As part of its coverage of Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington, the New York Times published a piece about the harried fathers of Montclair, New Jersey, who were forced to parent their children alone for a day while their wives marched for gender equality. The headline: “How Vital Are Women? This Town Found Out as They Left to March.”
“Routines were radically altered, and many fathers tried to meet weekend demands alone for a change,” NYT reporter Filip Bondy wrote in the article. The men’s responsibilities included shuttling their kids to “birthday parties, dance performances, swimming lessons, and lacrosse and indoor soccer practices,” and confronting the fact that “growling stomachs required filling on a regular basis.” When the mothers returned, “many fathers exhaled in relief.” Bondy also reported that on the day of the march, attendance at a local yoga studio was down 25 percent (whoa, women sure love their ladysports!) and the Starbucks was full—of men.
The article cast a bewildered, anthropologically inquisitive, peak-NYT gaze on the most mundane activities of parental life. Fathers reheated leftover pizza, dressed their children in winter coats, and played with their kids at parks—without help from their wives! This could have been a story about the life of any single parent, primary caregiver, or parent whose partner is away for a weekend. Almost every parent outside the 1 percent has days where he or she must parent, unremarkably, alone. But because the parents of Montclair were men who usually have women around, Bondy gave every banal duty of parenthood the weight of a superhuman feat.
That made the story both a laughable nonstory and a frustratingly retrograde envisioning of the American heterosexual home.
Alt. headline: Area men spend time with own children. https://t.co/B52fMvKT8d— Rainbow Rowell (@rainbowrowell) January 23, 2017
Shoutout to the brave men of Montclair who valiantly parented their own kids this weekend. You're the real heroes. https://t.co/NenRX4oi2J— Andi Zeisler (@andizeisler) January 23, 2017
Christina Onorati, who owns two independent bookstores in the New York area and lives in Montclair, told Slate the article was “the talk of the town” on Monday morning, and a lot of people are “stewing” about it. “The headline alone, ‘How vital are women?’—with a question mark—got my hackles up immediately,” she said. “Then, reading the article, I kept shouting lines to my husband, just flabbergasted that this was an actual article in the New York Times and not an Onion piece. I had to check the URL so many times to be sure. … The fact that an article would never be written about moms who take their kids to dance or sports or the playground was so clear to me.”
The upshot of Bondy’s angle was a portrait of mothers as de facto caregivers and fathers as bumbling helpers who balk at the housework that mounts when their wives leave town for a day. “By participating in the marches and highlighting the importance of women’s rights, the women also demonstrated, in towns like Montclair, their importance just by their absence,” Bondy wrote. Women who believe their importance extends beyond cleaning and caring for men’s children (and men who regularly parent and homemake on an equal basis with their wives) might read this article and wonder whether the New York Times had discovered a time-travel portal to the 1910s.
In fact, as Claudia Toth pointed out on Twitter, the trope recalled an anti–women’s suffrage meme that depicted unclean homes, unhappy children, and angelic men in shirtsleeves or aprons feeding infants—all inevitable adverse side effects of giving women the franchise.
Ariann Weitzman, a Montclair rabbi, attended the D.C. march with her husband. Both were taken aback by the Times article, which they read on their way home to New Jersey on Sunday. Weitzman, who told Slate the piece was “truly atrocious,” wrote a letter to the Times’ editor expressing her dismay:
As a mother of two young children in the Montclair area, I can assure you that Essex County, NJ is not occupying another dimension of the space-time continuum where fathers don’t know how to use a car seat or push a swing. Perhaps if your reporter would like to come any other Saturday of the year he could see the parks full of fathers (including single fathers and fathers partnered to each other and not to women) still pushing those same swings. As the only woman rabbi serving a synagogue in Montclair, I can also tell you that the concerns of Montclair women stretch beyond yoga, Starbucks, and pussy hats. Had you asked us, we would have been happy to share those concerns.
Thankfully, some Montclair parents chose not to participate in the Times’ hackneyed conceit. “Doing everything by myself all day long is not typical,” one father told Bondy, who wrote that the dad was “not so much complaining as stating a simple logistical fact.” Yes—in most two-parent homes, it is normal for both parents to share parenting duties. That doesn’t mean the dads will set the kitchen aflame or apply diapers inside out if left to their own devices for a day. “He was great, and there was no expectation he wouldn’t be,” Coyle’s wife told Bondy when she returned from the march. “He’s a parent, not a babysitter. The children are still alive.”
Onorati reiterated that point. “I was one of those women on the bus at 3:20 a.m. headed to D.C.,” she told me. “My husband took care of our three kids just fine, as he always does when I’m gone. It’s a nonissue.”
But Steve Politi, a sports columnist at the New Jersey Star-Ledger, had to miss a Rutgers men’s basketball game to take his two kids to play dates (Bondy called that act of outsourcing “cheating a bit”) and do a modicum of housework. “I did have to laugh at the irony of my wife marching for equality in New York while I was missing the game and cleaning out the refrigerator,” he said in the piece.
That’s not irony; it’s necessity. Women will not get the social, political, and financial equality they deserve while they still take on the large majority of household and parenting duties. And they do, all over the country, even when their male partners are unemployed. As long as women are still the default homemakers and caregivers—a reality perpetuated by the gender wage gap and policies that deny men paid family leave—they have less independence and energy to devote to personal lives, careers, and political advocacy. Think how many games Politi’s wife has had to miss while cleaning the refrigerator every other weekend of the year.
One of my favorite signs from the Women’s March was one that said, “Behind thousands of marching women here are thousands of supporting men back at home with the kids.” I dug this message, not because I believe fathers should be lionized for doing something that mothers and single parents of any gender do without public acclaim every single day, but because it nods to the logistical reality of many mothers’ lives. If they’re going to march—or have a demanding career, or pursue a musical talent, or have time to devote to their own interests—they need someone to mind the kids.
In today’s America, progressive and equitable though many marriages may be, the average mother doesn’t get that kind of equal parenting from her male partner. In that way, taking care of a woman’s kids so that she can go to the march may be an even better way for men to support gender equity than going to the march themselves. The personal is political, and gender equality in public life begins in the home. Women need men to show up for them, but women also need them to stay home. That doesn’t mean they deserve a gold medal ceremony, or a Times profile, when they do.