The Wifework of Empathising with Absentee Fathers’ Struggles

Perhaps it’s inevitable that, the same week the Guardian decide to publish a moving, impressive tribute to two young men publicising the toxic and predictable effects of violent masculinity, they’d also ruin all that good work by printing this piece, to destroy my ever-fragile faith in the male of the species.

(Kidding. I love men, me, and I think it’s totally important to keep saying that.)

Julian Furman, the author of the piece that so irritates me, nobly explains his history. ‘I … pressured my wife to start a family,’ he blithely explains, as if ‘pressuring’ someone to risk their health for nine months is a perfectly normal marital dynamic and not something to feel deeply ashamed of doing. But Furman seems to imagine this admission will endear him to readers, coming (as it does) hot on the heels of an overwritten depiction of how he tried to punch his father who, it seems, committed the crime of being concerned about his son’s emotional health. After a lengthy whinge about how awful it is not to be the centre of attention when you have a newborn, and how terrible it must be to actually have to do some of the childcare instead of living separately from your family and calling it ‘sacrifice’, Furman ends with an impassioned plea: men need to be heard. Silence is deadly. To begin, all that is required is for us to talk.

(Except, you know, if it’s your concerned dad trying to talk. If that’s the case, then punch the compassionate shite for trying to initiate a conversation – the bastard!)

Furman’s piece is oozing with self-pity and contradictions, it’s true. And it’s also true, I have to say, that he’s right when he says that reactionary views of masculinity (only he calls them ‘society’s views) are damaging to men as well as women. But what struck me, in this piece passionately if inconsistently defending the importance of open communication, is what is not said.

Furman describes his descent into resentment in terms that sketch out a very large negative space, a very obvious tacit truth that fills his casual omissions. Fathers, we’re told, suffer from the horror of being cast, not as the main actor, but as ‘the best friend in that movie you forget as soon as the credits roll: the support act to fill in the blanks, clean up the mess, do the dishes off-screen’.

I couldn’t help but suspect that, in Furman’s movie, that main actor role was filled, not only by the baby, but also by the other person who cleans up the mess and does the dishes – his child’s mother. I can tell this, because apparently, these are struggles to be understood in terms of ‘the patriarch’ and not ‘the parents’; struggles to be related to his wife’s exhaustion, and not to the baby’s demands.

But, within this daily grind, tell-tale cracks appear. In prose wistfully sighing after Nick Hornby (an unattractive prospect if there ever were one), we’re told of the bottles of scotch lining up on the fridge, the drunken evenings Furman spent out with his dad, the nights passed sitting in parks and on park benches, ‘spaces shared with the homeless and drug-addicted, waiting for time to pass and the pain to end’.

It’s horrific, I’m sure – right until you remember that, in the midst of all of this, Furman’s wife was presumably sitting at home with a newborn baby wonder where the fuck her lazy-arse husband had wandered off to, and why he was leaving her to look after the baby while he chose to get blind drunk and spend their money on booze.

I used to read articles like this, and be filled with feminist fury. I used to condemn people like Furman for their fecklessness, their casual pride in their entitlement, their lazy refusal to do even a fraction of the childcare, and their whiny, self-centred certainty that the worst problem in the world must be people not listening enough to middle-class white men. But a year ago, my partner got pregnant. Three months ago she had a baby. And I got to see what it’s like to feel as if society is treating you as the bumbling idiot second parent whose every attention should be focussed on the capable birth mother. It does feel odd when you’re tired and sleep deprived and emotional, and everyone is asking you anxiously whether or not your partner is ok. It does feel depressing when you’re both exhausted. And it certainly feels frustrating when (and this is an experience Furman presumably doesn’t share) you encounter people who seem to believe you’re somehow both experiencing a cushy maternity leave, and enjoying unprecedented freedom to get back to work exactly like a man.

But what I can’t share with Furman is his absolute, unthinking, unquestioning focus on himself – or his male peers – as the tragic heroes in this one-sided drama. Despite claiming that men become supporting actors in their babies’ early childhood, Furman seems unable to grasp what it might actually mean to take second place to another person – and yet, that’s what’s expected of mothers every day. Furman seems unaware that, for every male parent experience he describes, there is a corresponding female parent, too. He describes – in a tone of high moral outrage – the mother who asked her partner to stay out of the bedroom, as ‘the baby can’t sleep when you’re here’. Yes, terrible. An awful expulsion for a grown man, and no doubt a bit of a sting to feel you can’t even soothe your own baby to sleep. But, at the same time, that’s a story of a woman who is doing the entire night on her own with a baby, a woman whose partner gets a full night’s sleep. Why doesn’t the baby settle when the dad is there? It’s simply not explored. The crucial thing is that dad didn’t get to be in the marital bed. Another man, we’re told ‘took to sleeping in the office to avoid going home’. The poor dear. What a selfish wife he must have had, who was doing round-the-clock care for a baby while her husband chose to absent himself. Another again, ‘closed the door on his life and began again’. Those heroic dads, beginning again.

This article isn’t entirely wrong in its diagnosis of a societal problem with masculinity and fatherhood, nor is it wrong to suspect that we communicate better and more frequently with the parent who gives birth. But its author writes as if he believes that the solution to men who leave their wives to do the lion’s share of childcare, who get drunk and violent, who physically absent themselves from their babies’ homes, is … more emotional support for men. It’s hard not to notice that the healing skills Furman demands are skills typically stereotyped as womanly: listening, empathising, talking. Sure, they’re outsourced (in his case) to a therapist (because, it seems it would be practically unmanly to talk to your own father when he offers). But they’re the skills Furman’s wife – exhausted, overcome – can’t seem to muster up. And, like many a middle-class woman seeking out a cleaning lady to stave off endless battles over which full-time-worker parent should hoover, Furman’s wife sought out a therapist for him. She researched the options, she narrowed down the candidates, she even wrote down the number for him. Furman acknowledges his wife’s exhaustion. But, he suggests, this was only a problem so long as she failed to perform the wifework of empathy and listening, and the lasting issue he identifies is not her unaddressed exhaustion, but his mitigated ‘resentment’.

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