Mom and Dad’s Reversal of Traditional Roles Working Well in SF Home

Here’s a piece about “role reversal.” (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/20/10). Specifically, it’s about a stay-at-home dad and a go-to-work mom in the San Francisco Bay area. It’s interesting for a couple of reasons. Of course the two are affluent; you can’t be any other way if one person opts out of work. So theirs is not a prescription for how to live unless you’re in or near their income bracket.

Paul Schwartz and Amy Wilson met at work. While their relationship doesn’t bear many hallmarks of romantic love, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve always suspected that a combination of good friendship, shared interests and practicality could form the basis of a stable male-female relationship as well as romantic love can. And it may be that in our world of gradually-changing gender roles, that’s what we’re headed for. Who knows? Paul and Amy have been together for 14 years.

Amy is a senior director of product strategy at Oracle and Paul has a law degree. But when little Malcolm arrived 4 1/2 years ago, the two immediately agreed that Paul would quit work entirely and be his stay at home dad. Apparently that works pretty well for both of them.

And that brings me to interesting thing number 1. Reading about parenthood these days, it’s easy to get the impression that raising a child is the next hardest thing to building the pyramids. Now, our grandparents would hoot in derision at that idea, but it’s become ingrained in our culture.

But you’d never know it by Paul. Here’s how Amy describes the slavery that is parenthood as practiced by him:

“If other men only knew what Paul does all day,” says Amy Wilson, 37, of her stay-at-home-with-the-child husband. “Basketball, golf, reading … they’d be really jealous.”

But Paul’s no slacker; he’s just a good, efficient dad.

But what about the hard stuff? Negotiating playdates, laundry … barbecues and beer in the park with his East Bay dads group?

And getting dinner on the table. “Paul’s a fantastic cook,” Amy raves, listing Paul’s signature gourmet dishes, none of which include packaged ramen.

See what I mean? “The hard stuff.” “Negotiating playdates, laundry.” That’s the hard stuff? What’s the easy stuff, getting a massage?

What’s also interesting is that Amy admits that cutting loose from the mommy role hasn’t been easy for her. She notices that she, solely because of her sex, is supposed to be “in the know” about all matters related to children. She’s also smart enough to know that that’s nonsense. In short, maternal gatekeeping isn’t her cup of tea and thank goodness for that.

The article is basically a feel-good piece. See how easily couples move into each others’ traditional roles? There’s nothing to it. And for Paul and Amy, that seems to be the truth. She earns plenty of money, he’s a great dad, both are satisfied by the arrangement and presumably Malcolm is healthy and happy. But for many people, stepping into the shoes of the other sex can be both hard and unsatisfying. It’s just not a personal choice they want to make or do a good job of if they try. But personal choices aren’t all there is to parenting arrangements; the law has something to say about them too.

So I wonder how happy Amy will be if Paul decides to split from her. Under current California law, he’d likely get primary custody if he wanted it. She’d get visitation, but, with a little ingenuity, he could do a lot to thwart that. She’d pay him a boatload of child support and spousal support. He’d surely get half of her pension too. That’s another way reversing sex roles can work. I wonder how Amy would feel about all that. I wonder what she thinks when she ponders the fact that Paul can accomplish all of that tomorrow if he so chooses. There’s not a thing in the world she could do about it if he did.

Paul and Amy look like a happy couple; they look productive and secure. Good for them. But it’s all based on their own goodwill. As long as they like each other, it works fine, but the law lurks in the background like a beast in a bad horror film; it can leap out at any moment and tear one of them to pieces. Role reversal or traditional roles – it doesn’t make much difference. As long as we have the laws we have, the best-intended parents can end up with nothing. We see that every day.

I hope Malcolm grows up in his current happy home. I hope Amy contributes to his care as much as she can and that he’ll grow to adulthood from a secure home with two loving parents. Once he’s out of the nest, maybe Paul will go back to law practice or some other worthy endeavor. But as it stands now, Amy, like countless fathers throughout the country, must see her connection to her child to be a tenuous one. It’s all based on her continuing good relationship with her mate, and that as we know, is a frail reed indeed.

It shouldn’t be that way, for her sake or for Malcolm’s.

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