Monday, November 12, 2007

who's your daddy?

Hello -- it's been a while since I posted, and since rad dad 8 is taking shape, I thought I’d post something from rad dad 7 as a way to say, "hey come on, I know you all got something to say, so say it -- write for rad dad 8!"

It’s been so difficult to get father's to write birth stories! In fact, I received no birth stories, so I’d love to get someone to write one for this issue out at the end of November.

Also I really like Jeremy's post about his own blog "where we are writing from." It reminded me why I enjoy writing about all this craziness called fathering. This piece is about how fatherhood gets represented in the media, and well I apologize in advance for the tone; it's a bit much but I tried...

Tomas

Some of you may know this about me, but for those of you who don't, let me just spill the beans: I am a media whore! I'll be the first one to own up to my obsession with romantic comedies, with horribly bad TV dramas, with power ballads; in fact, I can identify the various stages or periods of numerous cultural pop icons—there's the Hugh Grant evolution pre or post his blowjob bust, there's the musician turned actor careers of J-Lo, Justin, and a slew of others. There's the progression of TV shows to the big screen…you get the picture.

However, I also consider myself an astute critic, ready to recognize gender stereotypes, to point out class issues, to call out racist tropes; my favorite is Justin Timberlake himself. How the fuck can Justin bring sexy back when it never went anywhere? What a perfect example of white entitlement? But I was kinda shocked the other day when my daughter said something that made me laugh but soon started gnawing at me like one of them zombies in Evil Dead.

"Dad, you should be in a TV show," Ella said innocently, and then of course added, "with your belly and your dog and you always making chili."

"Hey, don't be saying nothing about my mean vegan chili!" I replied.

And we went on to the next subject. However, the next day I was working on an essay about how men can challenge patriarchy, and I was bouncing ideas off my Official-Idea-Bouncer-Offer Andrea, and we came up with the idea of exploring stereotypes about fathers. It clicked; Ella was putting me into the category of so many images she has seen of how this society views fathers. Why had I never seen it before? But wait a second here, I'm no stereotype. Ella knows that…right? Perhaps though I hadn't noticed because even while I adamantly disagree with these images of fathering, I may in fact benefit from them, even play into them? I began to think back to early parenting roles my partner and I fell into. Most of the time we clearly processed who did what and why, what felt fair, and when we felt overwhelmed or overburdened. But it's true; I almost always would watch the kids while she would cook. And then I'd clean the dishes. How often did I mop or do some other big house-cleaning project while she took the kids to the park? Looking back on those first few years, not as often as would like to admit.

And when I was in public with my son, I remember the constant reproaches from usually older grandmotherly women about the way I held my baby, the way he was so damn dirty or the way I dressed him, especially my keen ability to never have socks on my kid's feet. But hey, who can keep track of socks, I argued. With all the advice and suggestions and snide looks I received, I often marveled at what I was doing, particularly because I didn't have that many male role models to fall back on. Was I really that weird, that unmanly, that lucky to be able to parent my kids and keep them alive or at least warm?

We need to ask ourselves why so many in our society don't trust men to be competent at parenting, to be trusted to handle a newborn without being watched over by the mother or the grandmother. And a good place to start would be to start questioning the images of bumbling fathers we're inundated with. It is the butt of our parenting jokes: men fucking up, dressing kids, trying to feed kids, trying to be both macho and cool, because parenting in our society equals mothering. Not fathering or fathers. And is not cool.

So I decided to do a little investigative research: how are dads represented in the media? It took me only like five seconds to come up with a slew of movies all reinforcing the loving but clearly not primary parent material father: Daddy Daycare, and the new sequel coming out Daddy Day Camp, the Ice Cube movies, the Adam Sandler movies, it just goes on and on. Or there's the action adventure movies in which you threaten a Real Man's family and then you'll see what Real Fathers are like—you know the male protector/patriarch and all.

