Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mr. Mom Revisited

I had never seen Mr. Mom, the 1983 film that marked the screen debut of the stay-at-home dad. Long-time readers (both of you!) might recall that I have never had a problem with the term "Mr. Mom," which many stay-at-home dads see as a knock on their masculinity. Nonetheless, the arguments against the film seemed likely to have a grain of truth: Hollywood depictions of caregiving dads tend to be problematic at best, hostile at worst.

But there I was, grinding away at my book, when I realized that I had to see Mr. Mom. I'm writing an entire book about stay-at-home dads; I couldn't not see the first movie devoted to the subject. So I went out and finally rented the thing.

Here's the premise: Jack Butler, played by Michael Keaton, is a Detroit assembly-line engineer who loses his job in a wave of corporate downsizing. His wife returns to work in the advertising industry, after eight years of taking care of their three children.

Before I go on, some historical perspective. Had this film been made in the 1930s, Mr. Mom would have been a tear-jerking melodrama: Jack would have sunk into alcoholism and domestic violence while his wife endured the humiliation of employment. Men of that period would not merely lose a job; they lost their very identity. Chronically un- or underemployed men did not turn their energies to the care and rearing of children and maintenance of a home, even as their wives took jobs; instead, they built walls around themselves.

“He loves kids and plays with them all the time, except when he’s out of work,” testified one mother in the 1920s. “Then he won’t play with them, but just says all the time, ‘Don’t bother me, don’t bother me.’ And of course the kids don’t understand why he’s different.” In his 1994 book Fatherhood in America, historian Robert L. Griswold provides example after example of early 20th century fathers who were utterly destroyed by unemployment. These fathers may as well have died or abandoned their families, as many did.

Back to Mr. Mom, which was made at the height of the Reagan recession--I actually lived in Michigan at the time, where the movie takes place, and many people there called it a depression. In real life, thousands of auto-industry employees like Jack were being thrown out of work. But unlike most men during the Great Depression, Jack turns his energies to taking care of kids and house.

The stay-at-home dads of today often resent the Mr. Mom caricature of a bumbling dad-at-home, but I found the film to be much more complex than this stereotype suggests. Jack certainly does struggle with the tasks of being a househusband--his clumsy efforts to cook, clean, and change diapers are milked for slapstick comedy. But as the film goes on, Jack and his wife both grow into their new roles--they even help each other along, trading advice and support in crucial moments, drawing on their respective experiences--and by the end, Jack is a very competent and confident homemaker and his wife is a successful advertising executive.

The real significance of Mr. Mom lies in the fact that it tries to teach guys how to behave when faced with domestic responsibilities: the film preaches that family men must embrace, not run away from, housework and childcare when those tasks fall to them. When their identities as breadwinners are destroyed by economic change, argues Mr. Mom, family men must build new identities as homemakers. Moreover, it argues that men ought to support their wives economic power and career aspiration—-especially since life-long male employment was no longer guaranteed and a middle-class lifestyle was no longer affordable on one income. In this way necessities are turned into virtues, as they almost always are.

Mr. Mom was marketed as a light comedy, but in retrospect, it marks a cultural watershed: the stay-at-home dad was now a part of the landscape—-as a real option, not just as the butt of a joke. In a 1990 Time magazine poll, 48 percent of men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four claimed that they would consider staying at home with their children. When my mother and father were born, such a question could not even have been asked. When I was born, it could only be raised in jest. By the 1980s, however, the definition of fatherhood as breadwinning, secure for a century, was suddenly on the ropes. Mr. Mom reflects that and the anxieties that come with it--but crucially, it also suggests that there might be something better around the corner, a new idea of fatherhood that embraces both breadwinning and caregiving.

I liked the movie. I don't think it's something that stay-at-home dads should feel ashamed of.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ideal vs. Reality

My essay on the ideal and reality of Christian Right parenting is up at Public Eye.

Also worth a look: The American Prospect's special report on "the case for early investment in our kids." You have to be a subscriber to get many of the articles, but some are available for free.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sunday School for Atheists?

We have a running discussion here at Daddy Dialectic about how to raise moral kids without religion.

