I’m nonplussed by Mary Elizabeth Williams’ comment today, over at Salon, that Anthony Weiner’s impending fatherhood “drastically changed” the Weinergate drama. Not that I disagree that “the timing of Weiner’s particular expression of his pre-fatherhood nerves” is, or should be, “hard to get past.” But Williams sounds so surprised. It’s as if she thinks impending fatherhood makes a man more stable.
First pregnancy, even when all goes well, is indeed “a stone freakout,” for a couple, as Williams writes. And, sure, as she says, “it can also be, especially in the case of a first pregnancy, one of the most romantic, tender, intimate periods in a couple’s life.” Right-o. It can also be the moment when the prospective father is most prey to a prickly, eager nostalgia for aspects of life that feel, somehow, incompatible with fatherly gravitas. If you’re a man with a habit of seeking thrills in a sleazy, sneaky narcissistic way, the prospect of fatherhood will make that itch both more distressing and more alluring. The due date, that maturity deadline, marks the moment when our hero puts childish things aside. That can easily support a psychology of “let’s get as much of those childish things in there before the curtain drops.”
I think this state of mind might help explain the results in this 2007 study of traits that correlated with infidelity. Mark A. Whisman and his colleagues sampled 2,291 married people over a year, and found that 2.3 percent of them cheated on their partners. Wives’ pregnancy, they found, “increased the risk of infidelity in husbands.”
Williams seems to suggest that men with their fatherhood jitters can only exist in one version—that idiotic sexting precludes the sincere dutifulness of a doting husband. If there were ever a realm of life in which people have shown that they aren’t coherent and consistent, though, it’s sexuality. So I mildly disagree with Williams when she writes that Weiner’s conduct “invokes the image of someone whose beautiful wife is looking at sonograms and battling morning sickness while he was taking off his shirt in his office.” I mean, OK, it does. But I’d bet that shirt-doffing, erection-emailing Anthony left room for sonogram-admiring, foot-rubbing Anthony. Both those men could exist, side by side, in one marriage and in one mind.
The other day I tentatively came to the conclusion that no one has a “true self.” I think, though, that it might be meaningful to talk of a best self—that person that you are when you sense that you’re most right with the world (however you care to define “right”). Primo Levi wrote once that no writer can be true his best self all the time, and perhaps this is true more generally of us all. But we can expect people to do a better job of it than Weiner has.
So I’m not suggesting that Weiner deserves an understanding pat on the back. He certainly failed to be true to his best self, big-time. Maybe he should resign. I don’t know (though I’d like to see what all the “resign-now!” Democrats were saying about Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky mess).
But Williams wants us to believe “Now, Anthony Weiner is no longer ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ Today, he’s just a tawdry babydaddy episode of Jerry Springer.” Not so. He is both. And whatever straight women might want to believe about men, I would bet (though emphatically not from personal experience) that he is far, far from alone.