Monday, March 27, 2006

Jeremy vs. Deadlines

Daddy Dialectic will fall silent from now until April 4 (my birthday!), while I deal with a series of professional deadlines.

In the meantime, you can check out this article from the local Newburyport Current newspaper, which consists of a straight Q&A with two couples who decided that dad would stay at home with the kids. Both sets of moms and dads have some very wise, useful things to say. They talk about how the decision for one parent to stay home meant accepting that they would make less money: "A long time ago, we agreed that the pursuit of family happiness is more important than the pursuit of money. Will we ever be rich? No. Do we worry about it? No." They also talk about outside perceptions of the dad-at-home:
My challenges have centered around societal ideas of traditional gender roles. Initially, both my father and father-in-law were not very accepting of the idea of my staying at home with the children. I believe they either saw it as unmanly or did not believe that my new "job" was worthy. In time, they may have become convinced that it was a good decision by simply observing how well the girls were doing. In the past few years, both "fathers" seem to have changed their views of my staying at home with the kids.

There is also the issue of support from those outside the family. When women stay at home with their children, there is a large network of other women doing the same thing. Because of this, most mothers have a built-in support system. As a father staying at home and raising his children, I do not have the same type of support system.

A mom adds:
We have lots of stories of people who have shunned Andy at the playground, or given him suspicious looks when they see him. Over the years, people have become accustomed to seeing him and the girls around town.

Personally, I haven't experienced much of that, possibly because we live in San Francisco. On that note, my next blog entry on April 4 will talk about how Liko and I arrived at the playground last week, middle of the afternoon, and found ourselves surrounded by…men. Four men playing with four toddlers, all fully or mostly stay-at-home dads. No women in sight for about an hour. What the hell? Stay tuned for explication and analysis...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Parents vs. Employers II

Blogger Elana Centor reports that "about 6 million Brits have taken a career break (an unpaid sabbatical) -- that's from research provided by Direct Line, a British Insurance Company. The concept is so popular in the UK that... 20% of UK companies include Career Breaks as part of the employee benefits package." Centor's post is full of great information, so check it out. Interestingly, parenting doesn't seem to rate as a reason for taking a Career Break.

And as long as we're talking about Brits, my friend Susan Godstone sent me this account of the life of a "househusband" in the U.K., where about 200,000 men choose to stay at home with their kids. (Compare that to the 150,000 in the U.S., whose population is literally fives times the size of the U.K.'s. Imagine one million stay-at-home dads in the U.S.) He concludes:

A recent conversation with a full-time-turned-part-time househusband friend of mine flushed out the fact that he felt "demasculinised", as he put it, by the whole thing; leaving the wage-earning role to his wife had left him mildly unsettled. Me, I have no problem with any of that. In fact, I do remember, even at 5.30am, that working in an office involves stresses, strains and uncertainties that I don't miss one bit. That may partly be the erosion of the self-esteem thing, though. After 18 months at home, the thought of going back into the workplace is genuinely scary. My brain feels atrophied. Once upon a time I could be told a phone number and write it down the next day. Nowadays, I have to look up my postcode.

When I do get ground down, when it feels really relentless, I have to be reminded that this is not for ever. Housewives once went from school into marriage and had little hope of doing any interesting work even when their children had left home. I've spent an inordinate amount of time in higher education, and had not one but two careers. I hope at some point to have some sort of third career, and I just about cling on to enough self confidence to find that prospect exciting. When I remember all this, I remember that my househusbanding is a huge privilege. This is the (extended) gap year that I never took; I'm travelling emotionally, if not geographically. I'm learning about myself, developing the patience and sympathy that I never even thought I lacked. Best of all, Jack and I like each other. I'm always pleased to see him. We spend nearly every waking hour together, yet when I'm not with him I miss him. I know what "poi" and "sha" mean. I do get some time off, courtesy of my girlfriend, to go fish or meet friends. Above all, I know in every bone of my body that I will never regret this. I will not lie on my deathbed and think, oh, how I wish I'd spent less time with my son.

In Britain, BTW, fathers are now entitled to up to six months of paternity leave; in Germany, companies are required by law to give all employees up to three years parental leave and guarantee their jobs on return. Here in the U.S., only workers in California have any kind of automatic paid family leave and wage replacement; nationwide, only one in five jobs provide any kind of family leave. I've asked it before, I'll ask it again: Americans, why do we choose to live the way we do? I learned on Playground Revolution that there's movement in New Jersey to win paid parental leave. Let's hope they succeed.

For more on parental leave policies and dads at home in the U.K. and Europe, see this article from the international edition of Newsweek.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Odds vs. Ends

On Sunday I asked some of my fellow progressive parenting bloggers to say something to mark the third anniversary of the war in Iraq. I couldn't go to the anti-war protest here in San Francisco because it cut into Liko's naptime, but I felt like I needed to write/do something. That was my one small act. Two bloggers took me up on it: Miriam Peskowitz over at Playground Revolution (I love that name and Miriam's subtitle: "A Mom's Life is Political") and Liz Henry of Composite, a wonderful blog that is mostly about poetics, translation, and technology. (Uber-blogger Bitch Ph.D. also marked the anniversary of the war, though I had nothing to do with it. She links to some interesting resources.)

Miriam's slice-of-life post deftly shows why political activism tends to decline after children arrive, how the domestic sphere swallows us up and defines our lives, and what mainstream media do to reinforce a sense of isolation and panic. She writes:
Entanglements. We tend to think small. Our lives keep us busy. We vacuum, and we live in a vacuum. War? How come on this anniversary, what we're embroiled in are "mommy wars" not debates over the wars that kill? And cultural commentators now use the phrase "daddy wars' to talk about men's issues. What about the big war out there? We waste the word, focus on fake wars that could be fixed, that are made worse by media creation, take our eyes off the war that kills.