But it has gotten even worse now as parenting has become a trend with more pop icons having babies because with celebrity comes a market for cool hip parenting stuff. Sure enough, along with designer sippy cups and bibs, there has been a bunch of new books on fathering. And they all seem to have one common premise, which is how to maintain gender privilege, those traditional notions of men and masculinity, and still parent; how to be that cool dad, that hip dad, that (gulp) rad dad.

So I decided to read one and peruse a few others. I chose Alternadad by Neal Pollack because it was in my library. For a taste of some others, I moseyed on into a bookstore and, as I am walking through the aisle, I see the new GQ and pick it up (yes, because it had Jessica Alba on the cover). I kid you not, but I flip it open and come to a spread of nine famous fathers all dressed up with their kids. The headline was something like: How to Still Dress like a Winner When You Have Kids. Because of course kids make you a loser, make you so not stylish, ruin your cool life (assuming of course that the point of life is to be cool). I was shocked and turned to go find the other books when I saw Parents Press' new issue, the only free parenting newspaper in the baby area, and what is one the cover, I kid you not, but the picture of a new daddy book by some pop-punk rock singer and his three kids.

Aghhhhh!

Now there is nothing wrong with being interested in fashion, with telling your story, with connecting punk rock and parenting (in fact that can be a key politicizing event for parents; check out China Martens' new book The Future Generation: The Zine-Book for Subculture Parents, Kids, Friends and Others) but something seems so disingenuous, so exploitive, so apolitical about these books. As if fathering is simply a trend.

Low and behold, as I move into the kids section they had a little display of other papa books seeing as how Father's Day was coming up (because that's the only time fathers ever speak up about parenting and it's all about being fucking cool anyways). I'll be the first one to tell you never judge a book by a cover, but I actually did in fact judge the store by their display. There were five books in the Celebrate Fathers floor display: Alternadad, Punk Rock Dad: No Rules, Just Real Life by Jim Lindberg, Dadditude: How a Real Man Became a Real Dad by Philip Lerman, and Dinner With Dad: How I Found My Way Back to the Family Table. All by white men. All by very upper middle class white men. All by upper middle class, white men with wives at home. Wow. After I mention this to the children's section coordinator, she was aghast and immediately put out a Bill Cosby book!? Somehow I felt too bummed to do anything else.

So I grabbed the books and set out to skim them as best I could. Now I will admit that most of them brought up interesting points about struggling with discipline, creating honest lines of communication, trying to maintain a healthy relationship with a partner. So I want to acknowledge that their stories are worth sharing, that I did smile at times, despite my best intentions, that I did nod my head in agreement with their struggles, that I did find connection with some of their points. But as I said they were just so similar, so privileged, with no mention of race or recognition of class differences or anything substantive outside of individual family struggles, which of course are extremely important.

However, there is not much to say for the book about making a yearlong commitment to, and I kid you not, come home at least six days a week to help make dinner with his family. See, men, we should make such a huge, committed, life-changing commitment to actually spend time with our families. His conclusion—it really changes your relationship with your family. Do people really buy these books? Ah, but cynicism is never revolutionary I remind myself, so let me take the plunge and actually read a whole fathering book.

After a month of toting it around, it became overdue and I had read only about half of Alternadad and felt like I couldn't finish it. But knew I had to. To his credit he is hella funny, and we connect as I think all parents do on the issues of poop. He relished it like a true veteran and told some very funny stories. However, Alternadad, like the other books, is just another one of those cynical, nauseatingly self-justifying stories of how a once-privileged white male aware of the issues around him chose to forgo all political and systemic critique in the wake of becoming a dad. Pre-parenthood, he always lived in neighborhoods in the edgy parts of town or places where cars had booming bass, which, of course, 'booming bass' is code word for 'young male of color,' but as a father, he's not so sure. When it comes down to it, he'd rather opt for white flight than stay in shitty neighborhoods because he can leave. He has that privilege to pack up and move cross country. Yes, he loves his neighbors, but he just wants things safer, calmer, cleaner. He knows he doesn't belong there. He ends the book with a story of enrolling his son in a hippie/hipster daycare and celebrates moving to Los Angeles because of the last straw in his old neighborhood in Austin: four youths spray painting Vatos Locos in his neighborhood. Ah, people of color again; I hope he knows they are in LA too.

