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?