It's the craft of living in a vacuum, and the narrowing vision of it all that struck me as I read the New York Times this morning. The responses to Claudia Goldin's Op-ed last week, the one about how mothers aren't opting out when you actually look at statistics were singularly bad, and troped, to use a good ole literary criticism word. They came from Mommy Wars central casting, they didn't even need to be written by real people. The most amazing thing: they continue to talk about motherhood in a total vacuum. If you were reading these pieces and the letters in response, and you were from that mythical planet in outer space where miraculously you too speak and read English, you would think we are a society in which families are mothers alone with children. No one talks about fathers. No one talks about more complex dynamics than a mother and her life of paid or unpaid work. Where's the context?

Fittingly, Liz published a poem, "moon veil your mirror," which I will let speak for itself.


A friend sent me a short essay by John Berger on the historical relationship between Hiroshima and 9/11, which I share with you as a follow-up to my March 19 post on the war. It was published in 2002 in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan (anyone still remember that?), but it is still relevant and a fitting follow-up to the Berger essay I quote on March 19.


Today in Rebeldad, Brian takes a crack at defining the term "Daddy Wars": "The growing conflict between parents - primarily fathers - and their employers over flexible and varied work options that allow for more precise work-life balance." It's food for thought; check it out.


Last but not least, my friend Alex asks me a perfectly legitimate question: "If you don't have time to achieve perfect domesticity, how do you have time to write your blog? Or read essays on the Nature of Evil, for that fucking matter? Is it the insomnia?"

He wasn't the first to ask this question and won't be the last. I have a couple of answers.

First: yes, insomnia is a big part of it. I sleep only about six hours a night; the actual writing of most of my entries happens in wee dark hours when only the people of China, Mongolia, etc. are awake and working. Or so it seems to me. This probably accounts for the melancholy tone of some of my entries. I read quite a bit during these hours; I also read during Liko's naptimes.

Second: I do work about 20 hours a week, and make part of my living as a writer. Most of my writing these days is for money, and I don't brag about it. More personal/political ideas do come to me, however, and so I think of "Daddy Dialectic" as an open notebook, where I can jot down notes that I can later develop into essays and magazine articles -- someday, when I have more time. In addition, the blog puts me in touch with other parents, many of whom I might interview when the time comes, as well as resources that I might draw upon later for other writing projects. A blog is also, for writers, a marketing tool; you build an audience around a topic, and in that way accrue some degree of authority and marketability. Also, on finding time to read: I see the reading as an essential part of writing. You need to read in order to write; you need to be in touch with news and different currents of thought. I fit it in where I can.

Third: on a personal level, I find writing the blog to be extremely theraputic. I write down the things that bother me about being a parent, and I feel better. Pretty simple. I also think of the blog as a public personal history, that maybe one day I can share with Liko. Finally, it's a place to think out loud about my values and philsophies of parenthood, and reflect upon my experience.

Yes, I could give up on all this and perhaps my life would be simpler and I'd be happier. In response, I would like to quote Richard Rodriguez: "St. Augustine writes from his cope of dust that we are restless hearts, for earth is not our true home. Human unhappiness is evidence of our immortality. Intuition tells us we are meant for some other city." In other words, I'll sleep when I'm dead.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Liko at the Anarchist Book Fair

On Saturday I took Liko to the Anarchist Book Fair - at left you'll see him pictured on the N train, fucking shit up in preparation for the Fair. The weather was perfect; Liko was perfect. I was happy to be a dad, living in San Francisco. At the Fair I saw old friends like Jason of Anarchy Magazine, who shared pictures of his two beautiful kids.

There were, in fact, lots of kids running around the Fair, which provided first-rate drop-in childcare. (Is there an anarchist baby boom? So much for Longman's thesis about the death of dissident bloodlines. BTW, no, I'm not an anarchist, but Liko certainly is.) Volunteers Lisa and Chris took excellent care of the kids; I left Liko with his new friends for fifteen minutes and had time to actually browse. Remarkable. When I came back, I was alarmed to hear that Chris had taken Liko outside because "he seemed like he needed some air"; I ran out - not worried, mind you, but concerned that Liko was unmanageably fussy - but found him sitting happily in the grass while a black-clad, bearded krusty showed him how to play the banjo.

I met Rahula Janowski (whom I've been seeing out of the corner of my eye with her daughter Natasha for years around the Mission) and bought her 'zine Joybringer; I also met Tom Moniz and bought his 'zine Rad Dad. After we got home and I put Liko down for his nap, I read both Joybringer and Rad Dad cover to cover. I found them both heartening, gateways to a wider community of parents who are trying to raise kids in radical ways.

It won't suprise readers to hear that we felt pretty isolated when we became parents; when Liko was born, we knew only one other couple in San Francisco who had a kid; our families live in faraway places; and neither Shelly nor I could relate to the images of parenting we saw in the media. I'm not whining about it, but that was our situation.

In my consulting work, I advise independent media and media justice organizations on strategy and audience development. I meet with people who are all over the political map, and some of them openly scorn blogs like the one you're reading or stappled together, xeroxed zines like Rad Dad. I'm still burning with annoyance at a libertarian who got rich selling a dot-com just before the crash, who, in a meeting last week, referred to small-scale indy media projects as "mere noise." If you're not making a big impact, she said, you're wasting time.

