On Paternity Leave And How Men Define Success

I’m a full-time stay-at-home dad. Is my ultimate paternity leave from academia disqualified from being called a “success” story? Does that depend on who defines the word? 

Paternity leave can be a tricky topic, as former football star Boomer Esiason recently discovered. Now a CBS analyst and WFAN radio show host, Esiason caused a firestorm when he criticized New York Mets’ second baseman Daniel Murphy for taking his paternity leave and missing Opening Day. He stated that Murphy should have insisted his wife have an elective C-section before the season: “Quite frankly, I would have said C-section before the season starts. I need to be at Opening Day. I’m sorry. This is what makes our money. This is how we’re going to live our life.”

He has since apologized, but the more I thought about it, I wondered: How could Esiason have such a gender blind spot? His own mother died when he was 7 years old, leaving his single father to raise him and his two sisters. Years later, Esiason’s son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, and Esiason became a powerhouse fundraiser and, ultimately, a spokesman for life insurance.

So how could such a seasoned “family man” be so off-base in his assumptions? It may be a question of language.

His “C-section” comments garnered (and deserved) scorn from both women and men. I was equally struck, however, by his additional comments about “success.” His criticism continued with how he felt Murphy should have been thinking about Opening Day: “This is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life. I’ll be able to afford any college I want to send my kid to because I’m a baseball player.”

This hit close to home for me. I was voted Most Likely to Succeed back in high school, earned a Ph.D. in English, taught at the University of Michigan, and then became a full-time stay-at-home dad (and now writer). Is my ultimate paternity leave from academia disqualified from being called a “success” story? Does that depend on who defines the word?

One of the strategies professors use to explore a text is to look at it from many critical perspectives. If we treat Esiason’s “text” this way, here are some possible interpretations:

A feminist critic would likely focus on how his comments take a woman’s body for granted, endorse a rigid male breadwinner vs. female caregiver model, and fortify the notion of oppressive “women’s work” that has kept male-domination in place for centuries.

A Marxist critic would likely argue that his denigration of “paternity leave” reinforces the dominant capitalist structure of American society in which paternity leave is unevenly available and frequently stigmatized as a way to police the social order and gender norms.

A psychoanalytic critic might be more forgiving of Esiason given the early death of his mother, which left his single father to raise the family. As a result, perhaps a breadwinner’s “success” became paramount in his unconscious, and thus his comments reflect a primal loss he never wants to see recur for any family.

A cultural studies critic would probably note the name “Boomer” and how Esiason’s conventional worldview still prevails among some Baby Boomers but is waning fast in Generation X and those younger.

While these four interpretations provide much food for thought, the most fruitful view might come from a deconstructionist critic, also known as a philosopher of language. Such a theorist would observe that when a term like “masculinity” gets redefined, as is clearly happening in American culture, so will terms like “success,” “paternity,” “women’s work,” and “men’s work.”

For example, Esiason links a child’s future “success” to a breadwinner’s paycheck, with little attention to bonding, family health, and other emotional contributions we now recognize as similarly important.

It might also help to establish more gender-neutral language to describe these issues—e.g. what if we treated “a birth in the family” as seriously as “a death in the family”? Perhaps a gender-neutral family “enhancement leave” could mirror “bereavement leave”? Granted, it should always remain the employee’s choice whether to utilize such policies, but renaming them might help destigmatize them.

One of the reasons Esiason’s C-section comments struck a nerve is that they naturalize the phrase “women’s work.” Sexist logic dictates that because women are the only ones who can be pregnant and breastfeed, “naturally” the work entailed cannot possibly involve men. Fortunately, most men today know that “men’s work” at these crucial family times involves more than waiting room cigars and the occasional errand for ice chips.

Another, more comical way of analyzing Boomer’s blunder might be through the lens of a film critic who specializes in baseball movies. He or she might point out that Esiason started as the Tom Hanks character in A League of Their Own exclaiming “There’s no crying in baseball!” Hanks chastises his female players; Esiason chastises fathers who won’t pressure their wives into elective C-sections and who want to soothe their crying newborns while missing three games of a 162-game season.

Once the backlash began, however, Esiason became a character in Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams. Instead of the baseball mantra “If you build it, they will come,” he realizes the nightmarish corollary: “If you say it, they will come…and give you your comeuppance.” Equally as frightening for Esiason might be the Major League Baseball soundtrack: “If you provide leave, they will take it!”

Ultimately, such a film theorist might find the moral of Esiason’s saga in an old baseball film titled The Bad News Bears. One of its most famous scenes features an offbeat Little League coach telling his players to never “assume” anything, since doing so will only “make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’” Now there’s a philosopher of language.

Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home dad with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is seeking an agent for a parenting memoir. Watch/read/listen to more of his work at www.vincentokeefe.com, Follow him on Twitter @VincentAOKeefe, or Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vincentokeefephd

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