Superdad has been sick all week: bronchitis, the kind of cough that scares mice out of walls and distant ducks off lakes. I’m worried the virus will migrate to my 5-month-old daughter — or my wife — so I’ve been sleeping in the basement among the ducts and boxes, like a spider. And now I’m listening, from two floors below, for any sign of distress.
As I’m about to fall asleep, the basement door swings open and my wife’s there in the dark, holding our daughter. “It’s bad,” she says. When she turns on the light I can see they’re both covered in our daughter’s vomit.
For a long time, I didn’t think I wanted kids. I didn’t marry until 40. I had a career in journalism, such as that is. There were novels to write. There were jobs — the best ones — in New York, where kids have to grow up on their own, like weeds in sidewalks. Having kids seemed like something you should do before life trims itself to your needs, tightens around the seams, and there’s no room left to expand.
But of course there is room. You make room, loosening the threads that held the same shape for so long, to see what else you can do with them, to try something else on for size. And when the baby comes, it doesn’t matter what you imagined your life would be — you have a new one.
Five months into fatherhood, it’s clear my new life has retained the shape of the old. New mothers, on average, spend more time at home. New fathers spend more time at work, as though a big dollar sign were emblazoned on their unitards. Some nights I’ll work until dinner, freelance until 1:30 a.m., then give the baby a bottle. Always, I fall into bed without looking at a clock. Superdad’s superpower is willful ignorance.
When I was a teenager, in the 1980s, supermoms were just emerging from their mini-vans, breaking the glass ceiling at work while keeping things intact at home, with a little time left for Jazzercise and Thirtysomething. They were trying to have it all: great career, great family, great butt.
Then email came along, and laptops, and smartphones — enabling today’s 24/7 work culture — and now supermom lives in a van down by the river, slowly eating her shoulder pads for supper. In 2012, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” became the most-read story on Atlantic.com, written by a woman who landed a top job in the State Department only to return to her family two years later, a depleted victim of our loser-take-all work culture that reserves its greatest rewards for those willing to sacrifice everything.
Now it’s dad’s turn. With more of us spending more hours with our kids — nearly three times the average from 50 years ago — while working more, too, we’re discovering the outer limits of both ambitions. Many more men are reporting work-family conflict than in the 1970s; in fact, some 60 percent of men claim to feel the pinch — compared with 47 percent of women who say they feel it.
Men are still celebrated for putting work over family: Brett Favre playing the night after his father died, ballplayers taking the field as their wives give birth. Last year, a New York Mets infielder took a couple days off for his baby’s birth and was ripped by talk radio for not “getting his [rear end] back to the team.” Because hitting a ball is important business.
Expectant fathers quietly query their coworkers, clandestine dads whispering over email, how long they took off after their kids’ births — no one wants to be the one asking for too much. Even in Sweden, where parents can share 16 months of paid leave, the government is set to make three months mandatory for men in 2016, otherwise the guys would hardly take any.
But the macho police work both sides of the street: Men have told me to suck it up, that I’m entitled and self-obsessed and probably going to be divorced, when I’ve suggested that all spouses could use a break from baby once in a while. Declaring your love of housework — “It’s a Zen thing for me,” one guy recently commented in Mother Jones — is the new flag pin of fatherhood, even though women have always said it’s terrible (that’s why they’ve asked for our help). Superdads don’t complain.
It’s this all-in attitude that arguably shaped our work culture, and it’s only getting worse — the average American, man or woman, now spends 10 percent more hours at work every year than a generation ago, and that doesn’t account for the emails at dinner and the texts at the stoplight. We’re afraid of losing a deal, a client, a sense of power, and instead we’re losing perspective.
My daughter did catch the bug, of course, and now she’s coughing and vomiting, drowning in phlegm and unable to eat for long, as though all her pipes were clogged. But she smiles at me anyway, the yuck still on her face. There’s nothing super about it — it’s a simple matter of location, of geography, of being in one place and not another.
So in the fall, I’m turning in my cape. I’ll take up to two days off a week from work to spend at home with my daughter. I’ll miss meetings and emails, and someone else will take whatever credit I leave on the table. But to step outside my own perspective, my own ego — that’s the reason I became a father. And I can only succeed in that if I climb out of my rut, if I decide where to be from one hour to the next based on something other than habit, the work life I’ve always known. To be in one place, with her, and not another.
Tim Gihring is a former editor of Minnesota Monthly magazine. His reporting and essays have appeared in Best Food Writing, Fodor’s, Salon, and newspapers around the world. He authored the Star Tribune's Debut Dad blog last spring.