Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Toddlers vs. Conservatives

A friend of ours is studying child language development. She asked us to note down words and phrases that Liko uttered during a 12-hour period. Here's a random sampling, for your amusement and edification. (For parents anxious to make comparisons, Liko is 26 months old. )

Baby, baby singing.
Cold. Cold.
Hold it. Mommy hold it.
Dump. Dump it. Milk.
Thank you.
More - all gone.
Got it, raspberry.
Moon, moon, sun, sun, sun.
Too hot. Too hot.
Dip, dip, dipping, dip, dip things.
Play ball. Liko play ball.
Bye, fire.
Beepbeep. Horn.
Guy sing that.
Sound banjo makes.
Hold them, George.
Daddy don't go. Come.
School - Sasha crying.
I saw a didgeridoo!

The last two lines require explanations.

Back in July, we attended the Didgeridoo Festival in Reno, NV. A didgeridoo is an aboriginal Australian musical instrument. It made an impression on Liko, who excitedly cries out whenever he sees one in a book. I'm still amazed that he can pronounce "didgeridoo."

As for "School - Sasha crying": Sasha is a little girl in Liko's preschool who terribly missed her mommy, and cried and cried. Liko, who also cried and cried when I dropped him off, started talking with us about Sasha at night as he went to bed. After a few nights of this, he said, "Liko crying." Why? we asked. "Daddy left." We asked him if Sasha's mommy came back. "Yes." We said that his mommy and daddy would always come back too and take him home. "Yeah!" Did he have fun at school while daddy and mommy were away? "Yeah!" Did he have a favorite teacher? etc.

Here's what's incredible (to me) about this story: Liko is clearly relating his feelings to another toddler's, remembering things, verbalizing his memories, and using his memories to put things in perspective. I'm proud to say that this is fairly typical of my son, who is exceptionally empathic and compassionate for a toddler; he often tries to clumsily comfort crying babies on the playground (a gesture that is not always appreciated).

I thought of this as I was wasting time reading conservative parenting books - recall John Rosemond's words, quoted here on September 24: “One does not have to teach antisocial behavior to toddlers. They are by nature violent, deceitful, destructive, rebellious and prone to sociopathic rages if they do not get their way.”

My son is none of those things (not yet!) and I don't know any toddler who is as "violent" as Rosemond describes. Sure, Liko cries and stamps his feet when he is upset; sometimes he blindly hits and kicks. But when he does that, I don't see "sociopathic rages" - I see a confused growing boy who is still learning how to deal with and express his feelings. A true sociopath has no feelings. Sociopathology is a mental illness; toddlers are not mentally ill.

Discipline is necessary and so is punishment, but discipline is not synonymous with punishment. It's a distinction the conservative parenting gurus I've read fail to make. Worse, they see evil where there is none. Toddlers are not yet socialized, but the capacities for empathy, compassion, and cooperation are already there and blooming. Conservatives would say that I am merely beguiled by my child, but I see such qualities in all of the dozens of toddlers I know. They are beautiful. I love the way they run, with every part of their little bodies moving independently of the others, and the way they laugh and explore. Toddlers want to share and help; they don't always know how.

Not only does the conservative portrait of toddlerhood fly in the face of my personal experience, it also defies all scientific research into the topic. (I can feel the one or two conservatives who might be reading this shutting off; as the books I've read make clear, they see science as the enemy.) In a 2001 study, UC cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik discovered that 18-month-olds understood that another person's tastes might be different, and shared foods if the other person demonstrated a liking for it, an important first step in developing empathy. Nancy L. Marshall at Wellesley College found that "when toddlers saw a teddy bear suffer an 'accident,' their faces showed distress and concern. They also responded by trying to help or comfort the bear."

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany found "that preverbal toddlers as young as 18 months old understand when adults need their assistance and will do their best to help out, even for no reward." "The current results demonstrate that even very young children have a natural tendency to help other persons solve their problems,” says the study.

And so on and so forth. I found dozens of studies that identified prosocial qualities in toddlers, corroborating what most parents - those whose minds aren't warped by conservative ideology - know intuitively.

