Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Grups vs. Caitlin Flanagan

"Daddy Dialectic" is going offline from today until, oh, probably May 1 or 2; I have deadlines to meet, plus pressing personal business, and not enough time.

But in the meantime:

"You know that feeling when you're reading a magazine article and you realize the group they are profiling is basically you and your friends?" writes my friend Chris. "I'm not sure I want to be known as a 'grup,' but this article is all about hipsters with young kids. It's long, but worth a read ..."

It is worth a read. I don't have time to comment (media commentary isn't really what "Daddy Dialectic" does, anyway), but: a) the article has a clear class and race bias, so take it with a grain of salt; b) still, it's all true, most of it, for the narrow group described; and c) the generation gap is dying even as it's widening. More later.

After you read that, check out this so-funny-it-must-be-satire-but-isn't-so-therefore-it's-pretty-sad interview with anti-feminist New Yorker writer Caitlin Flanagan. "The perfect woman." Yeah, sure. (Found via Rebeldad.)

Friday, April 21, 2006

Inside vs. Outside

Liko sleeps in bed with us. Last week we started to night-wean him, so that he would not nurse all night on Shelly. She now sleeps in the living room; Liko and I sleep in the bedroom. We’ll continue this arrangement until Liko no longer tries to nurse at night.

It’s going fine. Last night as I watched him sleep, feeling like the bed was a raft and we were just drifting along a dark river, I felt something change within me. It’s difficult to communicate. I’ll try.

In the early months – the fabled fourth trimester – Liko needed Shelly and in my ignorance and inexperience, I was largely a supportive bystander. I could not imagine putting him down to sleep without mom; I couldn’t imagine caring for him all by myself, as a father. This bred a certain helplessness – common to first-time fathers – on my part.

Last night he curled up into the crook of my arm. I held him, feeling his little back rise and fall. I felt totally responsible for Liko and totally capable of caring for him, day or night. That feeling of responsibility and capability gave me a concomitant feeling of confidence and power – not “power” in the sense of physical force or strength, but as in the ability to do what has to be done.

“Parent” did not feel like a role that I was adopting, but like something intrinsic to my identity. It didn’t feel “like” anything, really; it was its own thing, my thing, like my arms or my legs. Today I feel somehow more free than I have felt in two years.

Before Liko, I remember watching parents with young children: I’d see the whining, the screaming, the messes, the rising frustration. I’d think: no, no, not me, never. Parenthood looks horrible. They must be miserable. After Shelly got pregnant, I walked the streets of San Francisco with a feeling of doom, imagining - correctly - that I wouldn't be able to go there or do that after the baby came. "The baby" was a very abstract concept.

I am writing this entry in the café of the San Francisco Main Public Library. A short time ago a young man, mid-20s, sat down next to me with another young man, who suffers from some degenerative nervous disorder. They are strangers to me, but I have seen them both around the Mission many times, one caring from the other. I don’t know anything about their relationship – brothers, friends? I know that they both dress like Mission hipsters, in high-tops and thrift-store jackets, the kind of conformist alterna-dress you see shoulder-to-shoulder at a Yo La Tengo concert. Over the years I’ve watched the sick one grow more palsied, more bent upon himself, less recognizable. I don’t know anything about his illness, but I cannot imagine him surviving too many more years.

For the past fifteen minutes I covertly watched one hold a drink up to the other’s mouth. I watched him wipe the other’s chin, force the other’s hands into a position that would allow him to eat, spoon food. A palsied hand knocked milk onto a shirt, the floor. One patiently cleaned it up. At the end one had a small seizure; the other dealt with it.

They just left, one guiding the other at the elbow. Watching them oppressed and saddened me; my hands feel heavy as I write. I’m trying to understand why. Perhaps I was seeing myself as I might appear with Liko to other people: burdened by responsibility, trapped in caring for another, covered in spit and milk. That’s the external image. Internally, how do the two young men feel? There must be anger, both at thwarted lives. But what freedom and power is there, where we can’t see it?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Easter Sunday in San Francisco

Easter in San Francisco: Children and drag queens everywhere; egg hunt, white rabbits, Hunky Jesus contest. At the annual Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Easter Celebration, we saw our friends Lesley and Graham and their daughter Rivers; we also saw Shelley and Chris Pepper and their little boy Cole.