This week, Time magazine tells us that there are Sunday schools for the children of atheists:

An estimated 14% of Americans profess to have no religion, and among 18-to-25-year-olds, the proportion rises to 20%, according to the Institute for Humanist Studies. The lives of these young people would be much easier, adult nonbelievers say, if they learned at an early age how to respond to the God-fearing majority in the U.S. "It's important for kids not to look weird," says Peter Bishop, who leads the preteen class at the Humanist center in Palo Alto. Others say the weekly instruction supports their position that it's O.K. to not believe in God and gives them a place to reinforce the morals and values they want their children to have.

The pioneering Palo Alto program began three years ago, and like-minded communities in Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., and Portland, Ore., plan to start similar classes next spring. The growing movement of institutions for kids in atheist families also includes Camp Quest, a group of sleep-away summer camps in five states plus Ontario, and the Carl Sagan Academy in Tampa, Fla., the country's first Humanism-influenced public charter school, which opened with 55 kids in the fall of 2005. Bri Kneisley, who sent her son Damian, 10, to Camp Quest Ohio this past summer, welcomes the sense of community these new choices offer him: "He's a child of atheist parents, and he's not the only one in the world."

I don't have much to say about this, beyond pointing out that such institutions are not new: free-thinking children's camps go back to the 19th century, and perhaps earlier. In America, one usually sees them spring into existence when religious fanaticism seems about to overwhelm society.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Are stay-at-home dads raising dumb sons?

A new UK study suggests that stay-at-home dads hurt their sons' chances in school--but not their daughters'.

"Our analysis points strongly towards the idea that fathers do not, on average, provide the same degree of cognitive stimulation to sons that mothers provide," says the study.

My esteemed allies in the progressive parenting blogosphere have already criticized the study: Equally Shared Parenting faults its methodology; Rebeldad quotes University of Texas professor Aaron Rochelin as saying that the study's conclusions are way too sweeping given its limited data set.

They're right in their particular criticisms, but my take is even more fundamental: A study like this is rigged from the start.

Take single moms. There are many studies showing that single mothers don't do as good a job raising kids--measured in terms like mental health and school achievement-- as two-parent families. However, there are many other studies showing that not all homes headed by single moms have the same outcomes. Most of the time, it turns out that poverty and social isolation, not single motherhood per se, hurts kids chances in life.

Thus the wiser, richer societies craft public policies to support single mothers, by providing basic welfare and health care, quality daycare and preschool, and job training and opportunities. And yes, I am thinking of all those nice Scandinavian social democracies that we American progressives like so much.

The results speak for themselves: Single motherhood in those countries does not contribute to social inequality and children are not condemned for not having a breadwinning father in the house.

Conservatives will argue that the Nanny State is stepping in to replace fathers–and they’re not wrong. When dad runs out, someone has to help. In places where state support is extremely stingy–the United States comes to mind–mothers with strong social networks of friends and relatives still succeed in raising happy, healthy, successful children.

But over two decades, the US government has waged virtual war against single motherhood, heaping burden after burden on mothers in an effort to discourage it. And yet moms continue to head families, as a result of divorce, abandonment, and out-of-wedlock births--and generally speaking, they do a pretty good job of it, despite all the obstacles tossed in their way.

Single motherhood is now a fixed part of the landscape; it's a byproduct of the emancipation of women, who not very long ago couldn't vote, own property, bolt from abusive marriages, or charge their husbands with rape. There's no going back to the bad-old-days when women were property and marriage, with its flip side of illegitimacy, was a life sentence. Instead the question is, how can we leverage the good and mitigate the bad, so that children in these families have the same chances as other children?

What does this have to do with stay-at-home dads?

Stay-at-home dads are another byproduct of women's advancement. Reverse-traditional families are a new family form, and every new family form involves trade-offs, just like older kinds of families. The results of a study like this need to be replicated before it can be considered authoritative, but let's say for the sake of argument, that stay-at-home mothers do provide some marginal benefit to sons that fathers do not. Even in that case, the results are not an argument against stay-at-home fatherhood. Instead we have to ask: Why is that? And then: What can we do to address it?

Because dads are not going to stop taking care of children just because some study somewhere says that their sons will do .17 percent less well in school than other kids. The growth of caregiving fatherhood is being driven by forces that are larger than any one family. We can’t stop it–nor should we, because it comes with huge advantages for men, women, children, and society. These advantages (such as a more caring, emotionally intelligent masculinity; greater paternal investment in children; more work opportunities for women; etc.) far outweigh the piddling objections raised by those who would have us revert to 19th century gender roles .