When people describe "Daddy Dialectic," they most often seem to use the word "thoughtful." I do try to see the other person's point of view and I try to play fair when disagreements arise, and my colleagues Chip, Tom, and Chris do the same.

And I believe that I'm remaining fair and thoughtful when I say that conservatives - who posit themselves the authorities on morality, family life, and parenting - are today promoting lies and half-truths about parents and children, in the service of an authoritarian ideology. At this point - with oceans levels rising, Iraq falling into the abyss, and evidence for evolution mounting, to name only three examples - it astonishes me that any thinking person, anywhere, would elevate their half-baked ideas over what science, reason, experience, and conscience have to say.

It's time for liberals and progressives, especially those of us who are parents, to stop retreating and take the fight to people who see us as their enemies. We're in a struggle we can't afford to lose.

[The photos that appear with this post are of my wife as a toddler, courtesy of my mom-in-law.]

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Conservative Parents vs. the New World Order

I think you should know that conservatives think you're a terrible parent. I know that it might hurt to hear this. But just listen to what they have to say with an open mind, OK?

Take talk-radio host Mike Gallagher. When he sees a kid pitch a fit in a restaurant and the parents (“well-heeled, well-dressed”) give in, there’s only one possible conclusion: the parents are liberals! Worse, they’re raising a liberal!

Such permissiveness will set that child up for a lifetime of disappointment and misery. Children want to be taught to do the right thing; they expect us to be in charge. Little Henry is going to grow into a person who figures that if he screams loudly enough, he’ll always get his way. He’ll develop into a person with an overwhelming sense of entitlement.

In other words, he’ll become a liberal.

Hearing from parents on my radio show all the time, there’s a clear distinction between conservative parents and liberal ones. Conservatives believe in the power of spanking….Liberals seem afraid to spank their children…I’ll bet anything that Henry’s parents were a couple of liberal New York Democrats.

Later on in his book, Surrounded by Idiots - I think he’s referring to his listeners, but that’s speculation on my part – Gallagher strikes out at “wacky mothers… who flaunt breast-feeding in crowded places, like restaurants, shopping malls or department stores.” I wonder if breasts are intrinsically liberal? If so, I’m glad Mike is doing something about them. Mike’s got the breast-beat covered for the conservative movement. He’s their breast man.

Betsy Hart, who has breasts but still boasts back-cover quotes from rock-hard conservatives like William J. Bennett and Laura Schlessinger, takes on the whole “parenting culture,” in which “parents are essentially encouraged to idolize their children, to marvel at their inherent wisdom and goodness…and that’s just for starters.”

In her book It Takes a Parent (as opposed to a village – villages are for liberals!), Hart attacks parents who give their kids choices. Choices are liberal and liberal, as we have established, is bad. “Children learn to make wise choices by having wise choices made for them,” she writes. She talks about just ordering food on behalf of all four of her kids in restaurants – no perusing the menu for them! Letting your kids pick items on the menu is liberal, and remember, liberal is bad. She spends a lot of time in her book criticizing bad parents who let their kids pick their own sno-cone flavors.

What’s a conservative parent to do when kids keep insisting on making their own choices? For anyone who reads the Bible literally, that’s an easy question to answer. You beat them.

Let’s say, for example, that your 2-year-old insists on getting out of bed after you’ve told him to stay put. “The youngster should be placed in bed and given a speech,” writes Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, one of the country’s most influential conservatives. “Then when (the child’s) feet touch the floor, give him one swat on the legs with a switch. Put the switch where he can see it, and promise more if he gets up again.”

In some cases, a switch might be too Rockefeller Republican, if you know what I mean. With especially liberal children, you’ll need to head down to Home Depot and buy some quarter-inch plumbing supply line or PVC Pipe.

"If you want a child who will integrate into the New World Order and wait his turn in line for condoms, a government funded abortion, sexually transmitted disease treatment, psychological evaluation and a mark on the forehead," writes pastor Michael Pearl in his book To Train Up a Child, "then follow the popular guidelines in education, entertainment and discipline, but if you want a son or daughter of God, you will have to do it God's way." Though PVC pipe is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, Pearl recommends such "chastisement instruments" as excellent expressions of the Lord's will.

