“Pretend I’m Dead,” I Tell Him

Over the last three decades, women have won many legal victories in the public sphere but in our private lives, we remain miles away from gender equality.

Nevertheless, if my children’s generation of thirtysomethings are representative of young, educated, middle-class, Jewish, heterosexual, cohabiting couples (what a mouthful), we are witnessing a seismic change in at least one area of domestic life—fathering.

Both my sons-in-law, Edward and Dave, are intensely involved in their children’s lives (each has two kids under the age of three), not because of some theoretical commitment to equality but as a gut-level, spontaneous, ongoing expression of love. My daughters, Robin and Abigail, work full time, and when they get home they’re just as tired as their husbands and just as eager to spend time with their kids. These daddies know the routine as well as the mommies, and they swing into gear without those maddening questions that make women feel we might as well be doing it ourselves. (“Where are the diapers/forks/shampoo?”)

Abigail and Robin appreciate their husbands but don’t make a federal case out of every caring gesture. Having been well-fathered themselves, they take this behavior for granted. From my husband Bert’s example they’ve gleaned an ideal of good fathering that extends far beyond a man’s willingness to watch TV with his kids or shout, “Great catch!” on the weekends. It presupposes a thorough hands-on familiarity with the minutia of his children’s lives.

To test for this elusive quality, ask all the dads you know: Can you name your kids’ three closest friends; their most and least favorite book, toy, food, activity; their shoe sizes? Do they ever call your name when they wake up in the night? When was the last time you comforted them when they cried? What’s the longest period of time you’ve spent alone with your child without the buffer of their mother’s presence or the distraction of an outside event?

Though my husband’s fathering style was rather remarkable for our generation, it’s quite commonplace among our children’s peers for whom the ideology of egalitarian childrearing roles is one of feminism’s most meaningful legacy. Unfortunately, the workplace and other social institutions have not kept pace with this change, so it’s still hard for fathers to take parental leave or otherwise integrate their family responsibilities into their work lives. But young men are trying. And young women are ceding the emotional power that used to accrue to mothers almost automatically.

This doesn’t mean that everything in the domestic sphere is perfectly egalitarian. In our house, for instance, my husband can still say in a surprised tone, “Hey, there’s no milk!” And my sense is that young women are still hearing similar exclamations from the men in their lives which suggests that, though guys may be willing to share the household tasks, the responsibility of remembering and noticing still falls predominantly on us.

What to do about it? Sometimes, when my husband becomes domestically challenged I like to reply, “Pretend I’m dead,” by which I mean, “If I weren’t around, you’d notice the milk was running low.” But the truth is he probably wouldn’t. I tend to notice such things and he doesn’t—until he hankers after a bowl of Cheerios, encounters a milk-less fridge and has to eat the cereal dry.

Unless I were to mount a campaign of not-noticing (which I’m congenitally incapable of doing), it will continue to be Old Supermom who remembers, makes the lists and issues the instructions—as I’ve done for the last 36 years—while my husband holds up his end by cheerfully doing whatever I ask. This may not add up to perfect symmetry, but when all else is functioning well in a marriage, and when a woman’s heart is warmed by her husband’s fathering, even the most rabid feminist learns to compromise. 

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. and the author of eight books including Deborah, Golda and Me. She is at work on her first novel.