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reading on November 26 in San Francisco

Mark your calenders: I'll be reading at a free event in San Francisco. We're dubbing it an "issue departure" (as opposed to "issue release") party for the "21st Century Family" issue of Greater Good magazine.

The event will take place at the Cover to Cover bookstore, 7 p.m., November 26th. Cover to Cover is located at 1307 Castro Street near 24th St. in San Francisco's Noe Valley.

I'll be reading along with Lisa Bennett, a freelance writer and former fellow at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. A non-biological lesbian mom, she'll be discussing Amie K. Miller's essay, "Does Barbie Need a Man?" in the current issue of Greater Good. We'll be joined by Rona Fernandez, a second-generation Filipina-American, is a fundraiser, activist, and writer. She'll be reading and discussing an essay on how togetherness has made a life-and-death difference in her family. Readings will be followed by discussion about Bay Area families.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I Need a Makeover

Somehow, at some point, I have become a slob.

My wife and I have debated the stages of the metamorphosis. It correlates strongly, though not exclusively, with the Spot's arrival in our family, though I don't blame him, even if on a daily basis my personal habits are coming to more closely resemble his.

But there has been a metamorphosis. While the traveling salesman Gregor Samsa woke in the bed Franz Kafka made for him, to find that he had acquired a chitinous exoskeleton and half a dozen legs, I woke up one morning to find that my eyebrows had grown together, and the hair that has receded from my brow has largely migrated to my nostrils.

Grooming myself has gotten to be like caring for an old house: as soon as you fix one thing, something else goes to hell. I'm lucky if I can get out the door with 5 out of 10 fingernails clipped; getting both hands and feet at the same time is out of the question. I'm sporting the hairdo that I last wore when I was 7 years old, and have picked up the habit, instead of washing my eyeglasses, of tilting my head to see around the smudge.

I live in t-shirts and jeans, find the feel of a collared shirt exotic, and recognize that my son is now better dressed than I am. For every new pair of knickers, overalls, sweaters, and funny little hats that we try to cram in his bedroom drawer, I chuck another pair of my own old pants or a hopelessly outdated shirt into the donation box, as if his wardrobe must be enhanced in inverse proportion to my own.

If I were a mom, this would be the point when I cry out, "I need a makeover!" and duly flip over to Lifetime or the Oxygen Channel in search of a vicarious personal renaissance. On comes the fantasy of a hot stone massage, followed by an avocado and oat-infused mud bath, the Beverly Hills stylist rescuing my hair while his sidekicks rescue my cuticles, capped off with the gift of a new and fabulously stylish wardrobe, all shopped for and paid for by someone else. At the end of it, out comes a new Father of Spot, grinning, feeling like Brad Pitt, and ready for the next diaper change.

An acquaintance of mine joked, once he had become a new father, about how he had now become "one of those guys": one of those guys, according to him, who you see on the train at 6AM with mismatched socks, a pant leg hitched halfway up his calf, and shoelaces dragging.

What is reassuring about "those guys" stories is the general understanding that they apply to new dads only. While some men experience the couvade, or "sympathetic pregnancy" while the mother is heavy with child, I suspect that after birth many more experience a phase of "sympathetic dishevelment," like the couvade a temporary condition for which I can find no precise term. A few months later, or once baby starts sleeping through the night, dad's ability to dress himself usually improves dramatically.

Unfortunately, the Spot started sleeping through the night 6 months ago and I'm still "one of those guys." My dishevelment is no longer sympathetic, but chronic. I worry that I might follow in my father's footsteps, entering into a life-long downward spiral towards utter slobbishness. My socks have steadily disintegrated, and some of my clothes now have that musty, "I don't get out much" smell. That's what happens when you're locked down like a prison guard assigned to the world's most dangerous inmate. He can't leave the house, and neither can I, which means goodbye to the shopping trips that made me the dashing man I was before I became the rock-solid care-giver I am.

