Thursday, June 26, 2008

Daddy Dialectic: The Interview

Back in April, Chicago Pop and I were interviewed by the blog Whinydad about Daddy Dialectic. Since this is a slow week here at DD and since there's a lot here that might be of interest to DD readers (both of you!), I'm reposting it:

WhinyDad: What was the biggest challenge to starting and continuing Daddy Dialectic?

Jeremy Adam Smith: The biggest challenge was translating my life into writing. I had been a writer for many years before I became a dad, but I mostly wrote about books, authors, and ideas for publications like The Nation, The Bay Guardian and the SF Chronicle. I was good at dissecting big ideas, but bad at dissecting my own (and other people's) feelings and experiences.

And yet when I became primary caregiver for my son, I found it to be really emotionally challenging, and I wanted to write about that as a way of trying to understand how I was changing. At the same time, I was fascinated by the social world of parenting and where I fit in as a caregiving father, and I wanted to understand the forces that shaped that world. I started researching the family — psychology, anthropology, history, biology, all of it. I used my experience to illuminate and guide the research, and I used the research to illuminate my life. I read during my son's naps; I read early in the morning, before he woke, and late at night, after he went to bed. I really put myself through several graduate-level courses in family studies.

I couldn't relate at all to the parenting magazines out there, but one day I did a Google search for "stay at home dad" and discovered this world of dad blogs, as well as smart, progressive mom blogs. I saw my life reflected in those, and I learned a lot. It took about a week for me to realize that I could start my own blog without too much trouble.

I tried to write when I got the time, in early-morning or late-night snatches. I discovered that blogging is really an ideal vehicle for writing when you're being constantly interrupted by a crying baby. My posts are still just a series of rough drafts; I think of the blog as a notebook. I've since turned many posts into magazine articles or integrated their ideas and information into my book. In the blog I try to be aggressive and adventurous and experimental. As a result, sometimes I am just wrong or off-beat — but I really try to listen to my reader's feedback. Some comments on the blog changed my ideas, or pointed me in new directions, or helped me to understand my life as a father better. I'm very grateful to my readers.

WD: Why and how did DD evolve from a lone blogger?

JAS: I wasn't seeing very many blogs out there trying to do the same thing I was trying to do at Daddy Dialectic — that is, writing thoughtful, introspective posts based on experience and evidence. I wanted a blog that tried to capture complexity and contradiction, intellect and emotion. I started to realize that were other dads out there who shared my sensibility and I thought that my blog might be a forum for different voices and get us talking to each other. Also, my role in my family was changing: my son got older and went to preschool, and I started work as senior editor of Greater Good magazine and I got a contract for my book Twenty-First-Century Dad. But I still wanted to keep that stay-at-home dad voice and continue to explore those issues, even as I moved on with my life and into a new stage of fatherhood.

And so I carefully sought out dads who might contribute. Some of them, like Chip, I found in the blogosphere; others, like Chicago Pop, I ran across in real life.

WD: Chicago Pop, recently you credited your dad with great philosophical wisdom when he said "it's fun" to have kids. Was that a guiding principle when you began blogging?

Chicago Pop: Not at all. I've only begun to realize how fun it is, and how right my father was.

WD: How much of your dad is in the blog?

CP: More than I even know. Being a parent is like going forward and backward in time, all at once. I am learning to be a father while remembering I was a child, and remembering my childhood father now that I am

WD: What have you written that you think might "horribly" embarrass your son years from now when he search engines it — or calls it up in whatever manner then exists?

CP: Nothing yet; once he hits puberty, everything; when he's 30, probably nothing

JAS: Tough to say. I've written about his imaginary characters; that might be embarrassing, but he also might think it's cool. Frankly, I hope he does read about my experiences as his caregiver, warts and all, because I want him to be a caregiver someday and I want him to be prepared for it. I've also written about how much I love him. That might embarrass him. Actually, I think Chicago Pop has the best answer to this question.

WD: Other than sometimes as subject, how does your child influence your writing?

JAS: He reminds me of my own fallibility. I try so hard to be a good parent, but I sometimes fail, and sometimes I feel so right about something but then later it turns out that I had it all completely wrong. It's important for a writer to remember that. Of course, you can come to believe too much in your own fallibility; I have to refrain from beating myself up all the time. You just have to do your best and hope for the best, but remember that you're not perfect and try to keep on learning. That sounds a bit like a cliché, but I think it's a good guideline for life.