Too extreme? Not with immortal souls at stake. Children, like liberals, are born demons. “As for thinking there is badness in children,” writes right-wing family psychologist John Rosemond, “yes, I most certainly do, and the evidence suggests I am correct… One does not have to teach antisocial behavior to toddlers. They are by nature violent, deceitful, destructive, rebellious and prone to sociopathic rages if they do not get their way.”

In other words, they’re liberals. That’s why you have to beat the little bastards. Keep hitting the rebellious brats until they vote Republican!

[Revised from a post at the Other Magazine blog.]

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Raising kids and social change

By Chip -- A few posts back in a comment Justin questioned whether being home full time with our kids is actually "social change work"; he argued that it was not, and that raising our kids is not the most important job in the world. In his words it is "important but not revolutionary."

I have to say I disagree.

By revolution, I am assuming Jason means bringing about social change "from below," that is, building consciousness and support among real people. I think anyone talking about "revolution" in the US these days is probably actually referring to this form of change rather than the traditional meaning of the word, which involves actual violence.

And it is exactly in this goal of bringing about social change "from below" where we as parents play a crucial role. There are two ways we do so, one direct, one indirect.

The direct way involves a number of discrete elements. The first is that by spending time with our kids we show them through our actions that we are commited to them, that they are important to us. This gives them the confidence and psychological health to act on their principles in the face of a society that is hostile to those principles and values.

If we let our kids be raised by societal norms, we are doing the opposite of progressive, positive activism. Raising progressive kids requires being very proactive, being very involved in our kids' lives, talking to them from the earliest days about the values that we believe are important, about the changes that need to happen in our society, and living those values.

For me, the foundation or prerequisite to doing that was to be an involved father. First and maybe most directly, in the area of gender relations: if we want to bring about change in that area, we have to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.

As a guy, I can thinking of nothing more subversive of "traditional" conservative values than the fact that I chose to stay home full-time with my daughter for the first two years of her life; that I chose to downsize career ambitions to spend time with my kids and to be more involved in their lives than I could have if I had followed my earlier ambitions. I understand that in many ways my ability to do this is related to my class privilege and educational background. Nevertheless, I think that exactly because of those factors, and the resultant fact that I had many other options, it is important for me to take steps to undermine gender hierarchies in the eyes of my kids as well as in my wider community.

Apart from gender, it takes a lot of work to deconstruct or innoculate our kids against the insidious right-wing values that suffuse our culture and society. I'm proud that, for example, my kids actively question US nationalism, that they understand that poverty and injustices are not the fault of the victims but rather of the structure of our society and economy. Getting them to that point is important work. Without this kind of work, social change is much less likely to occur.

So while Justin feared that spending time in the nuclear family is a conservative value, in fact I'd argue that it's a key way to spread progressive values. One reason conservatives cocoon is to be sure that their children absorb their values. In that sense, by not seeing family as vitally important, progressives abandon a major area of work. But unlike for conservatives, whose focus is on a competitive, disempowering individualism, for progressives the family is just the start, it's the foundation of building a conception of solidarity, the only way that social change will come about.

Indirectly, family time is crucial because activists and others committed to progressive social change need a private life. Like all humans, we need love and affection, joy and enjoyment, in order to maintain energy, motivation, and perspective. Nothing energized me more to work for social change than the time I spent with my children: directly, because I realized they are going to be living in the world we create; and indirectly, because of the energy and strength I get from those relationships.

Raising our kids as progressives is a revolutionary act. Dads staying home full time, dads being very involved in their kids' lives, is a revolutionary act. It is the most important job, it is social change work. Unless we model our commitment to a better world, including in the very concrete context of our immediate families, our kids will be much less likely to internalize the kinds of values that will lead them, in turn, to push for progressive social change when they grow up.

As Steve Earl says, the revolution starts ... Now.