There's no easy way out, no feel-good wrap-up to my story. Even the glow of a five-star makeover courtesy of Oprah Winfrey would surely fade after a few weeks, and my dilemma would return. Care-giving throws us into a different orbit, knocks us from a solar to a lunar calendar, from industrial to agricultural work rhythms, from a modern world of hard resins to an antique world of absorbent fibers. The common pleasure of knowing "what's up" that comes from spending a few minutes of the day on the bus, walking through the city, chatting in the office, and people-watching all vanish, leaving you with an entirely different set of cosmic orientation points.

So I'm on a fashion sabbatical and in grooming triage. A mother-friend of mine suggested I view it like a few years spent in Africa with the Peace Corps. Things are just different for a while. My wife, in her infinite understanding, does what she can: this very morning, on her way to work, she paused for a moment in the kitchen, long enough to give me a gift: a 20% discount card for the GAP.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

You Tell 'Em, Rush!

I just finished a long essay for Public Eye magazine on the ideal and reality of Christian Right childrearing, which will be published sometime in the next month. I discovered that while Christian Right parenting ideals--primarily about the supremacy of fathers, subordination of mothers, and inborn wickedness of children--are simple and often frightening, the actual behavior of conservative evangelicals is pretty complex.

As I write in the article, conservative evangelical homes must confront the same problems as their nonevangelical counterparts: the erosion of real wages, the rising costs of necessities like health care and education, the ubiquity of electronic media, and the declining rights of workers, to name a few. This explains why, for example, rates of teen sex and divorce are not significantly lower in these homes. In fact, divorce is especially high in Bible Belt states, due at least in part to higher unemployment.

In an interview, the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, who studies the impact of conservative evangelical faith on the behavior of both men and women, urged that I distinguish “between what elite evangelicals [like James Dobson] say and what average people are doing.” While elites may rail against the social and economic changes of recent decades, Wilcox said that “your average evangelical takes all that with a grain of salt.” That’s in part because most evangelical wives work. “Part of that is a class issue,” Wilcox said. “Evangelicals are more working class, than, for example, mainline Protestants, [and] they have less economic flexibility. And so the reality on the ground, with gender issues, is more flexible than some might expect.”

I immediately thought of Wilcox's point when I stumbled across this recent broadcast transcript from right-wing blowhard Rush Limbaugh. In it, Rush grumbles against fathers cooking for their families and parents buying toy kitchens for boys. "This is not men reshaping and rethinking their roles," says Rush. "That's being done for them with various sorts of pressure being applied if the behavioral model that is demanded isn't met"--and the pressure, he says, is coming from "feminazis."

This is all par for the course, and not really worthy of comment. But then the calls start coming in from listeners. Here's the first:

RUSH: To the phones, to Fort Wayne, Indiana. This is Steve. Nice to have you on the program, sir.

CALLER: Mega dittos, Rush. I absolutely love you.

RUSH: Thank you.

CALLER: I'm a stay-at-home dad. I run a small business out of my home, and my boys -- I got two boys -- are great cooks. Now, I haven't bought 'em a kitchen set, and it's not on my short list of toys to buy, but they can make a mean batch of cookies, but they're in wrestling, and they'll kick somebody's tail with a sword -- playing swords with them -- and I wouldn't have a problem with them cooking at all. That's not a... I cook every meal in our house.

RUSH: How old did you say that these two boys are?

CALLER: My boys are eight and five.

RUSH: Eight and five, and they bake cookies?

CALLER: They do. They buy a brand-name mixer and...

And so on. As he listens, Rush is obviously confused. It's hilarious, ironic--and a perfect illustration of Wilcox's research. It's also a measure of the degree to which conservative ideologues are being left in the dust by their followers--who must, after all, live in the same 21st century as the rest of us.

Monday, November 12, 2007

who's your daddy?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 05, 2007

Ever been a jerk at work?

The next issue of Greater Good will feature a series of essays about the psychology of power, including an essay by Stanford professor Robert Sutton, author of the best-seller The No Asshole Rule. As he does in his book, Sutton shows how a little power can turn almost anyone into a cruel, insensitive jerk.

To run alongside this essay, we’re looking for a short (350-word), first-person essay written by someone who has been the kind of asshole Sutton describes--poisoned by a position of power and abusive toward co-workers of lower rank--who later realized what power did to him or her and subsequently tried to do things differently.