WD: What is the most important thing you've learned about being a dad from working on the site?

JAS: I've learned that I have a lot in common with other parents; I get this from real life, too, but you can go much deeper in writing than in casual conversation. Paradoxically, I've also learned in a deep way that parents are different, and different things work for different people.

WD: Daddy Dialectic seems more political than most SAHD or Dadbloggers. Do you think it is a fair assessment and was it a conscious choice when you began?

JAS: I've always been involved with politics and that didn't change when I became a parent … well, I did become less politically involved, but my values didn't change. To me, parenting intersects with every sphere of life, including politics. Nobody parents in a vacuum. It's a social activity, and our choices are shaped by economic and political forces. Take, for example, parental leave: many dads aren't able to take time off after the birth of their child, they have to go right back to work. This hurts their relationship with the mother as well with as the kids. Parental leave for fathers is a political issue, because employers and their allies in Congress have battled against it tooth and nail for decades.

So if we want men to be better, more involved fathers, we need parental leave and we also need more flexible workplace policies for both men and women. Some people claim that dads won't take leave even when it's offered, but we know when it's been offered in places like Germany and Sweden and Quebec, men have indeed taken it and gotten more involved with their families. These changes didn't happen overnight. Public policy has to change, but so has the culture of the workplace and the way couples relate to each other, and the way extended families relate to couples. When bosses take leave, so will employees. When grandparents and aunts and uncles are supportive of dad's involvement, dads will be more involved.

Right now, the pressure goes the other way, to make more money. Until that changes, fear and anxiety will drive the choices that fathers make, and they bring that home with them. I want every father, both caregivers and breadwinners, to stand up together and for government and workplaces to recognize the essential role they play for their children and the mothers. I think this is a fight for both moms and dads together, not apart.

WD: Which are the two or three most interesting dadblogs ... other than yours?

JAS: I like Rebeldad for its consistent coverage of fatherhood issues. I love Lesbian Dad and Doodaddy for being so honest and real. I also really enjoy Rice Daddies. Equally Shared Parenting also has a lot of useful things to say, and Evolution of Dad is probably the closest blog out there to Daddy Dialectic's sensibility.

It's not a blog and it's not for dads, but I've always thought Mothers Movement Online has really smart coverage of parenting issues. I think dads can learn a lot from reading it.

I should also note that the Center for Law and Social Policy and the Council on Contemporary Families both do really important research and outreach.

That's more than two or three, I'm afraid. I could list even more.

WD: A few words on how you'll continue to cure the planet of evil?

JAS: There's a huge gap between public policy and the way people live in this country. Policy is designed to support suburban heterosexual male-breadwinner, female-homemaker families. But families today are very diverse. Most moms work; there are stay-at-home dads and highly involved fathers. There are gay and lesbian families. The divorce rate is falling, but it's still high and still a part of the landscape, and so are step families. And many people today have children without ever getting married. As the historian Stephanie Coontz once pointed out to me, policy needs to help these families to leverage their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

I think MomsRising deserves a lot of support, though they do not recognize the stake dads have in their issues. They say they do, but I don't think they really get it. I know they started a companion project for all parents, but to me it feels like a token effort — sort of like those "parenting" magazines that are written from a mom's POV but toss in an occasional article designed to appeal to some stereotypical dad: the articles assume dad is an idiot who can't cook and doesn't know how to do the laundry, but here's a few helpful tips on how to manage the big lug. Well, not every dad is like that, and many dads have a strong interest and stake in the issues championed by MomsRising.

Still, I agree with every change they are advocating for, and, of course, it's true that dads have not started a parallel organization of their own — not one that's claimed wide support, anyway.

Fathers, I think, are either more prone to wrestle with these issues on an individual level or they are more likely to work on these issues through larger organizations like labor unions. To move men, I think the advocacy language needs to be crafted to appeal to a sense of self-reliance. It also needs to come from a position of respect for fatherhood and assume that fathers are looking out for their families instead of their social dominance as men. In other words, you have to appeal to their better natures and provide some hope and role models, not beat them over the head with the manifold failures of mankind. I think an advocacy organization for fathers will need to recognize this, if it to be successful. I wish the Democratic Party was more progressive on families. They're really not. They don't want to offend constituencies that think things went downhill after the 1950s.

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