Okay, I know I'm being too mean, too sensitive perhaps. And in the end I realize it actually is very important to have books out there about fathering. But man do we need other stories, other views, other perspectives about fathering that go beyond the stereotypes we see in the media all the time: the bumbling fools, reformed womanizers, and amazed businessmen about how fun being a daddy can be, golly.

So from books to TV to films, I still haven't changed my wicked ways and will probably be the first to see Transformers on my block, but I will also no longer allow the parenting/father stereotype to go by unchecked. Adam Sandler better watch out! Perhaps one day a few other fathers and I can write a script for a movie about ordinary dads from various backgrounds and ethnicities trying to parent in conscientious ways who, en route to a fun camping trip in the woods of Califas, get lost and end up in the vile clutches of the mean patriarch called Walt and are forced to rely on wits, trust, and patience to foil his plot at global domination and destroy his nefarious, dangerous alternate world called Disneyland…hmmm someday.

10 comments:

chicago pop said...

I dress my son every morning, and then undress him and dress him again with every diaper change or random daily messiness.

One morning, before I had had my cup of coffee, in a rush to get out of the house, and after the pleasure of removing a kiwi-size turd from his diaper, I put his overalls on backwards.

In contrast to the zillion other times I've dressed him, this time go noticed by the grandfolks, and my wife conveyed to me the passing remark that "that's what fathers do."

I pointed out the utterly specious statistical basis of this opinion, and the fact that it had to do less with fathers not being able to dress anyone (including themselves) than me not having had a good enough caffeine jolt.

But I was surprised at how easily everyone -- including my wife, on that day at least -- fell into the "bumbling Mr. Mom" stereotype.

chicago pop said...

Moving out of a neighborhood into another one, or into the suburbs, once you become a parent is a huge and very complicated issue, more so than I'm sure is registered in any of the books that rad dad mentions.

But it's not just about privileged whites fleeing people of color, which is sort of implied in parts of this post. "White flight" does not explain what's going on anymore. I'll just sum it up this way: loads of blacks, hispanics, and Asians are doing it, too, as the census numbers for Chicago demonstrate.

No one wants to raise their kids in dysfunctional neighborhoods, and most everyone who can leave them, does. Mostly it's about the schools, and the more parents care about education, the more they try to take advantage of the resources they have, whether they're black or white or anything else -- and whether this means enrolling them in the Catholic or charter schools in the inner city, moving to the outer suburbs, or moving to mixed-race inner-ring suburbs that have made a point of integrating.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I just had a chance to really sit down and read this post. I actually spend enormous amounts of energy avoiding the books and movies Tomas mentions and so never comment on them--this is tough because I write about parenthood for a living--but I feel like this post really nails the problem: every frickin' popular book and movie and mainstream magazine article promotes stereotypes about dads and cliched conflicts about parenthood that are totally at variance with the daily practice every parent I know. And I can say as a writer that it can be enormously difficult to publish pieces that defy those stereotypes, even in alternative media--editors get confused when the piece doesn't follow certain well-defined storylines. It's not impossible, mind you, just difficult.

tomas said...

thanks for the comments -- and yes the privilege of mobility is certainly accessed by poc as well as whites (an i certainly do not know what is happening in chicago) but certainly white privilege is at the heart of who has the resources or even access to the kinds of resources it takes to move into a non-dysfunctional neighborhood --

and why are some neighborhoods dysfunctional in the first place -- my guess a history of insitutional racial biases in housing, in tax distribution in...

ah you get it

but hey either of you two -- wanna send something in for rad dad -- kind -- birth story, an essay ...

ok thanks again

t

oh and yeah i was kinda playing the sarcastic tone but it is hard to discuss these things with comin on too strong or feelin like you just too damn sensitive

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