regardless, but if true, more understandable than being completely disinterested as his article suggests.

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Good points paul. I know so many great dads. So if I sounded too generalizing, it was not intentional. I just think fathers have to write about their struggles too, self consciously.

Holly said...

My biggest criticism with this guy's essay is that it is pointless and boring. What's the main idea of it anyway? Maybe BU has other reasons to fire him besides his fraudulent paternity leave. He is not even a mediocre writer. Lame guy, lame essay!

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Yeah. Maybe should be ignored.

Paul P. said...

Erin, I totally agree, more male voices would be a good thing. Or perhaps more generally, the voices of working parents with a stay-at-home spouse. One of my best male friends is a SAHD in Manhattan. He has the many of the same complaints about his wife and his experience that my wife has about me and her experience as a SAHM. It's quite enlightening to hear his comments and realize that much of the conflict over parenting duties has little to do with gender but rather the different priorities of partners occupying different roles in a relationship: the breadwinner vs. the caregiver.

Much of the conflict in my own marriage over roles & responsibilities was over who had more free time and who did more work overall, with each of us under-appreciating what the other one was contributing. We both sucked at negotiating this, thankfully the issue has become moot now that our kids are generally old enough to manage themselves. But there is probably still lingering resentment on both sides.

Martha said...

Holy. He is insufferable. But, the slope is indeed slippery, whether working or staying home. In all seriousness, meet me for a drink sometime, Erin?

Philippe Buc said...

Sharp, EEC, as she was at Stanford

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Philippe! I just noticed this comment. I will write you.

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