Cross-posted at daddychip2

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Public vs. Private

My comrade Badgermama tossed off this fierce, casually brilliant rant on the politics of public schools - go check it out and then come back and tell me what you think. This is an issue I've really wrestled with, and I think Badgermama made things just a little bit clearer for me.

"I keep thinking of those conversations about school funding and school quality," she writes. "The conversations where someone says, 'Well, of course I want my child to have every advantage.' Meaning, I want them to go to the best possible school, and maybe it is time to think about private school. I keep mentally completing that sentence, - '... every advantage over someone else's kid.' And not liking that."

Above you'll see the me, Shelly, and Liko at the Great Balloon Race in Reno, NV two weeks ago. An amazing event. Now Liko wants to be a balloonist! Me, too. But where would we keep the thing?

Yes, we three are indeed wearing matching purple caps.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Melinda Duckett vs. All of Us

In today's SF Chronicle, columnist Jon Carroll pleads with liberals and progressives and decent people everywhere to conserve our outrage and not waste it on the likes of Nancy Grace.

"In these troubled times, outrage is a limited commodity," Carroll writes. "There are only so many hours in the day... So we need triage. We need risk assessment. We need to remember that just because the herd is running some place doesn't mean that we have to run that way too."

But Jon, I think I can spare a moment of spittle-spewing indignation in memory of Melinda Duckett, who was suspected of murdering her 2-year-old Trenton and foolishly agreed to go on national TV to talk about it. Duckett killed herself the day her interview with rabid talk-show host Nancy Grace aired on CNN, which ran an announcement of the suicide at the bottom of the screen. Classy. I've read the transcript and it's pretty clear that Grace grilled Duckett into incoherence, intent on solving the case right then and there in front of the whole audience.

Here's the context: Duckett had been laid off from her job and was going through a divorce with Trenton's father, who'd been hit with a temporary restraining order. Parents, try to walk a mile in her shoes and imagine the stress of a situation like that. Here's a 21-year-old woman, barely an adult, who was probably living every moment of every day with fear and anxiety. She's isolated and taking care of a toddler. She probably doesn't have much help or support. The money was running out. There's evidence that the dad was abusive, though I'm not going to say if he was or wasn't because I wasn't there.

Being a parent provokes a curiously bipolar response to a case like this. On one hand, it seems impossibly monstrous that any parent could commit an act of violence against a helpless baby; some of us want vengeance on behalf of our own children. On the other, I think that if we are willing to dig deep, most parents will find moments when we've all been pushed right to the edge of violence. (Think four in the morning and the baby's been crying for an hour and you've got a big meeting at work in five hours and your spouse is irritable and not much help and your arms are getting tired from carrying the baby and if you have to shush one more time you're going to scream...)

I've had sleep-deprived, stressed out moms tell me that they feel like they are going to die; one said that she didn't feel like she could control any aspect of her life and that she was angry at everything, including her little boy. I've read that moms who kill their kids often convince themselves that their children are better off dead, given the reality the family is facing. Certainly, there's no shortage of parents, moms and dads, who beat their kids to within an inch of their lives. This isn't to excuse the parents - they should be tried in court and either treated or punished, as the case warrants - but if we can try to understand the conditions that would drive a woman (or man) to that extremity, we might be able to help prevent a disaster or heal a family that's been through one.

That said, I don't know if Duckett was innocent or guilty. I have no idea if Nancy Grace drove Duckett to suicide. Neither do you. I'm less concerned about the facts of the case than about what the Nancy Grace interview reveals about our culture and parenting. In the transcript, Grace is conducting multiple interviews simultaneously, including with Melinda Duckett, her estranged husband Josh, and a circus tent of guests who critique Duckett's "performance" as the interview proceeds.

At one point, Duckett, who was probably exhausted and is visibly confused, says she doesn't want to answer a question "because I'm not dealing with media very well." (Turned out later her divorce lawyer had advised her not to answer certain questions.) Grace turns to Marc Klaas, president of an organization called Beyondmissing and crusading celebrity father of the murdered Polly, for an opinion. "Nancy, in these kinds of cases the media is never the problem," says Klaas, whose job is to appear in the media. "The media is always a friend, it's about sharing information. It's about transparency, it's about working with the authorities. It's about working with the media and it's about getting over that hump that people are looking at you. And quite frankly, Melinda is not doing that very well at all."