But what do you do, and where do you go, when you don't see anything in the culture that resembles your life and values? You make your own media, for a start; that helps you to find other people who are facing the same struggles. You link together; you help each other; you share ideas and sharpen your critique. Maybe it is mere noise, but at least it's your noise. Our noise. Separately, we're just telling our stories. Together we make a big impact.

Rad Dad is full of noise about trying to be a radical dad, raw, honest moments that you're not going find anywhere else:
There is a silence among men about fathering. I experienced this as I've talked with men about it; they are excited and yet scared, nervous about making mistakes, most are dying to parent in ways that many of us weren't fathered. But there are very few role models...

In the second issue, Tom writes that Rad Dad:
Has been a failure...Ultimately I feel I've failed to live up to the potential. Failed the timelines, failed to promote it well enough, failed to make the effort to distribute it in ways that it should be, failed to work hard enough to get people to send in more stuff, to be a part of it more.

Hey, Tom: I learned a lot from Rad Dad. It helped me feel better about trying to be the dad I want to be, and not the one I'm supposed to be. So keep on going. Do it for me, Tom! I need Rad Dad. I was pretty flattened by the experience of becoming a parent and caregiver; it's really only in the past month that I've started to reflect upon my experience and seek out models, and the only resources I've found are blogs like Rebeldad and zines like Rad Dad. It's helped a lot.

Both Joybringer and Rad Dad are old school hobby zines; you won't find them online. But you get back issues of Rad Dad by writing to Tom at or 1636 Fairview St., Berkeley, CA 94703. You can get copies of Joybringer at 4104 24th St., PMB #669, San Francisco, CA 94114. Send money: two bucks per copy plus postage should do it.


BTW, Liz Henry turned me on to this blog entry on what happens to parents in service sector and working class jobs. Check it out.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Liko vs. War

Yesterday was the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Protests took place throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia.

For years I've debated the practice and ethics of non-violence, mostly with myself. I don't think that at this point I could call myself a pacifist, precisely because I am a dad: I know that if my family was attacked, as a last resort I would respond with violence (feeble, ineffectual violence, probably; but yes, I would hit back with whatever weapon was available).

Yet at the same time, I can say, without any irony or doubt in my heart, that yesterday I realized that becoming a father has caused me to hate war. "Hate" - I use that word with full knowledge of its meaning and implications. In becoming a parent - especially since becoming a child's primary caregiver - I've realized exactly how helpless a child is, how utterly, heartbreakingly dependent. To betray a child's trust, or worse, to deliberately and knowingly hurt a child, is an act of true evil. That it happens every day, in ways large and small, does not make it any less evil. My words feel cliched, even dead, as I write them; I know that I'm not doing justice to my feelings.

This morning I read - in the dark, before the baby and Shelly were awake - an essay on Hiroshima by John Berger:
I refrain from giving the statistics: how many hundreds of thousands of dead, how many injured, how many deformed children. Just as I refrain from pointing out how comparatively 'small' were the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Such statistics tend to distract. We consider numbers instead of pain. We calculate instead of judging. We relativize instead of refusing.

This is just the way to talk about war: judging, refusing.

George Bush puts on a mask of innocence and idealism: "A victory in Iraq will make this country more secure, and will help lay the foundation of peace for generations to come." (Note that future tense; but didn't he declare the mission accomplished two years ago? Well, whatever. We - all of us who gave it any thought - knew that was bullshit.)

"The construction of hells on earth was accompanied in Europe by plans for heavens on earth," writes Berger, thinking of the Holocaust. "Evil from time immemorial has often worn a mask of innocence. One of evil's principal modes of being is looking beyond (with indifference) that which is before the eyes." Berger quotes the memory of a survivor of Hiroshima:
I was walking along the Hihiyama bridge about 3 pm on 7th August. A woman, who looked like an expectant mother, was dead. At her side, a girl of about three years of age brought some water in an empty can she had found. She was trying to let her mother drink from it. As soon as I saw this miserable scene with the pitiful child, I embraced the girl close to me and cried with her, telling her that her mother was dead.

And later, in Nagasaki:
August 9th: On the west embankment... was a young boy four or five years old. He was burned black, lying on his back, with his arms pointing towards heaven.

How many times during the past three years have such scenes played out in Iraq? How many children have been burned alive? How many have seen their parents killed and been left helpless, possibly injured and dying themselves? The evil of such acts - committed in our name as Americans - is beyond comprehension. This is why we refuse to believe it, to grasp it; we get lost in policy debates, punditry, statistics. "Only by looking beyond or away can one come to believe that such evil is relative, and therefore under certain conditions justifiable," writes Berger. "In reality - the reality to which the survivors and the dead bear witness - it can never be justified."

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Jeremy vs. The Name of His Blog

Attentive readers - both of you - will have noticed that I have changed the name of my blog at least three times. As a consequence of my indecision - and that's all it is, pure and simple - the name appears differently on different parts of the Web.

Well, I'd like to announce that the final, final, final name is now "Daddy Dialectic: The Political Journal of a Dad-at-Home."

What the heck is dialectics? Let me quote from "What the Heck is Dialectics?", which happened to be the first page I found in a google search:
Dialectics is a tool to understand the way things are and the way things change. Understanding dialectics is as easy as 1 - 2 - 3.

One--Every thing (every object and every process) is made of opposing forces/opposing sides.

Two--Gradual changes lead to turning points, where one opposite overcomes the other.

Three--Change moves in spirals, not circles.