Does this sound like you? If you have a story you want to share, email Jason at jhmarsh(at)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Walk

Liko and Shelly are both ill and they both go to bed early. I tuck them in, do the dishes, pick up his room.

Now what? It's only 8:45 and I'm not tired. I pull on my coat, grab a book, and walk out the door and down Castro to 24th. I walk into The Dubliner and order a Guinness.

Thirty minutes later Amanda strolls in with a gaggle of friends.

"Hey," she says. "What are you doing here?"

I tell her the situation. "And you just went out for a beer?" she says.


"That so cute!"


Amanda is with the other mothers in her coop preschool. They gather in the back, sipping beers, excited to be out at night.

"I love the coop right now," Amanda says, glancing over.

"That's great," I say.

She goes to join the moms.

I finish my second Guinness, leave The Dubliner and walk back up 24th. I see my friend Joey in the window of the restaurant where he works as a bartender, putting chairs on tables, wiping down the bar. He doesn't see me outside; watching him, I realize that I've known him now for seven years. Seven years. His wife is about to have their second baby.

I remember teaching Liko to walk on 24th. I'd give him his little cart and make him push it towards me, and then one day I took the cart away. Passerby would gape at Liko toddling down the sidewalk, his wide-open smile promising all of us that there is always something better. It hits me that those days are gone and they're never coming back.

Now I'm turning up Castro: up, up, up, I don't even notice the climb. My hill. There's my house: the blue and yellow Victorian, our landlords below, us above; our lights are on in the gable. I think about Roxie, how she hooked me up with my publisher, and I feel grateful to her.

All these people who have helped me in life: Why do we help each other? None of us can make it without help. I unlock the door and go inside.

We won't last too much longer in this house; it gets smaller every day, and San Francisco seems to get more expensive. I turn on the laptop and start writing this. My fingers feel thick as I type, but I have to get this trivia down, before it goes away.

Monday, October 29, 2007

No hitting: The play

Scene: Dinner at Savor in Noe Valley. I'm eating humus; Liko is eating pasta.

Me: Liko, do you want to go to the antiwar protest tomorrow?

Liko (mouth full): What's an antiwar?

Me: In an antiwar protest, people get together and they ask war to stop.

(Liko swallows.)

Liko: Why?

Me: Remember what we talked about yesterday? War is really terrible. Mommies and daddies and little kids like you get hurt really bad, sometimes they get killed.

Liko: Where is war?

Me: Tomorrow we are going to protest the war in Iraq.

Liko: Where is Iraq?

Me: I showed you yesterday on the globe. It's very far from here. The people there don't speak our language or dress like us, but they're people just like us and they don't like to get hurt.

Liko: Are we going to get dessert?

Me: I don't think so.

Liko: Why?

Me: Because you already had ice cream today. Do you want to go to the antiwar protest?

Liko: I want to be a war-guy and hurt people!

Me (flustered): What? We don't want to hurt people, Liko. We want to help them.

Liko (bashes table with his hand): I want a war-stick! [Meaning, a gun.]

Me: Liko, please don't hit the table.

Liko: Why?

Me: Because we're in a restaurant and we don't hit tables.

Liko: Why?

Me: Because it bothers the people around us.

Liko (looking around): Are those people going to antiwar protest?

Me (glancing around and feeling slightly defeated): Some of them might, sure.

Liko: What do people do at antiwar protest?

Me: We march and sing songs and hold signs.

Liko: What do signs say?

Me: They say things like "Stop the war" or "War is bad for children."

Liko: I want to make a sign.

Me: OK. What should it say?

Liko: No hitting!

Photos courtesy of our neighbor Woody Hastings.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Rug Rat Race

A few days before my high school reunion, I was down on the rug, face to face with Spot, watching him execute his favorite pilates routine while I sang the following lines from a Police tune:

De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
Is all I want to say to you
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
repeat, etc., etc.

I'm not a big fan of The Police, though I do like a few of their tunes. My dentist loves them, and if I were more of a fan, and more inclined to hang out with my dentist, I would have jumped on his offer to see them in concert last fall. But these lyrics were not idle. They were sung with a purpose. Spot had to learn his consonants.

