For those not from around these parts, there is a new show on Channel 9 (Australia) called House Husbands. Now, with a title like that, I knew I was pretty much guaranteed to hate it; but I had to watch it anyway. Why? I guess because there was a small part of me – the eternal optimist part – that thought it might not be just another tedious patchwork of cliché; that at least one or two of the panels sewn in might resemble the fabric of my own fathering reality – but alas, it was not to be.
In the very first scene, we meet our four househusband ‘heroes’. And where should they be, but waiting guiltily outside a school principal’s office (a school principal who is, of course, female). Now at this point it is not clear why they are there, but what is clear, what the context makes patently clear to us, is that we are dealing here, not with men, but with boys – and naughty boys, at that. And really, what else could we expect? There is, after all, no more perfect encapsulation of the way television represents fathers than the naughty boy – hapless, incompetent, dangerously negligent, and constantly chafing at the bit placed in his mouth by his partner (or do I mean mother?).
Tragically, having served us up this hoary old chestnut, the rest of the episode does nothing to subvert it. It turns out, in fact, that our house husbands are ‘in trouble’ with the principal because, as they chatted to each other in the school playground, their unsupervised kindergarten-aged children managed to climb onto, and drive off in, a school bus (I kid you not!). The kids are saved by the sprinting-and-diving-type heroics of AFL footballer house husband, Justin, but even this does nothing to shift our sense of who these men are (after all, public heroics are the only aspect of parenting that’s ever going to appeal to a boy). In the end, nothing these four fathers do suggests that we are meant to see them as anything but boys doing a woman’s job, and doing it very badly.
Tellingly, the episode ends with Justin’s son presenting him with a drawing he has done of his dad, in a cape, flying alongside the bus. So, just as the episode begins with a tired cliché – the father as boy – so it end with the equally tired one of father as superhero, dropping in to save the day, and then flying off to his boycave.
My new hero (but in this case, anti rather than super), is the writer Michael Chabon. In his book Manhood for Amateurs (a book I just finished yesterday), he jokes that a ‘father on a camping trip who manages to beat a rattlesnake to death with a can of Dinty Moore* in a tube sock, may rest for decades on the ensuing laurels and…somehow snore peacefully every night beside his sleepless wife…’ And why is she sleepless? Because for her, by extreme contrast, parenting is a job of ‘monumental open-endedness, with its infinite number of infinitely small pieces.’
Why this crazy disjunction between roles? Because (for all sorts of reasons) fathers are judged and judge themselves, and mothers are judged and judge themselves, by insanely different criteria. Chabon describes his father’s role as little more than breadwinner. It was like fathers in the 50s were the executive producers of the family, while the mothers were the directors, producers and (let’s face it) every other job in the crew.
Chabon talks about his parents this way:
‘My father, more or less like all the men of his era, class, and cultural background, went for a certain amount of spasmodically enthusiastic fathering, parachuting in from time to time with some new pursuit or project, engaging like an overweening superpower in a program of parental nation-building in the far-off land of his children before losing interest or running out of emotional capital and leaving us once more to the regime of our mother, a kind of ancient, all-pervasive folkway, a source of attention and control and structure so reliable as to be imperceptible, like the air.’
If House Husbands is to be believed, the last fifty years hasn’t made much of a difference. Whether it is as superpower or superhero, the reality is the same; fathers (even those who are supposedly the primary care givers) aren’t interested in more than an occasional guest appearance in their children’s lives. What’s gone wrong?
Michael Chabon would say that the problem is that almost everyone’s expectations of fathers remain incredibly low. This is the blessing and the curse of being a father. You need to do almost nothing to be considered by most people around you as a good (enough) father. It’s a blessing, because you can let your partner do almost everything without fear of experiencing any condemnation from those around you (except perhaps your partner herself). Even with her though, the insane way in which parenting works means that she is very likely to manage her frustration with your inertia by framing you as ‘a hopeless man’ who is actually incapable of doing what she does, rather than simply unwilling: thus reinforcing your inactivity. It’s a curse for exactly the same reason; it reinforces your inactivity.
Why is this a curse? Because, as with anything of real value, to get the best out of parenting requires incredible amounts of time, and the doing of an infinite number of things, none of which, in and of themselves, seem of any value whatsoever. Spending a few minutes of your day slowly and gently wiping unidentifiable, crusty deposits out of your daughter’s vagina may not seem like a step along the road towards parenting nirvana, but it is exactly that. Knowing your children’s bodies intimately is the primary form of intimacy that you can have with them when they are very young, and it is the doorway to every other form of intimacy as they grow.
In the second article (my favourite) of Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon explains why he has chosen not to use the get-out-of-parenting-free card that our culture continues to issue to fathers, but has instead worked incredibly hard on ‘being a good father’. It is not, he says, ‘out of egalitarian feminist principles. Those principles – though I cherish them – are only the means to an end for me.’ And what is that end? Let me quote him at length, because he writes so beautifully.
‘The daily work you put into rearing your children is a kind of intimacy, tedious and invisible as mothering itself. There is another kind of intimacy in the conversations you may have with your children as they grow older, in which you confess your failings, reveal anxieties, share your bouts of creative struggle, regret, frustration. There is intimacy in your quarrels, your negotiations and running jokes. But above all, there is intimacy in your contact with their bodies, with their shit and piss, sweat and vomit, with their stubbled kneecaps and dimpled knuckles, with the rips in their underpants as you fold them, with their hair against your lips as you kiss the tops of their heads, with the bones of their shoulders and with the horror of their breath in the morning as they pursue the ancient art of forgetting to brush. Lucky me that I should be permitted the luxury of choosing to find the intimacy inherent in this work that is thrust upon so many women. Lucky me.’
I feel equally fortunate that circumstance (and the launching pad of egalitarian feminist principles) has allowed me the opportunity to find this kind of intimacy with Tilly, and last night as I felt my unborn daughter push her head into my palm as it lay on Susie’s belly, I ached to hold her in my arms and to begin the same journey with her.
If you thought I was being a bit harsh on House Husbands before, now you know why. Because – like almost all representations of fatherhood on television and on film, but even more so – it represents a lost opportunity. I just wish more fathers could be offered a window onto the dazzling, if very hard won, treasures that lie in primary care giving (much as I hate the sterility of that term).
If the show is to redeem itself, my hope lies with Kane (Gyton Grantley). He is the only one who seems grounded in any way; at home with the mundane minutiae that constitute real parenting. It is ironic, of course, that he is the only one who is not the biological father of the child he is parenting, and that he is gay. But then again, this is one of the great ironies of Australian masculinity generally: that gay men, the group of men who seem to have cornered the market on the qualities that make a good father, are also the group least likely to be able (either legally or practically) to become one.
Could it be that the last great hope for Australian fatherhood is if it becomes easier for gay men to become parents. At the risk of both idealising and over-generalising, I feel like your average straight, Aussie dad could benefit enormously from watching gay men parent. Certainly, for me personally, some of the proudest moments in my life were when I was asked if I was (or even better, was assumed to be) gay, because it was those moments that gave me hope that I would one day make a great father.