Dialectics is closely associated with Karl Marx (though it really started with Hegel, Heraclitus, and Lao-Tzu), but I'm not a marxist. I'm a leftist, but not a marxist. Really, I'm not. I call my blog "Daddy Dialectic" because my life really does feel dialectical right now, with many incremental changes leading to a turning point where opposites are overcoming each other and everything is spiraling around me and I myself am spiraling. As you can see in the photo, Liko is also spiraling. We're all of us spinning around! Whee! It's poetically true, you see, though politically distracting. So, uh, welcome to "Daddy Dialectic"!

(A bit slaphappy today, as attentive readers might have noticed. A paranthetical note: In setting up the link above, I googled an essay I wrote on the Communist Manifesto for Dollars and Sense magazine way back in the futuristic year 1999 -- some of you might recall 1999 as the last year of civilization, before the Y2K crash plunged us all into a barbaric age from which we have yet to recover. Anyway, I discovered that the essay retails on Amazon for $5.95. I had no idea. Wonder if anybody's ever bought it? I certainly haven't seen a dime. Next question: I wonder how many digital versions of my work are out there getting bought and sold without my knowledge or financial gain?)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Jeremy and Shelly vs. Their Kitchen

Just finished an interesting essay in the academic journal The New Atlantis, "Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?". It covers a lot of the same themes of my previous blog entries on balancing work and home, but from a different angle:
Judging by how Americans spend their money—on shelter magazines and kitchen gadgets and home furnishings—domesticity appears in robust health. Judging by the way Americans actually live, however, domesticity is in precipitous decline. Families sit together for meals much less often than they once did, and many homes exist in a state of near-chaos as working parents try to balance child-rearing, chores, long commutes, and work responsibilities...

Ironically, this decline in domestic competence comes at a time of great enthusiasm for “retro” appliances and other objects that evoke experiences that many Americans rarely have. We seem to value our domestic gadgets more and more even as we value domesticity less and less.

"Many homes exist in a state of near-chaos" — OK, yes, that certainly describes our household. The essay is filled with a fascinating history of household appliances and little tidbits about the trajectory of domestic labor:
“It must be remembered,” wrote Isabella Beeton in 1869, that the kitchen “is the great laboratory of every household, and that much of the ‘weal or woe,’ as far as regards bodily health, depends upon the nature of the preparations concocted within its walls.” Today, the laboratory is filled with the finest equipment, but there is often no one to use it. Despite purchasing more and better appliances, home-cooking and family dinners are both racing toward extinction. American Demographics reports that between 1985 and 1995, “the number of hours women spent cooking per week dropped 23 percent, and the number of hours men cooked dropped by 21 percent.” By 1997, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that more than one in five households used their (non-microwave) oven “less than once weekly” and only 42 percent “make a hot meal once a day.”

The author, Christine Rosen (an academic, natch), ends the piece with a rather utopian call for the renewal of domesticity:
What is necessary is a sober defense of the worth of domestic life, including those labors—chopping vegetables, sweeping a floor, setting a table—that are hardly glorious in themselves but essential parts of the domestic satisfactions we still seem to want...

Unlike some feminist critics of domesticity, who argue for the lowering of domestic standards—Cowan wants to overthrow the “senseless tyranny of spotless shirts and immaculate floors,” for example—Mendelson and others seek to elevate the domestic sphere in a culture that too often denigrates or neglects it. They hope to appeal to the deeply-felt yearning most people have for a comfortable and well-functioning home life. And perhaps, in a strange sense, they want to make us worthy of our fancy machines, which means recognizing the permanent limits of domestic technology to produce domestic happiness. Not a brilliant way to sell the newest appliances, but a recipe for learning again how—and why—to use the ones we already have.

I am afraid that I actually laughed out loud as I read this conclusion (which woke Liko up; he was sleeping on my lap). I'd love to "elevate the domestic sphere in a culture that too often denigrates or neglects it" -- just as soon as I get the time. I think that our little family would also need more space; it'd be hard to live out her utopian vision of domestic bliss in our cramped urban apartment.

Here's the problem: we Americans don't live this way because we want to -- we are forced to by the economic insecurity and inequality that drives our economy. Sure, you can make individual choices or get lucky -- get rich and retire to the country, decide to live with less money and move to a red state, don't have kids, etc. -- in ways that might mitigate anxiety. But the choices we make (and the luck we have) are shaped by our relative family wealth, the need to secure health insurance and pay outrageous rents or mortgages, and the desire to give our children opportunities and expose them to values and cultures that might not be available out in suburban Jesusland. Our lifestyles and values are driven by an unforgiving business culture and abysmal parental leave policies -- not misuse of household appliances. Am I characterizing Rosen correctly, or have I missed something?

BTW, for interesting commentary on the NYT (by way of Seattle Post-Intelligencer) article cited my March 6 blog entry, see Half-Changed World.

Also: Yes, your suspicions are correct: in the photo published with this blog entry, Liko is wearing a bra around his neck. We have clothes – including, as documentary photo evidence indicates, ladies’ undergarments – lying all over our filthy, disgusting house. Doubtless our failure to establish clear-cut gender roles and to elevate the domestic sphere will inevitably lead our son to become to a cross-dressing slob. Perhaps that's a good thing?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Parents vs. Employers

From an article in the Denver Post:
A landmark study by Cornell University has quantified what many working mothers have suspected for years: Women with children are less likely to get hired and are paid less in starting salaries than similarly qualified fathers or women without children. This disparity often follows them throughout their careers...

[At the start of the study, the researcher] created two fictitious applicants seeking a job as a marketing director for a communications company. Both had virtually identical qualifications and resumes with no indication of gender or family status. The applications were presented to 60 undergraduates - both men and women - for evaluation. The reviewers found the applicants to be equal and said they had no hiring preference.

Correll used undergraduates because she believed them to be most closely attuned to the current hiring climate. She also assumed they had been raised in an age when sensibilities about working mothers had changed.