"The media is always a friend"? "Melinda is not doing that very well at all"? Who the hell is this guy? He acts like the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" for parents of missing children. Perhaps he should have coached Melinda beforehand, maybe gone through her wardrobe and shared his favorite hair gel, developed some talking points and blocked some tragic poses. Then perhaps Duckett might have performed to his satisfaction for our friend, the media. Even assuming that Klaas sincerely wants to help parents find abducted kids, I'd respectfully suggest that his appearance on Nancy Grace's show didn't help anyone except Marc Klaas. It's fun to be on TV, isn't it, Marc? Remember back when it was just a means to an end? How naive you were, back then. How much more sophisticated you are now.

And how sophisticated we all pretend to be. I scanned editorials, blogs like the one you're reading, and talk-show discussions. Newspapers and many blogs dutifully roasted Grace for being crass, but a substantial number of TV talking heads fell over themselves with support for Grace and her tactics. Duckett was an adult, say the talking heads. She should have known the score, and if she didn't, it's her fault. She should have watched more CNN and maybe taken some notes, for future reference, back when she had the chance, presumably. She didn't even have the common decency to have attended j-school.

Melinda Duckett may or may not have committed a crime. That hasn't been proved one way or the other. But in my eyes, and of course in the eyes of lots of people, CNN and Nancy Grace stand convicted of turning a family tragedy into entertainment. Grace and homelander celebrities like her say they're trying to "reunite families" (direct quote from a press release!), but they do nothing of the kind. Instead they directly hurt the families who stumble, blinking and nervous, in front of cameras hoping for help or vindication or sometimes fifteen minutes of fame.

That alone is wrong, but it's much bigger than the families who land in the spotlight. In a mindless drive for eyeballs and profits, mainstream media cheapen the culture that's supposed to bind us together and they drag their audiences into moral and political fantasylands. Many editorials I read faulted Grace for her journalistic ethics and technique, but to me the media's systemwide failure is moral (in failing to distinguish right and wrong) and political (in abandoning their historic mandate to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted - today in the media and in every major institution, it is the comfortable who have their backsides kissed and the afflicted who gets their asses kicked).

When we can't find justice in the real world, we look for it on TV. We seek the appearance of justice and indulge ourselves in fantasies of moral rectification. Maybe that's necessary in fictions like 24 or Over There, but it's terrible and destructive when enacted as ritual slaughter on TV that purports to be reality, starring real people who don't have the benefits of a script, teleprompter, or competent legal representation.

Sometimes when I look out at the world I've helped to make - through inaction or self-indulgence - for Liko, I want to cry. We can do better than this.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Worming Into Books

Cole has always been nuts about books. He's not quite 4, but already he's begging to keep the lights on at night so he can look at "just one more book." He can't really read yet, but he likes looking at the pictures, sometimes narrating the story to himself as he flips the pages.

The teachers at his preschool close the day with story time, and if they are in the middle of one story when I arrive to pick him up, Cole will barely acknowledge my presence until that last page is turned. Any attempt to interrupt will be met with emphatic protestation. The funny thing is, he doesn't like any of the songs or finger plays or clapping games that people tend to intermix into storytime. He just wants the stories, and couldn't care less about any of that other stuff.

One thing I would have never even thought to look for are audiobooks, but my friend Annalee passed along one of Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Treehouse CDs, and Cole was mesmerized by it. He picked out several more stories from the series at the library, and will sometimes sit for more than an hour listening to them. This interest in stories and storytelling is one childhood habit I hope he keeps.

When I took him back too his preschool last week, I saw some of the new parents struggling with sobbing, clingy kids who didn't want them to leave. I was reminded of Cole at this time last year, when most every school drop off was concluded in tears. Often the teachers would have to pull him off of me so I could get to work. It's such a contrast with how he is now, racing into school, taking off his own shoes and jacket, and having to be reminded to give me a hug and a kiss before he zooms off to his friends. The changes sure do come, don't they?

