This post contains spoilers for No Time to Die.
I wasn’t prepared for James Bond to enter the dad discourse.
Dad is just not part of the formula. James Bond has a lot of sex, but never gets anyone pregnant. James Bond’s life is constantly threatened, but he never gets killed.
Well until the latest Bond movie, No Time to Die.
In the movie, Bond discovers he is a father to four year old Mathilde. She's a wide-eyed girl who carries around a stuffed bunny. Baby Bond is written less like a child and more like the idea of a child. Bond loves this child idea and her mother, Madeleine Swann. A man made by the early tragedy of losing his family finds family. It could have been nice. But then he dies.
His death is the result of an overworked and underbaked plot. Basically, MI6 created a nanobot virus that targets a person’s DNA. The bot virus moves harmlessly from non-targeted person to non-targeted person until infecting and killing the target. Asymptomatic transmission of killer bots. How do the nanobots replicate to pass from person to person? No one says. Once a person is infected with the bots, they’re infected forever. Q, the tech guy, says the bots are “eternal." How many things can be described as eternal? God and spacetime, maybe? Well. God, spacetime and MI6 nanobots.
Anyways, the botvirus is stolen from the MI6 lab by the bad guy. He has a fortified island where he mass produces the botvirus. It’s now engineered to target entire gene pools. He’s genocidal because he had a bad childhood. Villains are always blathering on about their bad childhoods on secret islands. Sad Boi Island Villian (SBIV) kidnaps Swann and her daughter. As anti-Bond insurance, he makes a version of the virus that will target Madeliene and Mathilde. The Swann virus, I guess.
Bond, of course, gets Swann and their daughter off the island. He stays behind to take down the island’s defenses so MI6 can launch a missile strike against the nanobot factory. He takes the defenses down! He orders the strike! The bad guy shows back up! They fight. Bond kills him. But as he dies, SBIV tells Bond he’s infected him with the Swann virus.
Yet another man telling his partner that his demanding day job has provided her with everything she needs to parent without his support.
Bond, the Spy, still has time to get off the island before the missiles blow it up. He can save his own life. Bond, the Father, has run out of time. If he escapes, the Swann virus will pass asymptomatically from him to others for days or months or years until it reaches his family. So he calls Swann and tells her he loves her. She cries that they just needed more time. As the missiles arch across the sky, Bond tells her she now has all the time she needs. His sacrifice has given her time. The missiles hit. Bond dies.
I groaned. Yet another man telling his partner that his demanding day job has given her everything she needs to parent without his support.
No Time to Die opened the same week we were all arguing about what kind of time dads owe their partners and children. Pete Buttigeig and his husband, Chasten, welcomed twins home in August. Buttigeig, the US Transportation Secretary, decided to it was a time to be home with his babies. He went on paternity leave. This became news when Tucker Carlson went on a homophobic rant about Buttigeig’s decision,, “Paternity leave, they call it, trying to figure out how to breastfeed.”
I guess Tucker thinks babies in homes without breastfeeding mothers don’t deserve to have a parent present to care for them. I am a mother, but I couldn’t breastfeed. I’m not clear how Tucker feels about me caring for my infants. I have breasts and a vagina, so he’s probably fine with it.
The far-right responses to Tucker’s playground bully level incitement were predictable. A sticky stew of homophobia and misogyny. Matt Walsh, God love him because I certainly can’t, weighed in, of course. He never misses an opportunity to expose himself as a bad partner and worse dad. This was no different.
Real Men are married to women with tits who breastfeed the babies that the Real Men are too intellectually superior to bond with until they are older. Real Men also must not change diapers, bathe babies or take them on walks or to doctor appointments. Do Real Men ever read real research?
They could have closed the movie with Bond at home, holding Mathilde’s hair back while she puked.
Studies show that paternity leave is "associated with increased father engagement and bonding.” That increased engagement leads to better health and development outcomes for the children. Guys like Walsh always claim they would die for their kids, but they show little interest in living for them. No Time to Die’s writers had Bond die for his Mathilde because it’s more cinematic than if he’d lived for her. And I mean, fair! Living for kids is mostly listening to them, feeding them, getting to them with the vomit bowl in time. They didn’t have to kill Bond to definitively end Craig’s turn as Spy Guy. They could have closed the movie with Bond at home, holding Mathilde’s hair back while she puked. There are lots of ways to leave 007 behind.