Next, the same resumes were shown to another set of undergraduate evaluators. This time, though, the applicants were both women.

A memo was slipped into one of the application packets mentioning she was a mother of two. Her resume was changed slightly to include a reference to being an officer of a parent-teacher association.

The outcome changed dramatically. The evaluators said they would hire the childless women 84 percent of the time. The mothers were given a job only 47 percent of the time.

The mothers also were offered a starting salary of $11,000 less than their counterparts without children.

The author of the study, Shelley Correll, then "created 300 pairs of cover letters and resumes to apply for advertised midlevel marketing positions. One 'applicant' said in her cover letter she was relocating with her family. The resume mentioned the parent-teacher board position. The other cover letter said the 'applicant' was relocating but made no mention of a family. Early results of this study show the applicant who did not mention a family was called in for an interview twice as frequently as the mother." Later in the article, an HR executive "speculates the tightening job market is giving potential employers a sense they have the upper hand and are more free in their questioning than they would have been a few years ago. She also wonders if there is a backlash brewing against mothers - and increasingly, fathers - who have demanded more flexibility from companies to be with their families."

We already knew this, of course. I wonder: what if someone applied the same test to male applicants? If anybody knows of such a study, let me know.

I have no comment, really, beyond the obvious call for revolution.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Jeremy vs. His Double

Yesterday, early morning: I walk down Castro, toward Market, along a row of Victorians. The street and sidewalks are dark with rainwater, the air cool and white with fog. SUVs idle in driveways, bored children strapped into car seats. The dads – their shoulders broad, dark hair sharply cut, shoes polished, cotton shirts neatly creased, ties conservatively striped – slide the doors shut. I imagine the dads dropping their kids off at daycare, SUV effortlessly gliding through traffic, then parking in a garage, then strolling confidently to pristine glass-walled offices, where they work as lawyers and architects and call each other “Pete” and “Bob” and “Jim.” They make $175K/year; their wives make $100K; they own their Victorians, each worth $1.5 million or so. They’re grown-ups.

The twenty-four bus groans behind me and I halt at the bus stop, wait. Inside the people stand shoulder to shoulder. I look around. There’s a dad sitting just behind the driver, a baby on his lap – sixteen, seventeen months? The dad seems familiar. He’s roughly my age, thirty-three, maybe thirty-four. His hair is cut short but he’s careless about it: it’s shaggy and uncombed, just like mine. He wears fine-framed, rectangular glasses and plain, patternless clothes. I can tell, because I have a closet full of similar clothes, that he secretly likes the anonymity of the Gap. He’s slim, but not athletic. He most likely hates sports. Of course he does. He also scorns cars. He might not even have a driver's license.

The bus grunts past 18th and we the passengers stir restlessly. I watch the dad from the corner of my eye. His lips bob down to his baby’s blonde head, brush the wisps of hair. He keeps his eyes on the baby, caressing the pudgy little forearm. I realize that he’s shy in his affection; he uses the baby as a shield against the people on the bus; he’s uncomfortable in this close-bodied cart, all of us swaying together. I shift away from my neighbors, hunch my shoulders. The dad’s head bobs again, kissing the baby’s crown, and I realize that I’m seeing myself. This is what I look like to other people, when I’m riding the bus with Liko.

We stop at Market and Castro. I get off. The dad and baby follow. They cross ahead of me and step into the Muni station. The station stinks of urine. There are newspapers and paper coffee cups scattered across the tiles. We go through the turnstiles, down the stairs, onto the crowded platform. The dad, I now realize, watching his back, is different from me in some ways. Geekier. Probably less political; he’s never organized a meeting or a demonstration. He drifted through high school, I think, taking honors and AP courses but not really academically oriented. Attended a big state school, just like me. Has a liberal arts degree but spent a lot of time with computers and science-fiction novels. Perhaps he writes code for a living. Is he freelancing? Does he sit up at night, wondering if he’ll still have work in five months? What is he doing out alone with the baby at this time of the morning? Not taking the baby to daycare; the dad’s not dressed for work and he’s carrying only a light diaper bag. Is he a stay-at-home dad? Are they going to a park, the museum? Does his wife wish that she were the one who stayed home with the baby? Sitting at her computer in the afternoon, does she stop typing and just stare at the screen?

The M train pulls little by little into the station, screaming and groaning. Using the baby as his passport – like I’ve done, a hundred times – the dad steps through the crowd, to the edge of the platform. Where are they going, the dad and baby? Now they’re in the train, the baby’s hands pressing against the glass of the door. His enormous blue eyes. How many words is the baby saying? Will he grow up to be just like his dad and me?

It’s so early in the morning, not even 7:30 am. Where are they going? I have questions. Hey, wait. Wait for me. I just want to ask you a few things. Are you happy? Are you sleeping OK? What can I do to get more sleep? Is it better for me to go to work full-time or better to stay home with Liko? Am I doing the right things? Will Liko still love me when he gets older? Will I remember his first steps, first words, the way he laughs? Will all those moments be gone forever or will I always remember them? Hey wait up, motherfucker, wait! I have questions! Stop the train!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Jeremy vs. Patriarchy

I’ve been thinking about the question of how fathers can go about, concretely (as opposed to rhetorically), constructing identities, role models, whatever, that will help liberate their sons from rigid gender roles. That sounds very antiseptic, too much like a ideological formula. To put it a different way: how can I refrain from being a jerk to women, and how can I help my son to not be a jerk when he grows up?