Friday, September 08, 2006

a mythology of contradiction

Lately, I have been obsessed with myths. Stories. The mythology of living. The tales we tell to define ourselves, explain our existence, create communities, clarify enemies. I read an essay by Frank Chin who chastised Maxine Hong Kingston and other Asian American writers for bastardizing the myths of China, creating hapa myths devoid of their “true” cultural relevance. And at first I aligned myself with him thinking of Disney’s Mulan, of Aladdin, thinking of history classes my children come home from and try to explain why they build model California Missions. My daughter acknowledge though that she is also building a cemetery for the dead Indians used to build those Missions. What bastardized and commercialized mythology is being told there? And why does it get retold over and over? What purposes does it serve?

So I see his point, but then I remembered how often I have written about the ways storytelling and talkstory can change you, change minds, change directions; how it can also replenish, can restore, bring peace, solidify, fortify. I believe storytelling is less about the events and more about the narration, the connections; you tell what needs to be told; you create what your people might need to hear. I remembered how when I think back on the most memorable moments of my life, I smile and recall the way they are told, narrated, shared with others over dinner or at bed time or accompanied by beers on Thursday night. It’s the retelling that is so powerful, is what makes us laugh and smile, or cry and feel empathy. It’s how we live on.

So my kids and I talk about the Missions and how there are so many stories; we talk about how I won’t go in them, how I waited outside the numerous catholic churches in Mexico as their mother went in to connect with the stories of her religious upbringing. We then talked about how her and I both learned from our individual choices and the exchanges or explanations we had around them. My children and I talk about how beautiful those Missions are and what it means to have something so beautiful, so spiritual, have such a dark origin. We talk about both sides; we create a mythology of contradiction.

And as my family marched with hundreds of thousand of other protesters during the May first general strike, we heard talk of what an American is (can you wave both an American and Mexican flag, someone scoffs at us). Well, what’s the mythology of immigration? What are the ways to explain boarder crossing, exile, diaspora? We, of course, know thanksgiving, but do we know the Florida Seminoles’ story, do we retell the stories of the southwest as it went from Indian, to Mexican, to American nations. And as Gloria Anzaldua fortells, “will become Indian once again.” Some day. My New Mexican family claims they have been here before anyone, and they survived by growing and welcoming others into their lives, into their stories and histories like the Mexicans, the gringos, your mother, they tell me. My father says I’m a new breed a chiconky. That’s how he tells it.

In Kingston’s book The Tripmaster Monkey Wittman says that language contains the key to the past and to our future; that in the Chinese character for I was imbedded in it the word warrior or fight or even weapon. To say I was to say I-fight. How powerful is that? But it has been lost to us now. But do I believe? This mythology isn’t mine. Do you believe me about my family? I’m sure I’m not they only half-bred boy from some idealistic white mother and some reckless father from the rez, or ghetto, or barrio. There’s probably a whole underground army of chiconkistas roaming the United States waiting for our story, our time. I think it’s time we start spreading the word, finding that language that says I and means Fight.

I don’t know how to read Cantonese or Mandarin; but I know what Wittman means when he says we have lost the fight and to regain it, we need to relearn our language. Or better yet create our own. Chin, if you wanna wage war against the storytellers, cut out your own tongue.

Because all language starts with stories. When my son asks me about why my mom ran like the prodigal daughter home to her parents after giving two years of her life to the New Mexican desert, what can I say? The myth that was told me from my abuela goes: it was a snowy night when your mom came, mijo, to say good-bye. She looked at all of us and hugged each one of us. But she did not say a word. And neither did we. We all stood in silence. What could we say, mijo, what could we say? Then, she just turned and left.

She never said a word about them again till I was 18. How strong must you be to hold your tongue for so long? The truth is something a little different: my mom, lonely, a single mother because my father left her and then went to jail, trying to survive, knowing she needed family, decide to return home. Who can blame her? What else needs to be said? But the problem was the silence. That is what caused the pain, what divided families years after the events happened. What people remember is the silence that followed my mother’s departure.

