Why ‘Men Can’: Don Unger and the Changing Face of Fatherhood in America

Donald N.S. Unger is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT. He writes about representations of men, masculinity and fatherhood in popular culture. In Men Can: The Changing Image and Reality of Fatherhood in America, he explores the stories of families in which fathers are primary caregivers or are full partners in raising the children. Knowledge@Wharton recently asked Unger to discuss the changing role of fatherhood, the social, cultural, and economic changes that have contributed to it, and the challenges for women.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation:

Knowledge@Wharton: Don, thank you so much for joining us today.

Don Unger: Thank you so much for having me.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s start with a personal question. As you have grown, how has your view of fatherhood changed? In short, what carried over from your own childhood and what ideas did you incorporate as you became an adult?

Unger: I think one of the things that I admire most about my own father, one of the things he did very well, has less to do with political orientation than it does with his professional orientation. He is an engineer; he was a professor of computer science. His attitude was both very functionalist and very open, very “Let’s try this, we can probably make it work.” I believe that he did that on a pretty gender-neutral basis with my sister and with me. That’s something that I certainly admire and have tried to do with my own daughter. In terms of things that I have done differently, I would characterize a lot of that as being generational. I don’t think of my father as having been distant, but he was at a more typical parenting distance for men of that time. I was growing up in the 1960s, the 1970s. I guess one counterweight to that is that my parents got divorced when I was a kid, and my sister and I did end up staying with my father. In that sense, he was certainly the parent left standing.

Knowledge@Wharton: Your book is about the changing image and reality of fatherhood in America. How has the reality and image of fatherhood changed and why?

Unger: Well, we are here at Wharton, and I think it is important to talk about this from a financial point of view because I think economics is certainly one of the lynchpins of that change. If you look at what has happened to the United States economy since the 1960s and 1970s, the way that we have preserved a reasonably functioning middle class is by making two-earner households the default. The Economist [reported] the fact that women now outnumber men in the work force. That is an artifact of the current recession, so that is not the happiest of things. We can argue about the degree to which the necessity for a two-earner household is a good thing, but that economic fact of life was really one of the strong engines of change. Underpinning that, of course, were the battles and victories of the feminist movement and egalitarian movements more generally in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the first changes has been that everybody works. Once you are at a point where everybody works, something has to begin changing at home to redistribute labor in some more reasonable way.

We are still arguing about how much that has changed, and I think that the position you take in that argument is often inflected by your political position. Ironically, I think people on the progressive side of the spectrum can be more resistant to the notion that there has been positive change because when they hear you say there has been positive change, what they think you are saying is, “We don’t need to talk about this anymore. We’ve reached some post-gender kind of equality, and we are done with that discussion.” I certainly don’t think that’s true. On the other hand, I think that if you go to the average park at this point and look at who is with the kids on the playground, you see more men than you saw 10 years ago, even five years ago.

In terms of image, the strongest evolution that I think I see is from the doofus dad image — this image of men being domestically incompetent in commercials, on television, in movies — toward a more even-handed, open depiction of what men can or can’t do. I should be clear that although I’m crabby, irritable and sensitive about how men are mischaracterized in this fashion, the damage of that image, the damage of the incompetent man image is really most severe for women. Because what it says to women is, “Sorry, we just can’t. We are fundamentally incapable of cooking, cleaning, caring for kids, those kinds of things. We would do it if we could, but we are stupid. Sorry. Your problem.” And that leaves women in an untenable position, particularly professional women, because this means that they are supposed to carry the entire burden. To begin to move off that image is a good step in the direction of showing men in more dignified positions, but it is also crucial for women.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you think the changing role of women in the family and in the workplace has affected notions of motherhood? And what implications has that had for the need for fatherhood to be redefined?

Unger: I think that mothers have really been in a very difficult position for a long time. Mothers, rather than having a clearly defined set of maternal responsibilities, have professional responsibilities as well. Women complain, and I think with reason, that they can be pilloried for working outside the home (they are, quote, “neglecting their children”) or for not working outside the home, in which case they are neglecting their financial responsibilities to the family or perhaps they are even smothering the child. This is kind of reconfiguring right now what is happening, how we think about what’s happening, how we feel about what’s happening to the role of women.

