The ballfields I stroll across on my way home from work were crowded with 6-year-olds the other day. Tee-ball season is in full swing, and parents in shorts and sneakers sat in lounge chairs and cheered on their kids. It was 6:30 P.M., and I was just getting home. The parents in lounge chairs had been home for some time.
My daughter is just two years away from tee-ball eligibility, which means I’m two years away from being a tee-ball parent. And, barring anything that cruel fate may have in store, I’ll be there, decked out in sneakers and shorts at 6:30 P.M., imploring young Kate to keep her eye on the ball, to follow through when she throws and–just to teach her a few lessons about the global marketplace she will inherit–to run over the catcher if that’s what it takes to score the winning run.
Luckily for me, I work for a humane organization run by two menschen , to wit, Arthur L. Carter and Peter W. Kaplan. When the Lord in His/Her wisdom distributed that portion of the male mind which manifests itself in demands that employees prove their worth by working serflike hours, Messrs. Carter and Kaplan were dining together at Gino. But I can tell you this: If I plan to be coaching my daughter at 6:30 P.M. in two years, I can forget about my well-crafted plans to depose Mr. Kaplan and his career-path-blocking allies whose names appear above mine on the masthead, mocking me and my lowly middle-management status. And I may as well abandon Plan B, which would have had me leading an assault on the Condé Nast Building to demand affirmative action for native-born American editors (starting, of course, with me). Tee-ball trumps coup attempts and dreams of snazzy magazine jobs. Serious parenting does not, never did and never will square with serious professional ambition.
Joyce Purnick, the well-respected metro editor of The New York Times , finds herself under assault for speaking a plain truth that few people, for reasons best known to themselves, wish to hear. In the course of a commencement address at Barnard College, she said she would not have scaled the Gray Lady’s greasy pole if she had had to attend to the needs, wishes and desires of children. “If I had left The Times to have children and then come back to work a four-day week the way some women reporters on my staff do, or taken long vacations or leaves to be with my family, or left at 6 o’clock instead of 8 or 9–forget it,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am.”
As revelations go, this should have been akin to Ms. Purnick announcing that if she had not learned to read and write, she would not have gotten far in the newspaper trade. (Insert joke here.) Oh, but the outrage! Ms. Purnick was denounced as a betrayer of working mothers. Petitions were drawn up; meetings were scheduled. Cokie and Steve Roberts, Inc., took a few minutes off from the rigors of self-promotion to spit out a column assuring us that they were really good parents, even if they had a dozen jobs between them. (Seamus Heaney once observed that when you’re a parent, you don’t–or shouldn’t–look back with complete satisfaction at a job well done. Ah, but Mr. Heaney is one of them there poets, not the sort of person Roberts Inc. would come across while collecting speaking fees from corporate lobbyists.)
I don’t doubt for a minute that Ms. Purnick speaks the truth, and I’m glad she was brave enough to say it. But I wish she had kept her observations gender-neutral, for I know plenty of fathers who understand that they won’t realize their ambitions, or reach the heights of their chosen professions, because they have to–want to–be on a ballfield in shorts and sneakers at 6:30 P.M. A friend of mine–a father–and I were consoling each other recently as we both turned down invitations to a nifty literary party on the Upper West Side. We’d have loved to go; we’re both in the book-writing business; and we’re convinced (wrongly perhaps) that attendance at such gatherings would assure us of wider notice, louder buzz and enriched contracts. But there were ball games to coach and stories to be read and, most important, work-at-home spouses awaiting much deserved relief.
Regrets? On occasion. But I wouldn’t change anything, except maybe the starting time of those swanky literary parties (hey, cocktails at 5 o’clock would get me home in time to read two or three thrillers from A.A. Milne and perform that critical end-of-the-evening diaper change). Sappy though it sounds, I believe whatever personal advantages might come of a cocktail-party chat with, say, a well-placed multimedia executive with options to spread around, they are nothing when compared with tee-ball lessons at 6:30 P.M.
Ms. Purnick is right about the sacrifices of parenting. But it has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with priorities. Some people (especially hard-driving, workaholic, I-did-100-hours-last-week-how-about-you? fathers) would rather not see it that way.