Wittman says Repetition makes a custom. Doing things over and over establishes reality. Hearing the words more than once, the people will get it. I want to get it. I want my kids to get it. I want everyone one to once and for all get it. But in order to do so, we must all start talking and start listening. Don’t worry if it is slightly different each time you tell it; don’t worry if someone else tells it differently. Just tell it like it might save your life. Tell it like you're fighting for your kids. For indeed, in these times, in this day and age, it just might and you certainly are.

When the Summer Comes Undone

Whew -- summer vacation is over! Back to school! I'm not always so excited to return to the books and bells, but the end of summer vacation has come (mostly) as a great relief this year, a welcome return to routine and regularity.

I teach high school, and ever since (almost 4-year-old) Cole was born I've cherished the summers where I get to spend long days with him. And I definitely enjoyed this summer, but things were different -- way different. Most notably, Cole's mom left me earlier this year, and, while we were theoretically co-parenting, Cole was with me most of the time. In fact, there was a particularly low point in the summer where I thought she might bow out of parenting altogether. Things have changed since then, and we're now splitting time about 60-40 (I'm the 60), but this summer Cole was with me a lot more than that.

As many of the posts here illustrate, being an attentive parent is challenging. I don't think I was quite prepared, however, for how much more challenging it would be to do it on my own. Cole is wonderful and full of joy most of time, but he's definitely been exhibiting some exaggerated up-and-downs while he tries to deal with his parents splitting up. And, like any little kid, he's constantly pressing the people closest to him, trying to see where the limits are and how people react to different behavior. All that's to be expected, but it's a lot to deal with when you're the only parent in the picture from dawn to dusk, especially while trying to keep a lid on the day-to-day stresses of laundry, dishes, bills, and a messy house.

Things got more challenging when my sister (my only local family member) moved to New York in July. By the time August rolled around, when I was really struggling to find free moments to get ready for the school year. I found myself wishing I could just call in a substitute parent for a day or two. Unfortunately, though, it seems someone forgot to write sick time into the parenting contract.

After feeling the stress of being a single parent, combined with weeks spent walking around the Mission, with its dilapidated (and often deserted) playgrounds and passed-out junkies, left me planning out ways to escape. As Cole gets older, I often find myself wishing I could give him a little more freedom without fearful adults watching him every second. I'd like him to be playing with his neighbors, learning how to ride a bike, and out looking for bugs, and it's sometimes hard for me to picture those things happening in San Francisco.

Living closer to my parents sounds really appealing sometimes, living in Berkeley seems really appealing sometimes. Being able to buy a house sounds really appealing almost all of the time. So maybe a move or a change is order, or maybe I'm just feeling a bit of divorcee depression that will pass now that my thoughts aren't just rattling around in my own head all day long. I'm just going to let things be for a while, and hopefully settle on a plan in the next two years, before Cole starts kindergarten. We'll see how things end up.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hirshman vs. Parents

Linda Hirshman is gaining more publicity, this time in the progressive media: in The Progressive, Ruth Connif takes her ideas apart and doesn't bother to put them back together again; in AlterNet, readers do the job. All the hostility naturally makes me want to give Hirshman a second look: are her ideas really so terrible? I gave it some thought.

But I'm afraid that the answer is still a big, fat YES. What's good about Hirshman is what was good about second-wave feminism. She calls for smart, talented women to resist to the pre-ordained role of the housewife and use their intelligence and skills to make a difference in the world. "You can't have an equal, just and fair workplace and a gendered family," says Hirshman. I agree; I'm all for de-gendering the family.

Hirshman says she wants to start a social conversation about women and work - also fine and good - but unfortunately she doesn't do much to bring the conversation to the next level. She's still stuck in the second wave, and doesn't see how men have changed and are changing as a result of the feminist movement. "What about those who say raising children is the most important job a person can do?" asks the AlterNet interviewer. "I have no idea what they mean by that," replies Hirshman. "If, in fact, it were the most important thing a human being could do, then why are no men doing it? They'd rather make war, make foreign policy, invent nuclear weapons, decode DNA, paint The Last Supper, put the dome on St. Peter's Cathedral; they'd prefer to do all those things that are much less important than raising babies?"