For men, one of the consequences that I am particularly interested in, and one of the things that I think is under discussed, is the issue of territoriality. If you look at the professional sphere, women spent decades fighting their way into a variety of professional spaces and educational spaces. Women are now the majority of college graduates, the majority of law school and medical school graduates. That was a difficult — but I would argue, an emotionally satisfying — battle to wage. On the flip side, at home, what we are now seeing is men beginning to come into those areas in greater numbers, with greater intensity. But what that means for women is really yielding their exclusive power over the domestic sphere. Now, a lot of women may have wanted help and support in a variety of ways. Some women certainly had clear egalitarian orientation and wanted to see a fair or a more equal division of domestic labor. But for other women, I think it feels like they are losing this space or having to figure out who gets to do what. Who has authority in that space? It’s a point of resistance that we haven’t looked at enough.

Knowledge@Wharton: In your book, did you find cultural differences among different ethnic groups regarding their approach to parenting? And what are the implications for children?

Unger: One of the things that I found most interesting is that sometimes the differences you find are the opposite of the differences that you thought you would find. For example, it is fairly typical for North Americans to characterize Latinos as being people who come from a macho culture and, therefore, we think men maintain a certain image of themselves, particularly a public profile of themselves as kind of hyper-masculine.

But what you see in reality [is different]. I was in Mexico for a number of months. [There] is a much greater ease, for example, on the part of teenage boys with child care, with taking care of younger children, with playing with younger children, that sort of thing. And a greater ease as well on the part of men in a lot of those roles, a greater sense that part of their community responsibility is a responsibility toward children. I think there are still restraints on that. I had a conversation in Mexico with a friend who was talking about what he did when he was supposed to do something with male friends, and a child care obligation interfered with that. What he did was tell his friends that he had to do something for his mother. He said he did this because if he admitted that he was going to take care of his kids, that might be publicly perceived as a battle he had lost with his wife. He couldn’t see himself represented that way. If he said he had to do something for his mother, however, this was a sacred issue that no one would trifle with in any way. “You have to do something with your mother? Fine. We understand completely.” No one would criticize or ridicule you about that. First off, more traditional societies are not necessarily as traditional as we think they are. Second off, there is change going on in those societies, some of it covert, but some of it quite overt.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the really interesting things I found about your book is how you examine popular culture — films and the way they depict images of fatherhood. Specifically, you referred to two films — Mary Poppins and Kramer vs. Kramer — to show how ideas of fatherhood are changing. What in general did your analysis show?

Unger: Mary Poppins the movie is very different from Mary Poppins the book. When I have college students go back and look at Mary Poppins the movie, they are usually very surprised at what they really see going on in the movie as opposed to what they remember because what people remember is that the magic nanny comes and fixes everything. But they don’t really remember the content of what happens, and really, you could crunch the movie down to magical nanny comes and induces psychotic break in father, converting him from a cold bureaucrat to a warm parent. That’s really what happens; that’s really what changes. That was sort of interesting and surprising to me, and I think that has more to do with the time and the place that the movie came out of, which would be 1960s in the United States right after Betty Freidan’s Feminist Mystique came out, versus the time that the book came out, which is the 1930s in England.

Kramer vs. Kramer was interesting to me because it came out in 1978. This is the point at which California became the first state to make joint custody the preferred default. We came out of almost a century of what was referred to as “The Tender Years Doctrine,” which basically said kids are better off with their mothers. Yet, in the movie, we watch the father redefine himself on the ground. We watch him change, and then we see that his actions are not enough to change the image. They are not enough to legally win the day. Spoiler alert, at the end of the movie, the kid ends up with the father, but that is not the legal decision and that’s interesting as well. So I think that Kramer vs. Kramer is right in the cauldron of this change in the image of popular culture. We are not sure what we want men to look like, what we want fathers to look like.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there a so-called corporate view of fatherhood that emerges through television advertising? If so, what is it?

Unger: I think there are probably two corporate views. One corporate view, a pure, instrumental capitalist approach, would be we do whatever we need to do to maximize the efficiency of our employees. I teach at MIT, for example. The unit of the institute that I teach within is very family friendly. There is a very strong emphasis that all of us — mothers, fathers, whatever — take care of each other and make sure that we can do what we need to do to take care of our families because that makes us better employees. It means we miss less time off from work, it means that we are more efficient when we are there, that things run well under that system. I think that a well-organized corporate entity does that because that is efficient.

