David Frum July 21st, 1998 at 12:00 am
A modern conundrum, from the New York Times:
Alice Hector is a very successful lawyer at a high-powered firm in Miami. She had two children by her first marriage. After it broke up, she took the advice that feminists nowaday often give to older, richer women: she remarried a man eight years younger (she’s now 53, he’s 45) and considerably less ambitious than herself. The husband, Robert Young, gave up his job in New Mexico to follow her across the continent and become a house-husband. They had two children of their own. Hector slaved to earn a US$ 300,000 income — working 60-hour weeks, seldom coming home for dinner and travelling as many as 100 days out of 365.
You can probably already sense how this little tale will end. The feminist advice Alice Hector followed turned out badly as feminist advice so often does. Her husband had an affair and the marriage broke up. He sued for custody of the girls, now aged nine and 12, and for child support and alimony. Last month a Florida appeals court found in his favor.
Hector versus Young exposes the central contradiction in our contemporary ideas about the family. On the one hand, most of us nowadays applaud the mother who works hard and succeeds in the business world. Why should a mother lose her kids because she’s an executive and her husband can’t hold down a job?
On the other hand, most of us also espouse a commitment to the ideal of gender neutrality. Women, we say, can be anything men can be: litigators, cops, soldiers. Think of the curious new verb ‘to parent.’ We used to draw a distinction between ‘fathering’ a child (which meant conceiving it) and ’mothering’ a child (which meant tending to it). We don’t any more: nowadays mothers and fathers are supposed to be interchangeable.
But does it not follow that if women can do anything that men can do, then men can do anything that women can do? If we’re going to be gender neutral, we ought to agree with Young when he says, ‘dads can be moms too.’
U.S. feminists seem to be resolving the conundrum by taking Alice Hector’s side – in part because they fear and resent any suggestion that, as one of Hector’s allies put it, ‘women who are mothers should be home with their children,’ in part because feminists believe less in gender neutrality than in a kind of female nationalism: ‘my gender, right or wrong.’
By contrast, more tradition-minded Americans seem to be coming down on the father’s side, partly to spite the feminists, but also motivated by genuine horror at this case of the execu-mom gone berserk. One of Young’s witnesses says she saw Alice Hector working on a case during her daughter’s school play; Hector agrees she was working, but says she stopped while her child was on stage.
Indeed, it’s hard when looking at a case like this to rise above one’s own prejudices. Do you think an at-home dad is an inspirational pioneer on the frontier of liberation? Or do you think he should put down his dishrag and get a job? But consider this: the Hector-Young custody case was before the courts for more than two years. Divorce is never good, but the surest way to maximize its harm is to prolong the time the parties spend in court bashing each other over custody of the children.
But to reach decisions quickly, courts need simple, clear and easy-to-follow rules. In custody cases, there is only one such rule imaginable: custody should be awarded to the mother unless she is unfit to raise children: she’s a drug addict, she’s physically abusive, or she’s entered a relationship with a man or men from whom there’s reason to fear sexual molestation.
As states and provinces abandoned the old ‘mother wins’ child custody rule, they may have imagined they were achieving a bold new gender neutral utopia. In fact, they have turned every child custody case into a costly, futile search for perfect justice — weighing a father’s adultery against a mother’s inattention during a school play. No judge can ever delve deeply enough into the human heart to resolve that problem.
It’s perfectly understandable the Florida court of appeal was dismayed by Alice Hector. She incarnates almost everything that is wrong and selfish about modern women. (Modern men have vices all their own.) But she should have won her case all the same. And the ideal of gender neutrality that deprived her of her children should be rejected as chimerical and destructive.
Originally published in The Financial Post