We were all happy living in a city where families and trannies (not mutually exclusive categories) can mix without fear of hellfire and damnation.

Shelley Pepper and I sat watching Liko and Cole tug-of-war over a truck:

Me: Boys sure do like trucks.

Shelley: Yeah, it’s true.

Me: They’re so little. I’m starting to think that there really are essential biological differences between boys and girls.

Shelley: Sure. I feel like I can admit that in San Francisco. Back in Missouri, I don’t think I would.

Me: Why is that?

Shelley: Because here you can admit it and people just think it’s funny. Back home people take it as evidence that women shouldn’t vote, or something.

Me: Here you can admit all kinds of things but not worry that somebody will put you in a box. Straight white guys like me don’t have all the social power.

Shelley: And everybody has better sex.

Me: You have sex?

(Liko loses the truck, starts weeping. Conversation over.)

Turns out that a recent study confirms Shelley’s observation. From the San Francisco Chronicle:
Sex is more satisfying in countries where women and men are considered equal, according to an international study of people between the ages of 40 and 80 by researchers at the University of Chicago…

"Male-centered cultures where sexual behavior is more oriented toward procreation tend to discount the importance of sexual pleasure for women," [said sociologist Edward Laumann, considered a top authority on the sociology of sex].

[For steel-eyed analysis of the study in question, see Echidne of the Snakes on April 20. Shelley, by the way, took the photos that go with today’s entry: Liko; a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence; Shelley's boy Cole dances with a rabbit.]

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Parents vs. Life

At the SF Weekly, Matt Smith writes movingly about the death of three-year old Olive Woo Murphy, who was in his daughter's pre-school class:

On March 29 Olive's mother, Linda Woo, brought her two children and a portable barbecue into a Subaru Outback at their Ingleside home. When a neighbor found them, Olive was dead from the barbecue's fumes. Her brother Carter, 4, was unconscious. Woo was still awake. She had reportedly been distraught over a recent separation from her husband. The resulting murder and attempted murder charges carry 25 years to life...

A jury will soon attempt to fathom what Linda Woo's demented thoughts were when she killed little Olive. So there's no point doing that now. We're merely left pondering whether, or when, there will be a next time, and if we're doing enough for children and their caregivers, and for people struggling, or who appear as if they might be struggling, with depression or other mental illness. We're left looking around us at a city that, despite its plethora of playgrounds, programs, and beautiful places for children to live, can be a lonely, stressful, even anguishing place for a mother. If you know one, this might be a good week to ask how she's doing, and listen. Ask if she needs any help. Then follow through if she does...

I recently discovered that a mom close to me is seriously depressed and even afraid that she might hurt her baby. Many parents I know in San Francisco feel pushed to the very edge. It's mostly moms, but stay-at-home dads -- not to mention working dads and moms - are also struggling to keep their heads above water. We face criticism from relatives, stress over money and work, conflict with our spouses, anxieties over status - the list is endless.

I guess I only want to second Smith's call to ask a mom how she's doing, and really listen. And ask a dad, too, especially a stay-at-home dad: in our culture (and in many cultures) men are punished, in ways large and small, subtle and obvious, for revealing anxieties or sharing emotions. That doesn't mean that they're not anxious or emotional. Dads and moms: when someone you trust asks how you're doing, don't be afraid to tell the truth. There are so many barriers that divide us; but if we can step over them, we might just help each other out.

[By the way, the photos for both today and April 10 were taken by our friend, Negar Siadatnejad. The April 10 photos of the immigration march in San Francisco were all taken by my wife Shelly.]

