No one would have blamed Paul Ryan, the House Speaker and herder of legislative cats, if he had just said, “Screw it, I’m out.” Given that Congress is now a legislative body suffering from Cronenbergian malfunction, it would have been an unexpected, but ultimately suitable way to announce his intention to retire instead of participating in the coming bloodbath. But that’s not what Paul Ryan did. Instead, Ryan stood at a podium and offered a personal reason for wanting to leave his post as Speaker of the house.
“I have accomplished much of what I came here to do and my kids aren’t getting any younger,” Ryan told reporters. “If I stay, they’re only going to know me as a weekend dad and that’s just something I consciously can’t do. And that’s really it right there.”
This prompted a lot of questions from the press pool about a potential midterm swing, Republican fundraising, and internecine struggles. No one, unfortunately, thought to ask Ryan the more critical question: What the hell is a “Weekend Dad”? This is, perhaps, to be expected since “spending more time with my family” is so transparent a fig leaf, it largely goes unnoticed. Ryan, who first arrived in Washington back in 1999, was offering the oldest excuse in a very well-worn book for throwing up hands. Family time is the sandbag behind which everyone from Jason Chaffetz to Anthony Wiener has cowered.
But, in Ryan’s case (as in Wiener’s), the fig leaf is not quite getting the job done. That’s not to say the guy isn’t a family man. He definitely seems to be devoted to his wife and children. In 2014 — that’s a year before he became Speaker of the House — the Green Bay Press-Gazette documented Ryan’s flight patterns and found that he was home nearly every weekend the House was in session as well as weeks it was not. In 2015, before he took the House Speakership, he resisted for the same reasons. “I cannot and will not give up my family time,” he said, “Janna and I have children who are in the formative, foundational years of their lives.”
So it does seem that Ryan has long chafed at being away from his family for long stretches. In this, he’s not alone. According to the most recent State of America’s Fathers report, a full 46% of fathers feel they are not spending enough time with their children.
But there’s also something particularly irksome about Ryan’s superficially virtuous reasoning that bears examination. Ryan, on top of belonging to the top 5% of earners with a $225,500 salary, is in an immensely privileged position when it comes to having time to spend with their family. Congresspeople work just over 133 days a year, whereas the average worker spends 240 days in office. And yet, what did he do during those 133 days a year for the last decade? He consistently worked against allowing other fathers the opportunities to become more than “weekend dads.”
Paul Ryan voted against extending paid parental leave to fathers, a move that would have, according to the same State of America’s report, alleviated many of the root causes of “weekend dad”-ism. Furthermore, the “much” of what he wanted to accomplish included things like passing Trump’s tax cut, which kneecaps middle-class families, thereby almost ensuring fathers (and mothers too, though they’ll be paid less) spend more time at work even as childcare costs go through the roof.
Which is all to say that Paul Ryan is going to get some time at home, but it would have been far nicer if he had spent his time in Washington trying to come up with ways to help other men do the same. In using the term “weekend dad,” he was alluding to the idea of paternal absenteeism. We know, thanks to research and in our hearts, that absenteeism is, more often than not, a product of concessions to economic reality. Ryan could have helped change that. Instead, he did a job and went home. He didn’t try to balance it.
Are “weekend dads” a thing? Probably. Yes. But most of them aspire to the future that Paul Ryan has made for himself. They’d follow his lead if he’d left them with that choice.