This is going to be a perennial topic on Daddy Dialectic; I don't have a good answer and it's not easy finding one. Let me start by describing a small incident that occurred when my son Liko was three or four weeks old, that maybe will frame the problem. The three of us were in bed. I was reading a novel. Shelly was nursing the baby, who was starting to go to sleep. Very peaceful, and I was really into the novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Suddenly, Liko vomited all over the bed. Then he started to wail his little lungs out.

What was my reaction to this pedestrian mini-crisis? (The like of which I’ve since gone through, oh, maybe four hundred times during the past 20 months.) I was annoyed. Really annoyed – with both Shelly and the baby, as if it were somehow Shelly’s fault that the baby had thrown up all over everything. I was reading, for God's sake!

Thinking this way – I was a twit, you see – I didn’t see myself as involved, as responsible. There’s a moment in an Alice Munro story, “Post and Beam,” that describes this stance: “Later she asked Brendan to stop so that she could lay the baby down on the front seat and change his diaper. Brendan walked at a distance while she did this, smoking a cigarette. Diaper ceremonies always affronted him a little.” I wish I could say that I don’t understand Munro’s character Brendan. Unfortunately I do, and any North American dad who says he doesn’t is absolutely full of shit. This is the mechanism fathers use to foist daily childcare onto moms: they lump the baby and mom together and position themselves as above it – like a kind of shop-floor supervisor, sitting in a glass-walled office, watching the rows of women sewing T-shirts. The supervisor says, or thinks: You’re doing this wrong; you’re not doing it fast enough; snap out of it; can’t you see the baby’s hungry?

The standard, gendered dad-goes-to-work/mom-stays-home division of labor reinforces that glass wall. Making money is part of childrearing; that entails its own sacrifices, and has to be understood and honored – but how do you smash that glass wall that a job creates, that divides men from women and symbolizes separation from children and family? In the absence of a social revolution in parenting, how do you raise boys and girls who can avoid or escape all the traps set by gender roles? I’m going to stop here for today, to be continued.

(To anticipate one comment: I'm well aware that one's wife, sleep deprived and wrung out, can turn on a single innocent comment into a snake-haired Medusa whose single look can turn you to stone – and, uh, maybe there’s some personal/political issues there? But I’m not the one to find them. I am, as they say in AA, taking my own inventory.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Liko vs. Patriarchy

Near the end of the entry, you’ll find a link to, and brief commentary on, a truly appalling essay, “The Return of Patriarchy.” However, I’d like to start today’s entry with an interesting article from the New York Times, courtesy of my friend Wendy Call, on the stalled movement of women into the workforce: "Most of us thought we would work and have kids, at least that was what we were brought up thinking we would do -- no problem," says one of the mothers interviewed. "But really we were kind of duped. None of us realized how hard it is." The article continues:
[A study of] time-use surveys done by the Census Bureau and others, has concluded that contrary to popular belief, the broad movement of women into the paid labor force did not come at the expense of their children. Not only did fathers spend more time with children, but working mothers, she found, spent an average of 12 hours a week on child care in 2003, an hour more than stay-at-home mothers did in 1975.

Instead, mothers with children at home found the time for outside work by taking it from other parts of their day. They also worked more overall. [The study] found that employed mothers, on average, worked at home and on the job a total of 15 hours more a week and slept 3.6 fewer hours than those who were not employed...

The research suggests that women may have already hit a wall in the amount of work they can pack into a week. From 1965 to 1995, [the study] found, the average time mothers spent doing paid work jumped to almost 26 hours a week from nine hours. Time spent on housework fell commensurately, from 32 hours to 19.

Then the trend stalled. From 1995 to 2003, mothers, on average, spent about the same amount of time on household chores, but their work outside the home fell by almost four hours a week.

"Looking toward the future," said Francine Blau, a professor of economics at Cornell University, "one can question how much further increases in women's participation can be had without more reallocation of household work."

A good question. "This is having broad repercussions for the economy," the article concludes, ominously. "Today, about 75 percent of women 25 to 54 years old are either working or actively seeking a job, up from around 40 percent in the late 1950s. That expansion helped fuel economic growth for decades."

Economic growth, huh? Let's restate the numbers: since the Seventies, women are spending more time with their kids and more time at work, but they're sleeping 3.6 fewer hours a week while still taking time from "other parts of their day." Men probably have it slightly easier, but this, in a nutshell, explains why contemporary parenthood has become such a pressure-cooker.

In such conditions, what's the best way to live? Working even less would be a start, which is exactly what’s happened in Europe. But the European Union is no utopia for women: depending on the country, there might be even less gender parity in housework and childcare, and a recent International Newsweek article suggests that by providing support for women to stay home, Europe’s generous maternity leave programs are killing their career prospects. Is this just imperialistic American propaganda? Maybe, maybe not; but why should that situation surprise anybody? If basic needs are secured and society gives us options, most people, male and female, will choose to spend more time with their families, or in pursuing creative interests – both of which make society a better, happier place, even if they don’t contribute much to making the rich richer. It seems to me that the solution is not to junk Europe’s welfare system, as some suggest, but to change the culture and public policy so that more men can take more advantage of parental leave. At present, in both Europe and America, it's simply not OK for most men to go back into the workforce after five years of full or part-time parenting and explain the gap in their resume by saying, "I took a few years off to take care of my daughter." It's hard enough for women, but for men, taking that time can mean death to their careers, and they know it. So, it’s not enough to provide parental leave to dads; you also have to make it safe to take advantage of leave.

What if the culture changed – or perhaps I should say, what if we changed the culture? – so that men were expected to take on more childcare, and public policy supported that expectation? Many men would jump at the opportunity, and many women – those who want to – might jump back into careers. Then maybe you’d see fewer men in decision-making positions, but more women, and everybody might work less. It is, as the hacks say, a win-win…isn’t it? Unfortunately, no – it means less social power for men and more for women, and that makes it a political fight.