A powerful father openly living for his children may not be cinematic, but it’s rare enough to be news.
A powerful father openly living for his children may not be cinematic, but it’s rare enough to be news. When reporting on his leave, Politico described Buttigieg as “MIA.” A mom at home is described as taking care of her family. A man at home is described like a GI Joe, or James Bond, lost mid-mission. A man is supposed to be at war. Or behind a war desk. Or at least a desk. Or at least not home with their children.
Buttigieg did a round of interviews. I can’t tell if it was damage control or real parental leave proselytizing. On Meet the Press he said his leave was “not a vacation, it’s work”. In the New York Times, he said of his experience, “The big thing is having a newly personal appreciation for the fact that this is work. It may be time away from a professional role, but it’s very much time on.” He’s not wrong! He’s been saying what primary caretakers who work in and out of the home have been saying for years. Including this primary caretaker. Many places reported on his words like they were breaking some kind of news.
BREAKING: MAN SAYS CARETAKING WORK IS REAL WORK.
America’s anti-care culture isn’t Buttigeig’s fault. But his “newly personal appreciation for the fact this is work” made me feel tired. I am very happy for him, as a person. But, we can’t wait for every man to acquire that appreciation before care work is taken seriously. Dudes seem to like Bond films. If I title the problem of parental leave, No Time to Care, will people decide to invest in it?
Even many of those supportive of parental leave in theory, were quick to point out that Buttigieg’s leave was a problem, actually. We are in the middle of a supply chain crisis and Buttigieg is the Transportation Secretary. Americans love the Great Man theory, with Thomas Carlyle’s claims that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men." That is, of course, nonsense. Real life isn’t a James Bond movie and worldwide crises can’t be fixed by one man. A global supply chain breakdown with Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg in the office is the same as one with the Deputy Secretary of Transportation Trottenberg in the office. If we want the future to be better, we don't need a few Great Men. We need every home to have enough care.
We don't need a few Great Men. We need every home to have enough care.
Would Buttigieg’s critics have been more supportive if his paternity leave was framed as addressing a supply chain crisis of care? American caretaking is a network of people, process and resources fueled by the extraction of unpaid labor. The 1.8 million women who were forced out of the professional workforce during the pandemic are proof of the crisis. Want another bleak figure? A mere 21% of US workers have the option to take employer-provided paid family leave. Buttigeig getting to personally experience the value of work at home is a privilege most parents don’t get. It should be a right.
Like so many gross inequalities, this one is the result of intentional design. After WWII, many European nations invested in a more robust social safety net. They included maternity leave and child benefit policies. I guess years of bombs and burials helped them recognize the need for builders and babies. America went another way. They invested in the religion of consumer salvation. The primary goddess was the white homemaker and the temple was the single-family home. Appliance innovation was supposed to save white women from labor. These mothers didn’t need maternity leave because they weren't supposed to work. The men would go out and do the work of the world.
America refused to implement any policies that could, even indirectly, protect and empower Black women.
Of course, the care work that happens in the home is work, even if the home has Space Age appliances. But no one could acknowledge that because the American Home was supposed to exist apart from the economy, not within it. There was another issue. Paying women wages for care work in their own homes would set a precedent racists couldn’t abide. Many of the people performing professional care work were Black women. If the concept of care work in the home as real work was validated by government protections and benefits, what then? What protections and benefits would Black women working as professional care workers expect? America refused to implement any policies that could, even indirectly, protect and empower Black women.
What about the mothers of every background who worked outside of the home in othe industries? They existed in post-WWII America. Why didn’t they get paid family leave? There were many reasons. One of the most influential was a doctrine of eugenics with four founding principles: racism, classism, ableism and xenophobia.. Policy wonks worried that government backed paid parental leave would lead to the wrong sorts of people having children. The wrong sorts being anyone who was not white and middle class. So America didn’t give anyone parental leave. And now we gasp with gratitude when a man says care work is work.
When we had our first baby, my husband and I were very young. He was still in college, so there was no question of paternity leave. He didn’t even get to stay with me in the hospital. One of his professors wouldn’t let him postpone his mid-term. He hadn’t given birth to the baby, after all. That was true. He hadn’t. I had. And I’d suffered from a third degree tear during labor. A few of you might not know what a third degree tear is. Let me tell you! It’s a laceration that extends from the vagina to the anus. When my daughter came out of me, I ripped open with such force blood sprayed across the doctor, nurses and the wall behind them. It took the doctor twenty minutes to sew me back up after I gave birth.