First, as documented here and elsewhere, more men are "doing it" - the advances of second-wave feminism made it possible for more and more men to become caregivers. Wasn't that one of the goals? Second, for forty years many men have been explicitly rejecting the destructive empire-building roles Hirshman identifies as more desirable (making war, nuclear weapons, etc.) than raising children. (There's also considerable psychological, medical, and sociological evidence that focusing on work and neglecting family leads to profound unhappiness and health ills such as high blood pressure, but that's a point to be made at another time.)

Most perilously, I think the very existence of Hirshman's obtusely and arrogantly rendered argument drives a needless wedge between people who should be allies. Recently I've been reading and thinking about the political competition between Red States and Blue States (as part of a project for Political Research Associates), which is more accurately characterized as a rural vs. urban split. In his new book Welcome to the Homeland, public radio reporter Brian Mann cites example after example of "homelanders" (as he calls rural conservatives) who vote Republican because they feel scorned by the intellectuals and city folk whom they see as dominating the Democratic Party. "There's nobody there that I can relate to," says Mann's brother Allen, a homelander.

Mann's numbers, mostly from the 2004 election, are chilling: they show that Republicans have almost completely lost the cities and Democrats have mostly lost the country. The American political mix (e.g., the structure of the electoral college and the Senate, etc.) has given Republicans an edge in recent decades, but it's a precarious edge. Their small towns are in demographic and economic decline, while the cities keep growing stronger. Politically and culturally, we really and truly are becoming two nations, divisible and alien to each other. Though city folk are losing most of the national battles at the moment, in the long run we stand to win the war. Homelanders can sense that their way of life is dying; their fantasies of persecution do have some basis in reality.

Sure, to a degree homelanders have brought it on themselves. In a global society, fear of immigrants and foreign ways is an economic and cultural liability. In a knowledge-based economy, distrust of education and the scientific method is economic death. Homelanders are fighting Darwin in the classroom, but for their own sake they should be reading him. "It's not the strongest of species that survive," Darwin writes, "nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

Sometimes when I think about this I feel galvanized; I want my side to "win" and I want the rubes to "lose" (yes, I'm angry, too). In more reflective moments, I just get depressed and I wonder what kind of country Liko is going to live in when he's my age: it can't be good for a culture and an economy to be split so severely and thrown so far out of balance.

That's why Hirshman's relentless scorn for childrearing, which is so inescapable and important to so many people, troubles me. I'm in favor of fighting when fighting is the only option: we can't afford to compromise with homelanders on issues of human and civil rights (I'm thinking of gay marriage, abortion, and the use of torture, in particular). But does it follow that we have to sneer at everything they stand for? We shouldn't be wasting time telling potential allies in the homeland that it's "stupid" to focus on raising children instead of making money.

From where I stand, our children and the experience of parenthood might be all that we have in common. It is, at least, what I have to talk about when I'm talking with someone from the homeland, and if our styles and roles differ, well, that's something we can talk about. For those of us who have freely chosen to have children, raising them is the most important job we can do; working is a part of that, but I've learned the hard way that there's more to life than work. Denigrating caregiving - as Hirshman certainly does, despite her denials - confirms the worst stereotypes of homelanders hold about selfish urban yuppies; it burns the only bridge we might have.

Perhaps it doesn't matter what Hirshman says or what I say; maybe all the good will in the world doesn't amount to a hill of beans. There are forces at work that none of us can control. But we can never know that for sure, and though there might be things happening that are bigger than any one of us, we as individuals still have ethical choices to make. I don't disagree with Hirshman because I believe (quoting from her interview) "that women's lives aren't important enough to merit a real analysis." I disagree with her because her message is completely at odds with my experience.

OK, that's the last thing I have to say about Hirshman.