On heroes and narratives

Thank you for this, Mr. Peter Mountford:

Life as a stay-at-home dad: Everyone I meet calls me a hero for taking care of my kids. – Slate Magazine.

Yes, taking care of kids is difficult and it is underappreciated work, especially if you’re also nurturing a career. But it’s not heroic. Because, if it’s heroic to forgo working so that you can take care of kids, then what if you have to work to provide for those kids? Is my wife un-heroic—maybe even a coward—for passing the kids to me so that she can return to work full time? What about me? Was I lacking in heroism before, when I was working long hours and she was with the kids?…

[N]o matter what I do, I can’t seem to get this thing wrong. Meanwhile, Jen is always wrong. At home with the kids, she’s an anachronistic housewife; at work, she’s ditching her kids to nurture selfish professional ambitions. Somewhere, lurking at the root of this all, is the tenacious idea that men should have a career, whereas women must choose between a career and being at home.

Perfect. Exactly. Nailed it.

Work is work is work is work. Whether you’re male or female, working outside the home or working inside the home, whether you’re parenting, whether you’re homemaking, you are contributing. The market sets different prices on all those types of work (and their subsets), but we, as individuals, should not implicitly over-value any type.

But I wonder whether Mr. Mountford is being a little too hard on those who call him a hero, who are so admiring and appreciative of what he’s doing.

This person is cultivating a narrative about my child and me, and she wants me to participate.

If that person — the one who called him a hero as she lurked by the dried pasta — is cultivating a narrative and wants you to participate, wouldn’t that mean you can alter it?

Someone recently described a man my age who is now essentially in charge of his children, as his wife’s work hours were more demanding than his (he can work from home and has a great deal of general flexibility). She seemed to convey the information wistfully. (I suspect she’d prefer him to simply be able to work while his wife remains home with the children.) She has a narrative in her mind, based on her experiences.

I added to it, saying “That’s great — he’s so lucky to have a job that allows him to do that. Everybody’s job should be like that.”

She agreed, of course. Maybe now she’s thinking less wistfully.

I’d like to suggest a rewrite of Mr. Mountford’s scene with the woman lurking by the dried pasta:

“You’re a hero,” she says.

I muster a halfhearted smile and say, “Not really. I’m no more a hero than you are for noticing my run-of-the-mill daily parenting.”

I smiled at her and walked away.

Maybe the woman’s narrative would have shifted. Maybe the next dad she sees at the store would surprise her less, but still make her smile appreciatively. She would continue to notice.

The noticing, the admiration, the, dare I say, ultimately, preference — don’t those things drive markets? Don’t those things ultimately change (improve) the price of, and therefore normalize the value of, all kinds of work?

Maybe hero worship is all part of the process. Maybe?

9 thoughts on “On heroes and narratives

  1. I’m an at home dad, a corporate spouse to my lawyer wife, and I’ll take all of the compliments I can get. I do get praised for doing for typical things, just become I’m a guy, but I’m criticized lots for it too. I suppose that the whole thing balances out. The important thing is to not take too seriously what others say – positive and negative – and continue instead what appears to be best for the family.

  2. Your site is excellent. I find it to be very helpful. We don’t have any plans to relocate but I’m still trying to cope with being a corporate spouse. I’m not complaining but it is a huge adjustment. We recently had our second child and my wife continues to do well in her career. There are very few corporate spouses who talk about it with intelligence and perspective. Thnaks for bringing those features to your blog.

    1. Congratulations on the birth of your second child! So happy to hear that, and that your wife is doing well.

      Coping as a corporate spouse is no easy feat. I am so very gratified to know that sharing my thoughts and experiences is helpful to you. It’s all I want–to be helpful. Thank you so much.

  3. Thanks.

    It’s great to hear that “Coping as a corporate spouse is no easy feat.” That’s been my experience. I’m really giving my all, but it’s like I’m in the passenger’s seat. Feel a bit helpless and like I’m not contributing enough. Then feel funny about not earning any $$ even though that’s our deal.

    1. “helpless and like I’m not contributing enough.” I know of what you speak, Mark. I promise you, it gets better over time. I’m convinced that the feeling of helplessness, in particular, correlates pretty tightly with the ages of children. The younger they are, the more they need you on a minute-by-minute and often unpredictable basis, the less you feel like a “driver” of much of anything. As for contributing enough, maybe it also helps to think of it not with a car metaphor, but a sailboat metaphor: Your family is navigating this huge thing below you (the ocean/your young children) and a huge thing above you (the economic realities and family values that define who does what and when in the workforce). You and your wife are responsive. You and your wife anticipate. You need each other, equally, no matter who currently holds the “captain”/or wage earner role, as you’re each fit and prepared to play either one, at any time. You’ll come to shore at some point (when the kids reach a certain age) and perhaps roles will switch and you’ll chart a new course. Or perhaps you’ll stop sailing and you’ll both drive. You’ll know when you get there. 🙂

  4. Thank you for that. I really like the sailboat metaphor.

    I believe that what I am struggling with is that while we are equals in the marriage, our roles are dramatically different. It is not like we are in a power struggle, but I am discovering that, in our marriage anyway, the fact that she is supporting us financially colors a lot of things, even if they are left unsaid.

    I am sure that my feeling of helplessness does derive in part from having two small children at home. Our plan, however, is to have four children, if we are fortunate enough, so I guess I had better get used to this! I do agree with that New York Times article, which said that parenting is less a function of your sex then of your situation. Although I’m a man, I am living the life of a traditional corporate wife, with all of the ups and downs that it entails. It is just taking some getting used to. Believe me, with all that I’ve said, I am very grateful that I am able to live this life. I am very fortunate that my wife has a job that allows her to support our family, and allows me to stay home with the kids, which I think is great.

    So, for now, anyway, here is how I look at it. My career is being married to my wife and raising my children, being a support system to all of them.

      1. Ok, right?

        As I think of the sailboat, about 90% of the time I’d be saying, “Here, you take the wheel. I’ve got to make dinner (or do a feeding, or change a diaper, or do the laundry, etc.).” So I’d be belowdecks much of the time, anyway. Lol.

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