Monday, April 10, 2006

Mud People vs. The Bush Administration

I don't know much about how my ancestors came to the U.S. There are Native American names in my family tree, so some of them came over from Asia during the Ice Age. Many came down from Canada bearing both French and English names. I don't know if they were legal or illegal.

Shelly knows a bit more about her family. Her father's mother's family had households in China and Hawaii, and shuttled back and forth on cruise ships. When the Communists gained power in China, the family divided. Shelly's grandmother stayed in Hawaii and was raised by relatives. Shelly doesn't know much about her father's father's origins. The whole family became citizens when Hawaii became a state in 1959. Shelly's mom's family, meanwhile, is supposedly descended from Peregrine White, born on the Mayflower (" ...it pleased God that Mistriss White was brought a bed of a son, which was called Peregrine." -- Mourt’s Relation, ed. Jordan D. Fiore, Plymouth, Mass: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1985.)

Our collective, familial memories are fading; we're forgetting that we were once immigrants, driven to the States by politics, economics, unhappiness, yearning. We flutter together like quantum butterflies, every flap of our wings triggering hurricanes in times and places we can't even imagine. How did all these people, bedraggled and confused, traveling from every corner of the earth, come together to form Liko Wai-Kaniela Smith-Doo, my miracle, my hurricane? His name is a trainwreck; so's his bloodline. He's a mutt, my son, a walking, talking Amerieuroasiapacific mashup. I think he's pretty cool.

And this afternoon (I'm starting this late Monday night; will probably post early Tuesday morning) Liko and me and Shelly joined 5,000 other mongrels in marching against...well, who cares? Sure, the Senate wiped out on passing some racist immigration law that would have made illegal status a felony; yes, there was talk at the rally of work permits and legal status for illegal immigrants. There were policy issues at stake, but in many ways, policy wasn't the point.

I don't know about everybody else, but my family was marching for cross-pollination, miscegenation, globalism, cosmopolitanism. We were marching for cities and against the suburbs. My utopia is closer to William Burroughs's Interzone - "the Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market" - than gleaming, seamless, monolithic visions like Plato's Republic or the underground cities of H.G. Wells.

The world is globalizing. Good. But if capital can move across borders so that capitalists can make money, then ordinary working people should be able to do the same. That seems fair, doesn't it? And a world full of Likos wouldn't be a bad place. Si se puede!

Follow-up on "Dad vs. Mr. Mom"

I didn't think much of about my April 4 post when I wrote it; I was just musing. However, the post provoked a number of fascinatingly neurotic discussion threads in the progressive parenting blogosphere.

Rebeldad's April 5 link and commentary triggered some mild homosexual panic:
Many women also seem to have this facination to want their husband's or boyfriends to show their feminine side or turn them into "girly" dads. Sorry but I don't have a feminine side. I'm a frieken [sic] guy! I only have a masculine side...The other day Tina paid me a compliment and said how much she appreciated the way I parent as a DAD. And I told her how much I appreicate the way she parents as a MOM. And then we had sex!

As well as thoughtful disagreement:
I am not a mom, I do not mother. I am a father, and by his [i.e., my] definition, I do father... and more. The ideals he's mentioned are exactly the types of stereotypes that create the awkward looks we get on the playgrounds. It's not an insecurity issue, at least for me. I'm parenting, not mothering. Usually, I'll take the title with a grain of salt, unless its said in a negative tone. Then I tend to take the same defensive stance I would take were someone to call me a slacker for not "working".

But the most substantial dialogue happened over at Half Changed World, where Elizabeth (who objected to some parts of the original post) wrote:
But maybe Jeremy's right in some ways. I write here a fair amount about what I call "reverse traditional families"; families with working mothers and at-home fathers. One of the strains on women in these families is that we rarely give ourselves mothering credit for being breadwinners. We often beat ourselves up for the things that we don't do, without giving ourselves corresponding brownie points for the things we do. Maybe we should stop worrying about whether we're good enough mothers, and decide that we're damned good fathers.

