Father's Day: Why a 'superhero' father wants to join the Mothers Association

Where are the fathers? In my neighborhood, the Mothers Association gets things done. Too many men want to avoid the thankless tasks that women have performed for hundreds of patriarchal years. They're also missing out on the beautiful intimate mundanity of nurturing a human being.

Stan Carroll/The DeSoto Appeal/AP
Two year-old John Aubrey Earnheart waves his flag from his father's arms during a Memorial Day observation in Tunica, Miss. Op-ed contributor John Kaag says fathers should 'lean out' – 'be willing to forego certain career opportunities in order to be more engaged as parents.'

On this Father’s Day I want only one thing: to join the Mothers Association.

I have my reasons.

The association is the not-so-secret society that runs my neighborhood. It has about 1,000 members, who, on most summer mornings, take their children to one of three playgrounds in our neighborhood.

On some mornings, however, they park their fleet of strollers on the sidewalk and have coffee and breakfast together at any number of undisclosed locations. Of course, they take their children with them – wherever they go. I can only imagine what they talk about. I suspect it has something to do with how to actually raise their kids. On those mornings, my daughter and I have the parks to ourselves. And it is on those lonely, quiet mornings that I sometimes wish I could join the association.

Saturday is supposedly a particularly good morning for me, since it’s one of the few times that fathers take their little ones to the playground. I guess the members of the association need to sleep. So we talk about work, or sports, or how lucky our wives are to be sleeping.

But if the parks need to be cleaned, the association takes care of it. If the schools need to be rezoned, the association takes care of it. If the grocery store needs a facelift, the association is on top of it. If the children need to be breastfed, the association is right there.

I’m not sure how it happened, but the fathers “association,” if that’s what you want to call it, is nothing like this. It’s orders of magnitude smaller. Just a handful of guys who play basketball on Wednesdays, play golf on Saturdays, and drink occasionally on Fridays – as if being a father, by definition, involves leaving your kids at home and reclaiming your college glory.

Don’t get me wrong, this is better than nothing, but I can’t shake the feeling that our association has nothing to do with being a father and everything to do with not being one.

Last month, I heard an interview with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg about “Lean In,” her controversial book that suggests that women need to take their careers as seriously as men do. This claim, however, is not as radical as a closely correlated one, namely that men need to “lean out.” Of course, this entire discussion needs to be prefaced by the admission that the whole question of “work-life balance” is a first-world problem that millions of people would love to have. 

Still, leaning out, if I understand it correctly, means that men would be willing to forego certain career opportunities in order to be more engaged as parents, the type of parents that fill the parks on a Tuesday morning and talk about diapers. And they would not see this as a sacrifice or necessary evil, but rather as just part and parcel of equally shared parenting.

Many fathers already lean out in this way, but I can tell you that they often feel alone in their communities. Admittedly, these men are often praised for being exceptional parents (even when they’re just doing what one might expect, pulling half the parental weight). They’re identified as exceptional partners (I can report that my partner seems happier with her relationship than many mothers do with theirs).

Still, the life of a “superhero” is notoriously lonely. You end up at the park by yourself, wondering where all the other fathers are, wondering why they don’t want to be superheroes, too.

I guess they think that being a superhero-father isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Maybe they think that it amounts to assuming the thankless tasks that women have performed for hundreds of patriarchal years, or opting out of a career, the one institution that modern culture still regards as meaningful. Maybe they’re right.

But maybe not. Maybe they’re missing out on something that has escaped men for hundreds of patriarchal years: the fleeting opportunity to take part in the beautiful intimate mundanity of nurturing a human being.

Maybe one day the fathers will have an association that is worth joining. Unfortunately, for the near future, I think I have better chances with the Mothers Association. Hopefully they will let me in. For now, I’ll keep pushing my daughter on this swing. Because today we have the park to ourselves.

John Kaag is an assistant professor of philosophy at UMass Lowell and lives in Charlestown, Mass., with his partner, Carol, and daughter, Becca.

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