“A man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex more than half a century ago. But at the turn of the millennium, a woman would—and then she’d prod a guy to get busy on it. “I wanted this book to happen,” Cathi Hanauer, the editor of the best-selling The Bitch in the House (subtitled 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage), writes in the preface to The Bastard on the Couch (27 Men Try Really Hard To Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom). Her wish was her husband’s command. After all, as Daniel Jones writes in his editor’s introduction, “if we men want to keep ourselves in the game, I say we had better be more charming. If we can’t make ourselves indispensable to family life, we had better find a way to be useful or at least amusing.”
More charming, but not chumps: The contributors Jones has corralled to do some soul-searching don’t want to be mistaken for “Sensitive New Age Guys” in the mid-1980s mold—wimps who “would stand up and profess to have lopped off whatever offending organ had stood in the way of [their] ascension to Better Fatherhood, Better Husbandhood, Better Manhood,” as one essayist remembers writers clamoring to do in the New York Times’ “About Men” columns back then. The current recruits (age 28-64) aren’t earnestly endorsing the ideal of androgyny—or even equality. These guys, dismissed as “so hapless and bumbling” by testy mates with Bitch bylines, do something more daring in our hectic era of role upheaval: They embrace variety and uncertainty.
“See, all women are like this. I’m not the only one who feels this way,” Hanauer exclaimed to Jones as she edited the frazzled multitaskers in The Bitch lineup. For the female veterans of the domestic confessional, the allure of this get-it-off-your-chest genre is just such “clicks” of recognition and the spirit of sisterly solidarity they generate. Harried micromanagers, guilty and angry and consumed by anxiety—by now, we’ve got the contemporary working mother’s psychological profile down pat, or as pat as any such emotional tangle could ever be. And I suspect The Bastard’s target audience (which, let’s face it, isn’t male) will turn to these essays for some matching formulas. But the truly useful (and often amusing) revelation of these essays is the opposite: The bumbling bastards are all over the map.
“Brothers in arms,” Jones calls his entourage at one point, but an aggrieved cohort with a common agenda is just what they don’t sound like. In part, that’s because it’s a quirky sample—a writerly crowd with irregular schedules and erratic salaries, often lagging behind their “hard-charging” partners’ pace and paychecks. But you might expect the experience of just such men, forging their unscripted way, to provide a cutting-edge portrait of the masculine predicament—an ideal window on the shifting gender and power dynamics at work in our post-feminist era. Do men feel they’ve failed to live up to “their end of the egalitarian promise”? Or do they think they’re getting the raw deal? When “everything’s suddenly up for grabs,” as one of them puts it, do husbands and fathers feel marginalized, even tyrannized, overshadowed at work and undercut at home—the new Second Sex?
Listening to them “lay it bare,” you won’t come away with any “see, all men are like this” answers. To be sure, there are a couple of guys’-eye-view classics in the collection. Christopher Russell’s “My List of Chores,” one man’s protest against the he-can’t-be-trusted-with-simple-tasks attitude that is a bitch trademark, speaks for many, no doubt. In “The Lock Box” (recently excerpted in New York magazine), Sean Elder steps forth as the tell-all poster boy for the era that has discovered an epidemic of “sex-starved marriages.” His lament about how often that offending organ of his gets the brush-off offers up some pretty old-style sexist clichés in a spirit of new-age openness—a gossip-generating document for a muddled moment. “But without my resilient desire I sometimes wonder what our marriage would be,” he writes. “A book club?”
What’s striking about most of these essays, though, is their refusal to fall into line with each other, or with “new ideas of manhood” or with old ideas, and least of all with the assumption—hovering between the lines of the female version of the genre—that life at home, especially with children, was ever meant to run smoothly. When you get guys talking about these touchy-feely topics (which turns out not to be “really hard” after all), they don’t in fact agree on much. Where one man writes about how his wife faces “hell’s own revolving door of guilt over neglecting her work for her kids and vice versa—a kind of guilt that men … don’t feel,” another notes the opposite: His wife is “largely unburdened by the conflicts between career and home life that drive me.” There’s the husband with the increasingly “short fuse,” who marvels at his “naturally patient” wife. But there’s also an essay called “My Problem With Her Anger,” by a man struggling with his wife’s “general rage toward everything.”
For the one man who endorses the “buddy-dad role” and wishes mothers could “kick back” some more with the kids, there are two who favor a more traditional father-style: In a culture of “childhood-worshippers” and ever-so-understanding mothers, isn’t “retro fathering … good for kids? They need clear limits, right?” Several guys pay tribute to mothers as inherently more attuned nurturers, one sighing that women will always be men’s “domestic superiors.” But there are also hands-on dads who don’t focus on such distinctions; as they scramble, they reveal that proximity and individual personalities, far more than biology, are what set the tone and terms of family intimacy. One man, amazingly, stays home to raise four kids who aren’t even his own. Can you picture a stepmother these days selflessly devoted enough to do that?
“If men are good at anything, it’s pat solutions,” a contributor writes, invoking one of the oldest male stereotypes in the book as he advises stressed-out working mothers to “buck up.” He suspects women will bridle, and the truth is what’s bracing about this book is the way the guys—wittingly or not—keep undercutting reductive gender analysis. The bastards’ stories make clear that they know better than to believe in quick, across-the-board fixes. Nor do they seem to set much store by a one-size-fits-all diagnosis of the problem. There’s plenty of tinkering, not just talking, ahead for all us—and aren’t men famously good at that?