Mr. Mom, circa 2010

September 11, 2010

I was waiting for an elevator a few weeks ago when a little boy standing next to me, maybe three years old, unleashed an eardrum shattering belch, a burp so loud it could peel paint.

His mother glanced at me, embarrassed, and admonished him to say "excuse me."

For a moment, this befuddled me. My daughter and I were just leaving the pediatrician's office for her four-month checkup, and that performance, as the father of an infant, had struck me as something meriting the highest praise. When they say fatherhood changes your perspective, they're not kidding.

This week was my first back at work after two months of paternity leave. From the 4th of July through Labor Day, Isabel and I spent pretty much every waking moment together, going for walks, reading "Where the Wild Things Are," jamming to Raffi. She ate, she slept, she drooled. She got strong enough to hold her head up, to roll from her back to her front and, occasionally, the other way. She started on solid food, learned to laugh and took to wrapping her arms around my neck when I carried her upstairs.

By the end of our time together, I'd firmly concluded that this Mr. Mom business was something I could get used to.

The thought prompted me last weekend to Netflix the 1983 Michael Keaton comedy that coined the term. In case you don't remember the plot, his character, Jack, loses his job as an automotive engineer. It's the Reagan recession and times are tough, so his wife, Caroline (played by Teri Garr), sends out her resume on the off chance that she would find a job first. Jack is incredulous, but next thing you know, Caroline is off to work at an ad agency, and he's at home with their three kids. Hilarity ensues.

How much did Jack's early '80s experience resemble mine in 2010? Not much. It's surely true that women still do more to run America's households than men do, but I doubt you'd find many men today who are quite so clueless as Jack was. Most guys today, I'm guessing, could at least successfully navigate the deli counter at the supermarket.

But beyond the pratfalls of Jack's ineptitude at using the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine, the heart of the movie is about the ennui and isolation he feels as his months at home drag on, and as Caroline climbs steadily up the corporate ladder. He grows a beard. He gets fat. He watches The Young and the Restless.

This was not a problem I had. True, I wore long pants and shoes with laces maybe three times all summer, but I did shave every day. I read a lot — everything from Faulkner to that Girl-With-Dragon-Tattoo book everybody was talking about (not bad) — and anyway, TiVo obviates the need for soap operas. Izzy grew quite fond of NPR, and I had the luxury of dashing off an editorial anytime I got annoyed by Martin O'Malley or Bob Ehrlich or both.

"Mr. Mom" does hold up well in some ways. It takes place in Detroit, and all the jokes about the impossibility of getting a job in that town are pretty familiar. In other ways, not so much. A major subplot involves Caroline convincing the CEO of a company that sells tuna fish to appear in ads saying he will cut 50 cents off the price of every can because "we're all in this together" during the recession. And Jack's ex-boss eventually gets in trouble for firing too many people. This is not exactly the corporate America of the 21st century.

But perhaps the biggest anachronism is the film's conclusion. Despite her success and his eventual acclimation to the ways of househusbandry, Caroline quits her job, Jack gets his back, and everything returns to normal. It's hard to imagine a movie ending that way today.

Or maybe not. Before I left work in July, everyone asked me if I was going to be bored. My wife is in her final year of internal medicine residency at Bayview, a job much more taxing than mine, but nobody asked her that before she went on leave.

For the record, I wasn't bored. Not for a second. Spending all that time with Izzy, getting to know her every sound and gesture, turned out to be the best summer of my life. I know that when she gets older, she won't have any memory of it, but I'll remember every minute.

—Andrew A. Green

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