For an example, see “The Return of Patriarchy” by Phillip Longman in the current issue of Foreign Policy. “Across the globe,” Longman argues, “people are choosing to have fewer children or none at all. Governments are desperate to halt the trend, but their influence seems to stop at the bedroom door. Are some societies destined to become extinct? Hardly. It’s more likely that conservatives will inherit the Earth. Like it or not, a growing proportion of the next generation will be born into families who believe that father knows best.” (This gnarly gem came to me courtesy of Claire Light , who saw it first on Dar Kush.) Longman surveys trends such as falling birthrates, increasing divorce, women in the workforce, and a societal aversion to war (in developed societies, he writes, “the quality of human capital may be high, but it has literally become too rare to put at risk” through warfare; he thinks that this is a bad thing) – and then concludes that since these developments almost always lead to the collapse of civilization as he knows and loves it, then a patriarchal reaction simply must set in and smite the girly men and feminists who are its enemies. I read the article carefully, I’m sad to say – that’s time I’ll never get back. Well, I agree that a patriarchal reaction is setting in against some very positive trends, but I don’t think its triumph is preordained by history. Sorry, Phillip, I’m not seeing any real evidence here; only wishful thinking on your part. If you want to see a more comprehensive critique of Longman’s screed, visit Joshua Holland’s blog on AlterNet. You’ll also find a sharp critique from my son Liko, pictured at the top of this blog entry.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Jeremy vs. the Nap

Shelly worked late last night. The boy and I went out to dinner, walked around, shopped. At about 7:30, when he realized Mom was late, he started to squirm and whimper. I flashed back to August, when Shelly had first gone back to work. I hadn't been alone with him for more than six hours at a time and I had never successfully put him down for a nap -- Liko, a confirmed breast-addict, needed Mom's milk to sleep. When I'd set him down, he'd wail inconsolably, relentlessly, reaching out to me, but when I picked him up, he'd fight back, kicking and arching his back, his little hands pushing off against my chest. When Shelly left for work that first day, it was me and him, and it was scary. I remember at first, when he got tired, I'd put him in the stroller and walk. He'd cry and fall asleep, but when I stopped -- in a bookstore, a coffeeshop -- he'd wake and cry again. I'd keep moving, sticking to the side streets, going up the hills and down, up and down. Time slowed and with every minute I'd feel more and more anxious. Was this now my life? I'd see three people laughing in a picture window, and want to be one of them. Soon I let that go, let myself get lost. On foggy days the hills of San Francisco floated around me like deserted islands. I'd study the cornices and gables on the Victorian facades, watch the tsunami of cloud spill over Twin Peaks. Later Liko learned to fall asleep in my arms. I'd carry him through all the rooms, stepping carefully around the bouncy seat, the swing, the baby gym, the high chair, the toy basket; I'd do this for hours. One day I sat down in a rocking chair and he didn't wake up. I took a book down from the bookshelf. It was the best book I'd ever read, I don't remember its name. Now we had a routine: I'd carry him, he'd fall asleep, and I'd sit rocking with him on my lap, and I'd read. I loved reading again after going months without finishing a book. When my eyes got tired they'd fall to his pocket-sized face, see his fingers on my forearm. One afternoon as the room darkened, his eyes snapped open and he said "Dada" and smiled; he was glad to see me there with him. Now he can nap on his own, though he wakes up often and I often take him back in my lap. He's a terrible sleeper. Last week I met a dad at the playground; he had a nine-month old. Got the day off? he asked. I told him that I took care of the baby while my wife was at work. Every day? he said. Sometimes we have a sitter, I said, when I have work to do. He looked at his baby, who was trying to lick the sand. I've never been alone with her for more than three hours, he said -- that sounds scary, to be alone with a baby all day; what do you do? I told him: Nothing much. I was scared at first, but now I'm just nervous all the time.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Welcome to the new dialectics of daddyhood

Being a dad ain't what it used to be. Women have more choices than they did prior to the feminist movement, and that means men also have more choices. My name is Jeremy. I'm a writer and publishing consultant, but mostly, I take care of my 19-month-old son Liko. It started in July, when I quit the job that I hated and started a freelancing career. Friends had suggested that I should write about being a mostly stay-at-home dad. Until last week, I always said, No, I’m not going to write about being a dad; not yet, anyway.

But recently I surprised myself by posting a blog entry to Other Magazine about it, and I realized that I was ready to start writing and thinking about fatherhood, and maybe help other dads in the process. This is what I wrote, which I'm sharing as the first entry in my new blog:

Here’s the thing: I don’t think I deserve a medal and I don’t think every dad should do what I’m doing. Not everyone can. We’re lucky – it’s all relative – that my wife’s job has solid benefits and that I can still make enough money as a freelancer to pay our $1,800 rent (in San Francisco $1,800 gets you a one-and-a-half bedroom apartment with a deck). Yes, I read newspapers and I’m aware that I’m supposedly part of a trend. “The number of stay-at-home dads almost doubled from 1994 to 2004 – from 76,000 to 147,000 – according to the U.S. Census,” says a Feb. 22 article in the Contra Costa Times. But let’s put that in perspective: 147,000 is nothing compared to the millions – billions, if you look worldwide – of women who defer careers, hobbies, adventures, and sex lives to take care of a legion of children. Even in liberal, genderfucking San Francisco, I’m still usually the only dad in Liko’s music and swim classes, and usually the only one of the playground before 5 pm. Yes, I quit my job and powered down my so-called career so that I could take care of my son. I did it because I wanted to, not to be somebody’s role model.