In the various threads, including here on Daddy Dialectic, you can see that we as a culture (assuming you take the threads as representative) are very far from consensus about what mothering and fathering mean.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Dad vs. Mr. Mom

Something strange – you might even call it “queer,” a term to which I shall return – happened two weeks ago. The day started ordinarily enough. I came home and Shelly went to work. I took Liko to a café for lunch and then we strollered to the Noe Courts playground. It was about 12:30 PM on a Monday.

Suddenly, at the playground gates, we stepped into a parallel universe where the laws of gender bent and vanished (cue Twilight Zone theme): Liko and I found ourselves surrounded by…men. Three men playing with three toddlers. No women in sight. What the hell?

One dad left, but another arrived. At one PM, it was still only dads and kids.

Naturally, we compared notes. All four of us agreed that this situation was, in our collective experience, unprecedented. It emerged that one of us was a full-time stay-at-home dad but looking for a job; two of us had quit careers to take care of our kids but still, out of necessity, worked part-time as freelancers; the fourth was ABD on a Ph.D. All four of our wives worked more hours than we did. For the ABD, this was his second time around; he had a two-year-old and a seven-year-old. “There are definitely more dads on the playgrounds now than there were five years ago,” he said.

At about 1:30 PM, the first mom arrived with her baby. Liko and I went home for a nap.

This incident raises the question: how many of us – and by “us” I mean men who are the primary caregivers to their children — are out there? The 2004 census says that there are 147,000 stay-at-home-dads – that’s at home, all day, every workday, with the kids. That’s about 1.7 percent of all U.S. parents who are taking care of children, which is, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, pathetic.

But recently I’ve started to wonder, is that number misleading?

I’m not one of those full-time SAHDs (hate that acronym), by the way. I work part-time. In most contemporary families, the primary caregiver, mom or dad, works at least part of the time – but we don’t how many men have powered down careers to stay home as much as possible with their kids. I’ve seen non-sourced estimates as high as two million, but even half of that number is significant. Why don’t we hear more about it? Despite a handful of trend stories about “New Fatherhood,” the at-home dad is largely invisible in the media and in most people’s minds – perhaps deservedly so.

Despite the doubling in the number of stay-at-home dads from 1995-2004, by almost every other measure – housework, making child support payments, etc. – men in aggregate are not pulling their weight with domestic labor. “American women put in additional five hours a week in housework once they are married, while marriage doesn’t significantly effect the number of hours a man does,” writes Ashley Merryman. “American women do 70-80 percent of the total domestic work – regardless of their employment status.” And so forth – I don’t think I need to beat this dead horse. We all know it’s true. So 147,000 men stay home with their kids? So what? Those guys are freaks. (I’m kidding, dads. Actually, I'm not. You are freaks. Don't be afraid. Fly your freak flag!) Part of the reason why I’m reluctant to jump on the whole stay-at-home bandwagon is that I understand how such choices are driven more by economic necessity than a parent’s individual desires. Lots of dads - 56 percent, according to one poll -- would like to stay home with their kids. So would a lot of moms. We’ll need to change the way the economy operates before we can change family life in any kind of positive way.

Perhaps – and I really am just speculating – the SAHD “trend” is just another symptom of the bifurcation of America into blue states and red states, urban centers of social progressivism vs. suburban and exurban redoubts of reaction. Are proliferating stay-at-home dads a bunch of affluent, latte-drinking, BMW-driving metrosexuals who wouldn’t know how to fix a water heater or shoot a deer if their lives depended on it? Are Red State dads all patriarchal deadbeats who couldn’t wash a dish or change a diaper if their lives depended on it? Part of the answer is probably locked in the census; someday I’ll have time to research it (just by looking at the geographical concentration of SAHDs and then superimposing distribution of income and education – seems like somebody’s probably already done this).