On the other hand, whatever part of the hierarchy we belong to — manager, executive of whatever kind — we bring our personal prejudices into those roles. We are just now hopefully coming out of a period of time where the personal prejudices of managers have hurt men, have hurt women and have hurt families. Managers have brought in their rigid frameworks about what men are supposed to do and what women are supposed to do. For women, I think this has often meant discrimination in hiring because the sense has been, “We’re not going to hire women because they are going to go off and just responsibly become parents. So why should we invest in them?” For men, I would argue that men in some ways have been punished more when men take advantage of legal or contractual leeway that we have to take care of family. For some managers, that has been seen as kind of a betrayal of masculinity: “We hired you because we thought you would be a man, you would keep your nose to the grindstone, we could rely on you. Now you are telling us that you are going to go off because your child is sick? That’s unforgivable.” I think that’s a career-impeding or sometimes a career-ending kind of problem. One of the chapters in the book, for example, is about a former state trooper in Maryland.

Knowledge@Wharton: I was just about to ask you, who is Kevin Nussman and why does his story matter?

Unger: He is a former state trooper from Maryland. He was a helicopter paramedic for most of his career in the state police. When his first child was born, his wife had a difficult pregnancy. Kevin applied for leave under the federal family and medical leave act that Bill Clinton signed. He was denied leave. The personnel director for Maryland State Police said, “You don’t have breasts, you can’t breast feed, you can’t be the primary parent. You can’t have leave.” Kevin ended up suing. Ironically, the state trooper ended up suing with the help of the ACLU, and he eventually won that suit. He is also someone who is a very conservative person. Kevin’s analysis of the situation was that a government bureaucracy was preventing him from taking care of his family in the way that he needed to take care of his family. In some ways, he came at this from a kind of libertarian point of view. He eventually retired from the state police and became a full-time stay-at-home parent.

Knowledge@Wharton: In today’s global economy, competition is intense. Technology and working across different time zones have dramatically blurred the boundary between work life and home life. In this situation, who is a good father?

Unger: Ah, I would say that a good father is a father who puts in the necessary time — and “necessary” is a fairly flexible word as far as I am concerned. I think we need to take care of our kids, but I think how we take care of our kids differs from family to family. It is not my place or the place of anybody else to come into your family from the outside and say, “You’re not doing this correctly.” How child care is divided up is a decision between the parents in the household.

Knowledge@Wharton: Could you speak a little bit about the kind of trade-offs that it forces upon families and how they can resolve the kind of issues that result?

Unger: I think what is crucial in almost all of these situations is that the parents have overt discussions about what it is that they want to do and how they want to do it. I would suggest that those discussions ought to start before people get married. We come into relationships with a lot of embedded assumptions because of the times we grew up in, because of the cultures we grew up in. Even if people contemplating getting married have an agreement that they are going to share child care, what they mean by “share child care” might not be the same thing. In those discussions, you have to be very explicit. Then, just as you were pointing out that the global economy is endlessly flexible and endlessly changing, we need to be flexible in terms of how we deal with our families. We need to realize that children grow and change in all kinds of ways. We, as parents and as professionals or as workers, grow and change in all kinds of ways, so what we need to negotiate is some initial set of understandings about the kinds of parents we need to be. We also need to negotiate those changes in an ongoing way. Because none of this stands still. It just keeps moving faster and faster.

Knowledge@Wharton: I wanted to conclude on a personal note. Your book ends with an afterword, and the afterword begins with a poem that you addressed to your daughter. Could you share that poem with our audience?

Unger: Oh, I’ll try to do this without choking up. I wrote this when my daughter was two years old. I was the person who bathed her, and I remember even when she was very little, bathing her and becoming acutely aware that I was going to lose her, that we always lose our children. On some level, that’s a positive. I think Khalil Gibran said something like, “Our children are the arrows that we shoot into the future.” The natural course of things is that kids grow up. But that’s still a poignant and difficult thing. So this is called “Grow Up.”

I miss her already, my daughter

Two years old and slick as a seal with me

    in our claw foot tub

Swimming away, upward toward the light

And when I say I cut the cord

   changed-you-bathed-you-fed-you

Oh Dad, she’ll sigh, exasperated

Let it go, will you?

Grow up

And–if I want that for either of us

   I can’t quite figure out which one

Knowledge@Wharton: Don, thanks so much.

Unger: Thank you. It has been a pleasure.

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