And you know what? – I’m addressing you gentlemen, in particular: I’ve given up a lot, many things besides just a job. I don’t write stories and poems and essays like I used to; I no longer organize readings and fundraisers; my social circle has shrunk significantly. I don’t go to movies. I usually rise at around 5 am – I work in the mornings, and I make enough money as a freelancer to have my own office – and sometimes, when it’s still dark and I’m standing in line for coffee, I can feel my old life twitching like a phantom limb. I want to jump out of line and go running back to 2003, when I could just decide that today, I’m going to sit in a cafĂ© and read, and then later, I’m going to see a movie, and then after that, I’ll go to the Make-Out Room and get drunk with my friends. Today in 2006 I’m just tired all the time. When I have a free moment, I do the dishes.

Does anything I just wrote mean that parenthood and staying home with Liko is a drag? Do I feel sorry for myself? Fuck no. I’m not a good enough writer to tell you how holding him makes me feel; let’s just say it feels good. When we’re blasting Yo La Tengo or the Strokes or Blondie (his favorites; he has a thing for punk, new wave, indie pop, etc.; anything that bounces, really) and I’m dancing and he’s careening down the hall, arms flailing, hopping from one foot to the other, and then he runs up and hugs my leg and yells “Dada!” – life can’t get any better. Nobody gives a shit about my poems anyway; the world can live without my stories. Most movies suck. From where I stand in 2006, the Jeremy of 2003 looks like an emotionally parsimonious, spiritually puerile wanker. I helped make a new life, and that’s staggering: a new human being, and a new life for me. I don’t want to give him to a nanny; I want to take care of him and see him grow. I wish I were with him now. Writing this, I feel like I’m stealing time from him.

It’s probably impossible – and there’s no shame in this – for a non-parent to understand the Heaven and Hell of being a parent. It’s a whole cosmos unto itself, ruled by Satan on one side and Jehovah on the other, and you never quite feel whole – or at least, I don’t. There are two of me now, one who yearns for freedom and the other who wants nothing more than to be chained to my drooling, pooping, cuddly little boy. I’m still new at this, still in the process of being transformed in ways both bad and good; maybe in time I’ll grow up and the two sides will merge into a whole person. More likely, judging from the patterns I’ve seen in my family and in older parents, it’ll be a seesaw, with one side and then the other getting heavier, lighter, heavier, wishing, accepting, wishing. And when he’s gone and can take care of himself, who will I be? Well, I’ll let you know when I get there. Humans have been raising kids and facing life cycles since we came down from the trees, but I’ve got a lot more going for me than my flea-bitten, ant-eating ancestors on the African savannah. I’ve had more choices than most people have in the world – certainly more choices than most women have ever had.

Where was I? Right: I’m supposed to be a trend, according to the Contra Costa Times. Well, it’s a pretty small fucking trend and I guess that I’m not interested in making it any bigger – or maybe I should say, I don’t feel I have the authority to tell anyone how they should structure their family life. I just want to get through to the end of the day. Parenting is brutally hard and wonderful work and it’s not for everybody; most men in our society will resist making the sacrifices involved with staying home – and why shouldn’t they resist, really? What’s in it for them? To be seen as a heroic pioneer? Fuck that. Why, for that matter, should moms be pushed into working so that the guy can stay home? Moms are never interviewed in these trend stories – how do they feel about it? (Maybe that’s the story I should write.) Why, now that I think about it, should anybody be forced to work a 50-hour week at a job they hate? Dads-at-home will be a tiny minority for as long as parents have to scramble to keep their heads above water, trying to make enough money to survive and give their kids the best life possible, under the circumstances. If Americans – we fat, rich, selfish, sadistic, TV-watching bastards – really wanted to encourage stable families and more paternal responsibility in raising kids, we’d raise our boys to be caregivers, guarantee health care for everyone, build more affordable housing, and require and incentivize employers to give all new parents, poor and middle-class, a break. Until all that happens, don’t talk to me about trends.


Since I published that entry, I’ve heard from quite a few people (in other blogs, through email, and on the Other forum) and they’ve made me conscious of its impact. When I wrote what I wrote, I made a deliberate decision to shut off my rational, responsible filter and just say what I felt. After I published it, I realized (everybody but me will have seen this) that the very act of describing my experience in a public forum made me an example, and that example could encourage (or discourage!) other dads to consider, circumstances permitting, taking on more childcare and even re-structuring their work lives to stay at home. That would be a good thing – a little bit like SNCC sending a handful of Ivy League white kids down to Mississippi to work beside black folks and get shot at by the KKK. That relatively small number of white kids said “Holy shit!” and ran back to their dorms and helped other white kids see the system for what it was, and act to change it – hence, “The Sixties.” Maybe if enough men – it won’t be many – come back from changing diapers and say, OK, things have to change, then maybe that will trigger the change. I know the priveleged classes can do wonderful things when they’re appropriately freaked.

However, in writing about my experience I don't want to water it down and deploy a lot of flowery language about discovering your feminine, nurturing side, blah, blah, blah. I’m not interested in making parenthood or staying at home attractive for men, or women, for that matter. This blog is not an advertisement for parenthood or for stay-at-home-dads. Parenthood is what it is; you are who you are; you'll make the best decision for you. Maybe I have to accept that I am an example, but I don’t blame any woman or man for making different decisions. I've decided to start this blog to publicly chronicle my efforts to be a decent father and husband, and do something that not many men have tried to do. Let this first message serve as a half-assed, anxious manifesto. Welcome to Daddy Dialectic!