The dads-at-home I know in Noe Valley do, in fact, tend to be highly educated, cultural-creative, espresso-loving guys: an archeologist, a Web developer, a writer, a private gourmet chef. One is a former teacher who now sells real estate because that offers more time to be with his son. Most are white; one is Asian; one is mixed race, predominantly black. None are as vain as metrosexuals are supposed to be; it’s hard to preen when all your shirts have baby-drool spots on the shoulder. But yes, these are all comparatively privileged men who have ended up on the right side of the information economy, educated and creative. They have options. Staying at home with their kids is almost, from this perspective, a status symbol.

But all that might just reflect the class and demographic character of my neighborhood. (Also: we are all straight. On the other side of Castro, I do encounter a small number of gay dads.) Nationally, I suspect stay-at-home dads are quite a bit more diverse. In fact, according to a Spike TV survey – I have no idea how reliable this survey is – majority of stay-at-home-dads are black. Many stay-at-home-dads are simply unemployed and looking for a job, and according to data, many of those men are actually not doing their share of housework.

What about the ones who voluntarily father full-time or most of the time, and take primary responsibility for running homes? In addition to meeting more at-home dads in my neighborhood, I’ve recently spent quite a lot of time lurking on online forums and blogs for dads-at-home, absorbing who these guys are and how they think about their work as fathers. A couple of qualities strike me.

First, no one is complaining. No one particularly worries about being invisible, ignored, whatever. Most – not all, but most – are doing what they want to do, and they’re happy doing it. “None of us at home fathers go into it in order to be some sort of social role model,” writes “Tragula” in response to one of my blog entries. “So, no, we don’t deserve medals. At least not for that. If anything the correct response from people would be a completely neutral one. But we do have to put up with some shit from the less enlightened crowd, and face some additional obstacles in a mom-centric world. For that a pat on the back once in a while can be nice, but is not required.” Exactly.

Second, they are alienated. Dads-at-home know they’re outsiders. “I soon learned that the stay-at-home dad is not included in the social network of stay-at-home moms who typically have playgroups,” writes a fellow named Bill Dow. “When you are at the playground with 10 other mothers, it's easy to feel like a fish out of water.” It doesn’t matter how progressive you feel yourself to be (and many of these guys, BTW, are not at all politically progressive) or how much you love being with your kids, you’re still a man in concentric worlds of women and children. You stand out and you stand outside the circle, listening to conversations you can’t participate in. You know you’re hurting your career prospects. You know that many men look down on your choice, or at least wonder if your choice means you can’t hold down a real job.

And yes, as the contents of "Daddy Dialectic" testify, all that does sometimes make me anxious. But mostly, I don’t care. I’m glad to be an outsider. In online SAHD circles, Mr. Mom is supposed to be an offensive term, but I find it fitting. When I’m taking care of Liko, I don’t feel like I’m “fathering” him. In my mind – and this is just the thought I was raised with, not the one I want to have – a father goes to work and comes home in the evening. "Fathering" is playing ball, patting on the back, putting food on the table. An honorable role.

A mother, meanwhile, is home changing diapers and cleaning baby food off the floor and kissing skinned knees. That's also honorable and often honored. That’s what I do. So I feel like by staying home with him, I’m “mothering” Liko. I’m a mom, or at least, that’s my role. In many respects, a man out in the middle of the afternoon with his toddler, who is known to neighbors and neighborhood shop clerks and waitresses as a “Mr. Mom,” is a man in drag, and queer in the most political sense of the term. Why shouldn’t I be proud to be a Mr. Mom? I hope someday “Dad” and “Mom” will be interchangeable with regard to childcare, but we ain’t there yet. For now, I’m happy to be queer.

To end where I started: there are indeed more and more of us queer dads on the playground, or so it seems. Good. Despite all the social ambiguities, I'm glad. Now here's the really interesting question: what effect will our choices have on the next generation? Hopefully, Liko won't see "fathering" the way I do. To him (hopefully; things can change) a dad will be somebody who cooks, does dishes, and takes care of him. Hopefully, he'll have company. Hopefully. We can always hope.