When Michael Lewis’s new parenting memoir, Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, arrived in the office, we snatched it up. The author of the glorious baseball book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2004), and the prophetic Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street (1990), is one of America’s leading non-fiction writers. As followers of his work for Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine know, he’s funny and smart and, we realized flipping through Home Game, totally living in the dark ages.
The book (based on his “Dad Again” Slate column) is elegantly written, frequently funny, and yet at times shockingly old-fashioned. Lewis talks about how much he resents having to do women’s work, what a dope he is when it comes to kid mysteries like the swim diaper, and how men have been conned by women into doing their part in this whole child rearing thing.
We were aghast. And so we called to talk to both him and his wife, the MTV reporter-turned fine art photographer Tabitha Soren, about how couples today balance the work of raising kids and making money. Hilarious bickering ensued. At the end of the interview, Lewis said, “Thanks for exploring our psyche. We don’t do therapy, but you’re the next best thing.”
It was our pleasure! – Ada Calhoun
I was taken aback by some of the things in the book, like, if I can read you one quote: “At some point in the last few decades the American male sat down at the dining room table with the American female, and let us be frank, got fleeced.” I was shocked by that, because when I look it our generation, it seems like men are happy to play their part.
Michael: Ah, well, you must know different men than me.
I think I do.
Michael: Bear in mind that most of the men I’m surrounded by are in Berkeley, California. So, the men I know are very much in the left end of the spectrum. Relatively highly involved dads. On the one hand, it is completely true that there are a lot of men who take great satisfaction in being involved in the minutiae and messiness of actually raising children. But, it is a much smaller universe of men who take any pleasure in the newborn stage. Men, I think, tend to engage once they start to be able to play with the thing and talk to it and have some kind of communication.
But, even so, there is just a wealth of bitching and moaning about the responsibility that I hear and it never really gets voiced. In the universe I’m talking about it’s men who are potentially breadwinners at the same time that they are having all these new caretaking responsibilities and they don’t have a real mental model to use. This is something that’s obviously been changing over the last few decades, and even a man in Berkeley who had his first child today might find himself in a different climate than I did, even ten years ago.
But I do think that there is just enormous friction about who is supposed to do what. I think, actually, that when men are made to do things they don’t want to do, like take care of a child, which they assumed the mother was going to take care of – I think they can get enormous rewards from it, but nevertheless it can be messy getting to that place.
Tabitha: Well, this should be put into some sort of context, both in terms of the book and in terms of the temperament of the hypothetical child. There are realities. Our first child was very far away from the Buddha baby, incredibly demanding – and still is, frankly. So that changes your approach to newborn life entirely. There are people who have easier children that it would probably be more fun to take care of. That was not our situation. In addition, in the book, there are certainly a lot of quotes in there that are not politically correct and aren’t going to make us a lot of friends in Berkeley. But I feel like the book is balanced out by other thoughts about how he’s very quick to feel sorry for himself. If it was just him talking about how men are getting fleeced, I think it would be a really hard thing for most people to stomach. But I think that you watch his emotional state change. It goes up and down and up and down throughout.
Michael: The broader point, to get back to the quote you pulled out, is that there’s sort of this deal that goes on between couples and it used to be – I mean we’re going back to what you would regard as the dark ages, thirty years ago – universal and understood. And the absence of a deal, a universal deal, has wreaked chaos in relationships. I mean, it is unbelievable to me how sensitive an issue it is amongst couples – how much parenting the dad does or the mom does. It may be that you know lots of couples where everybody’s doing half the work outside the house to generate income and exactly half the work raising children, but I don’t know a lot of couples like that. In every relationship I know, there are these imbalances and these imbalances lead to enormous friction, most of which is never spoken. You get it out with your friends when you meet with them for a drink, but basically, people hide it.
I wonder how much of it is the pressure of being the breadwinner. We just ran a story about a woman who really resented her stay-at-home husband because she was making the money and here she was having to toil away at this job she was increasingly dissatisfied with. And at the same time, she found herself cleaning up the house and scheduling the doctor’s appointments and she found herself really resenting him.
Tabitha: Most of the women I know who are the main breadwinners are also the people who are doing all the 1950s defined domestic chores as well, like the stuff you just listed. So that’s sort of just piling on. I don’t know dads who work all day and then complain that they’re also the ones who have to clean up the whole house, and make the doctor’s appointments. I don’t see men multi-tasking in that way. They have one job description and that’s fine and then they get to play and be fun with the kids.
Michael: So, what you’re saying is that when men become stay-at-home dads they completely screw it up?
No, certainly not. The writer was saying that her husband was doing a really good job with the kids. It was just that everything that she had to do that was extra to being a breadwinner, she resented.
