Slate’s reprinted a gorgeous illustration of Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s speech to the 1990 graduates of Kenyon College by the artist Gavin Aung Than. And while the whole meditation on living a creative life — or really, pursuing any sort of professional dream — is well worth heeding, I wanted to pull out one part of it and discuss the particular way Than illustrates it, both of which raise larger issues that are well worth a longer conversation.
“A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children,” Watterson noted,” is considered not to be living up to his potential.” I’m sure that choice of pronouns is deliberate. And Than illustrates that sentiment with images of a male cartoonist who’s supported by his wife as he works late at night on his passion project, who embraces his wife’s pregnant belly, who waves his wife off to work after their daughter is born — and whose daughter’s intervention at a critical moment, by means of a rubber dart gun, provides a powerful reminder to her father to stick to his artistic ambitions rather than settling for compromised commercial success. In other words, it’s a powerful alternate vision of what it might look like to have it all.
The conversation about work, family, and feminism has often been enormously reductive when the phrase “having it all” enters the dialogue. It’s not just that the phrase itself is exceptionally limited, or that even in that crabbed form, it’s relevant mostly to the concerns of affluent, often white, women, rather than women of color for whom the decision to continue working is a matter of survival rather than personal fulfillment. But the conversation also has a tendency to exclude men, their role in the decisions women make, and the fact that men have never been anywhere close to having the sort of comprehensive experience of work and family life that’s set up for women as a necessary achievement.
I’ve been lucky enough to know a number of men in creative professions who are presently, or who have previously been, the primary caretakers for their children, and who have derived a great deal of pleasure from that arrangement, as well as gaining a degree of flexibility that’s helped them pursue their careers. The idea that they might be seen as lesser for this arrangement, which has been beneficial and rewarding for them on two levels, feels ludicrous to me. But as Marc Tracy wrote in The New Republic, conversations about these setups remain rather new among the men of his acquaintance: “Recently, in many cases inspired by the women in our lives and the conversation they are having among themselves, we have begun to question whether our most basic priorities aren’t out of whack, and to wonder whether, for reasons both social and surprisingly biological, we shouldn’t be as “ambitious” to have children as we are to land the next great job. Plus, having had children, many of us hope to play a more active role in their upbringing than has typically been expected of fathers.”
Watterson raised the kind of criticism and anxieties men like Tracy might face more than twenty years ago. Than’s illustration of that speech is a lovely reminder of how much men and women who are in the fortunate position to choose to have one parent stay home if they choose have to gain when those conversations about the arrangement they’ll make are about discerning what’s best for both partners, rather than about fulfilling arbitrary gender roles.