When James Bond suffered an equally egregious injury in Casino Royale, he got to recover in a luxury seaside hospital. I got three days under fluorescent lights and a nurse who wouldn’t let my baby sleep in the nursery. I couldn’t walk, or use the restroom. When my husband left to take his test, I still had a catheter in. Our baby cried in a little crib next to me. I cried too when I tried to reach over and brush my hand against her cheek. It hurt to move.
When we went home, I still couldn’t walk. My husband still had to go to school. He also worked full-time hours after school. We were trying to avoid student loan debt. He didn’t get home till late every night. I was alone with the baby. Well, not quite alone. Postpartum depression attended me. PPD manifests differently for everyone. Mine was a freezing fog that made me so cold the thought of my own death felt warm.
All those Great Men willing to die for their children weren’t interested in helping me live for mine.
Mothers who have maternity leave are less likely to suffer from postpartum depression. Mothers with partners who do not have parental leave are more likely to experience depression. When I held my baby and wished I could die, I was experiencing a likelihood created by American policy. Paying for leave for my partner was too costly. Risking my life wasn’t. All those Great Men willing to die for their children weren’t interested in helping me live for mine.
I don’t believe in Great Men but I do believe in great men. My dad was a great man. He came over every day the first month after I had the baby. I’d named her Margaret after his mom. He’d take Margaret out of my arms and go sit with her in the rocking chair. Rocking back and forth, he’d croon,
“This is a good baby. Everything is okay. You and your mommy are going to be such good friends. Yes, this is a good baby.”
I watched them rock and wondered why I couldn’t find that soothing movement. When I got very, very cold and leaving everything seemed very, very warm, I thought of my dad in that rocking chair. I held onto his words. This is a good baby. Everything is okay. We are going to be such good friends. Months later as the fog began pull back, I could finally sit and rock with the baby. She was bigger but not too big for me to whisper, “This is a good baby. Everything is okay.” My husband didn’t have paternity leave for our second child. The fog came back. But so did my dad.
No Time to Die was right about one thing, dads do die. I have a personal appreciation for that fact. My dad died when I was 28. He was gone by the time I had my third child. By then my husband, another great man, worked at a company that offered seven weeks of paternity leave. He took all seven. During those weeks, he did the work I had been doing for years as a stay-at-home parent.
Witnessing is work too.
He made dinner, cleaned the house, volunteered in the older girls’ classrooms, helped care for my mom. He helped me walk back and forth across the house while I recovered from the birth. He reminded me it would get warmer when I felt col. And he held our baby and rocked her. He witnessed her without interruption from his other work. Witnessing is work too. Our children deserve to have him as a witness too.
The stories we tell about parenthood are so rarely about the children being parented. In No Time to Die, Bond’s daughter is a plot device, a wide eyed representation of what Bond could have had. When we talk about parental leave, the children are mostly plot devices too. They are included in the conversation so we can judge their parents or laud them. They’re used in the service of narratives about the family, femininity and masculinity. Yes, parents should be able to bond to their children. They should have institutional support in the great work of caring for a big life still too small care for itself. But babies are more than their parents’ needs.
Can we muster the will to care?
A baby deserves care from someone who loves them during their first months. Their lives depend on it. Longer paid maternity leaves result in a nearly 50% reduction in infant hospitalizations after birth. Research shows paid parental leave also reduces infant deaths. So yes, care work is work. And parents deserve to bond with their children. But more than all of this, babies deserve to live. Those babies should be enough to move every person and politician to pass universal paid parental leave. We have the money. Can we muster the will to care?
In fifteen or so years there’ll be another James Bond reboot. It’ll be dark. Or light. Either way, it’ll be deemed a break from the past. James Bond’s daughter will be in it. Maybe she’ll be the first female Bond. Maybe not. She’ll be played by someone beautiful. Her character will be nineteen, no longer a child. Screenwriters and audiences will be interested in her with that particular Thank heaven for little girls, or little girls get bigger every day energy. Mathilde’s character will be formed by her dad’s death. Fair enough. In so many ways, mine has been formed by my own dad’s death. But more than that, it was formed by his care.
Bond took a rocket to save his daughter’s life. My dad sat in a rocking chair and held my baby to save mine. Every dad, every parent, should be given the chance to be that great.
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