Michael: That is not the way, probably, most men feel right now, but it would have been the way men felt thirty years ago. They would have expected this other part to be taken care of. So, if you’re a man now having children, your model is a father who thought that anything extra that he did was slightly a nuisance. Which gets to a larger point of how much of raising children is shit work. Some part of it is wonderful, right? There’s a really fun part of it. But I am dragged kicking and screaming into the shitty parts. Every time, basically. I think maybe in some ways I’m a horrible person, but I don’t think I’m that unusual. That’s my point.
“One thing I find very funny about parenthood is how deceitful it is.”I think it’s funny that there’s an assumption that women love the hard parts.
Michael:Well, that’s a really good point.
Tabitha: That’s baloney. Nobody loves it.
Michael: Nobody loves it. And also, it is really unseemly to complain about it, because you were the one who screwed up and had the children in the first place. So what right do you have to complain about those roles? I’ll tell you one thing I find very funny about parenthood is how deceitful it is. I found that if I didn’t write down exactly how I felt and exactly what had happened within twenty-four hours of what I felt and how it had happened, I was already lying about it. It has actually become one of the litmus tests in friendship for me: will they be honest about all this? When you lie about it, you go around saying, “Oh, everything about kids is just wonderful!”
Tabitha: “Such a blessing.”
Michael: And that makes it so much easier to dump all the shit work on Tabitha, because I’m saying it’s not shit work. You have to basically just face up to the fact that some large part of this is not pleasant and that’s not exactly something that gets told before you have them. Because everybody’s lying to you.
Since the book, have you had an epiphany about how you divide things up? Are you doing charts or something?
Tabitha: Oh God, no. We can’t even do star charts with the kids, let alone each other.
Michael: I would say there’s a lot less conflict. But I’m not sure why. I think basically we’ve just sort of grown used to doing it together. There’s still conflict but . . .
Tabitha: That’s a lie! The reason that we have less conflict is that we happen to have Mary Poppins.
Michael: Well, there you go. That’s true. We have a nanny.
Tabitha: Amy! She struggles over some of the same things that I do. So it makes me feel like I’m maybe not crazy when my nine-year-old is driving me up the wall or I feel like my six-year-old is lying. I have somebody to either commiserate with or celebrate with. Michael is a really energetic parent and he’s engaged and gets involved in the things that he cares about, but I don’t feel alienated because we have this other person in our family who is very engaged in some of the drudgerous stuff. And, for that matter, she really appreciates all of the stuff I do in the way that one might want a husband to appreciate . . .
“Don’t be afraid to throw money on the problem.”
Tabitha: I mean, she wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. So I have to be grateful to him too, which is kind of a 1950s point of view. There’s enough of my life that’s very 2009 that I’m comfortable with some of it being 1950s.
So the moral for people who are struggling with their marriages is-
Tabitha: Buy your way out of the problem. Don’t be afraid to throw money on the problem.
Michael: So let’s get down to basic responsibilities. I cook breakfast for them every morning.
Tabitha: Like, elaborate breakfasts.
Michael: I tend to put them to bed if I’m home, if I’m in town, read books, sometimes at great length. I drive them to school once a week, twice a week, whatever I can fit into the schedule. Right now, the two girls are in a softball league and one of them has ten hours of softball practice and games a week. I’m her head coach. And the other one has two hours and every Saturday and I’m her assistant coach. So, when you pile all of that up, it ends up being twenty to twenty-five hours a week of one-on-one stuff. It’s a lot of time. And it creates enormous pressure in my life. Because there’s no way my work life is suited to parenting. My work life is essentially obsessive. I have to write books and books are obsessive things. There’s a lot of stress and give-and-take in all of this. And suffering. I think that suffering is actually really good for the relationship with the kids. It’s just got to be controlled, and to control it we have this thing called the nanny.
So if you can’t afford Mary Poppins, the secret is to revel in the suffering? What’s your advice for the poor?
Tabitha: Everyone’s happier if they have choices, so you have to figure out a way to have some choice in your life for both partners.
Michael: I would say there was nothing as horrible as just having one infant home from the hospital, with just the two of us to take care of it. Those first three months of parenthood were absolutely traumatizing.
Are you worried about having the kids read the book?
Michael: I read parts in the making to them in their classrooms at school, and they got enormous pleasure out of it. Quinn picked it up and after about ninety seconds put it down and said, “I can’t read this daddy, there are too many bad words.” I think the truth is they will take no real interest in it until they’re old enough to be more amused by it. I’m actually not going to write about them – I seriously doubt – ever again. I’m so glad that they have this little artifact from a period of their lives that normally gets completely forgotten and washed away.
Tabitha: Undoubtedly our actions as parents over time will put them into therapy as adults, but I don’t think that this book will be the main reason.