This was my first conscious intervention in the spontaneous flow of Spot's development. It was prompted by a certain concerned look on the pediatrician's face the week before, when she had asked us if Spot was making consonant noises. "Like what?" I asked. "Like da-da," she replied. I said no, and could see that her roving intelligence immediately halted and fixed on this point. We scheduled a follow-up visit in a month's time.

So there I was on the rug, worrying about Spot's developmental progress, when a classic marker of dad's developmental progress, his high school reunion, was a few days away. Spot was a little late with his consonants and, so it seemed, I was a little off with my career. Spot made plenty of noises; quite often he whistled and sang like a deep-space radio transmitter from a 50s sci-fi movie. As for myself, I had plenty to do, and had done a lot. But neither of us, from a certain perspective, was where we "should" be.

This set of bench-mark pressures had already set in on the young Spot; it was entering its fourth decade with his father. Was I ready to face the crowds and tell anyone who asked, "I'm an at-home dad. It's my wife who makes all the money"?

I was vaguely aware that there are developmental milestones that pop up at certain intervals -- the classic Hallmark moments -- but hadn't worried too much about their sequence or rate of succession. Spot, I assured myself, was a non-conformist: he had been a breach baby, and came out four weeks early -- clearly an individual with his own agenda. Now he was lingering on his vowels before moving on to the harsher elements of language. So be it.

But despite my own and Spot's insouciance, the world keeps wanting to know how things are going, and how he ranks. "Can Spot sit up yet?" asked a neighborhood grandma after greeting us in the restaurant one afternoon. "Alvin can, and he's two months younger." I'm not usually at a loss for words, but this comment silenced me. Now it was abdominal coordination; soon it would be reading ability, and then SAT scores, colleges, and salary figures. Was there any way to not go down that road?

One of my many former therapists once told me, "Only people who consider themselves successful go to their class reunions." People, in other words, who can sit up, hold their bottle, and make consonant sounds. Strangely, I've found myself among them on several occasions, though this reunion -- number twenty -- seemed more symbolic than those previous. By now, I ought to have amounted to something. I should be holding my bottle. The difference between my situation and Spot's was that he wasn't worrying about it, and I was.

As it turned out, the reunion went well. No one -- as far as I know -- questioned what still sometimes feels like the eccentricity of my situation. I found myself in league with my former, now-lesbian high school girlfriend, revved up for a gender-bending confrontation with the world of sexual-social expectations in Middle America. It failed to materialize. Instead, I approached my own situation the same way I tried to approach Spot's -- with the exception of his consonants: we're both of us, like my lesbian ex, doing our own thing.

Friday, October 19, 2007

More kids vs. religion

Former Daddy Dialectic blogger Chip (who is now retired from blogging, alas) wrote a number of posts on raising kids without religion--posts that, not surprisingly, provoked quite a lot of discussion.

Though I am every bit as atheistic and philosophically materialist as Chip, I often disagreed with him about the need for secular social structures that can connect people to something larger than themselves and reinforce moral behavior.

A new study published in the journal Psychological Science finds that thoughts about God do indeed encourage people to share what they have. But researchers also discovered that secular concepts of civic responsibility and social justice do just about as much to promote altruism.

In two related experiments, University of British Columbia Associate Professor Ara Norenzayan and Ph.D. graduate student Azim Shariff divided 125 participants into three groups.

In the first group, researchers asked participants to unscramble sentences that contained words like spirit, God, and sacred. The second group played the same word game, but with non-religious content. The third played the game with words like court, civic, jury, and police—thereby priming them with thoughts of secular moral authority.

Then each participant was given 10 one-dollar coins and asked to make a decision about how much keep for herself and how much to share with another person--this is a standard laboratory test for altruism called the Dictator's Game.

The results: The religious group offered to share an average of $4.56 with another person, the secular group shared $4.44—and people who were not primed with any moral thoughts at all shared only $2.56.

Researcher Azim Shariff told me that their experiment shows how important it is for people to be reminded of their social responsibilities, but stresses that faith in God is optional. “We added the secular institutions as an afterthought in the second study, mostly because we wanted to demonstrate that religion wasn’t the only thing that could do this," Shariff said. "In our history, we’ve developed a lot of cultural institutions designed to reign in our selfish behavior. One of the earliest and most effective ones, we believe, was religion. But that’s certainly at this point not the only thing that does it.”

Not only did secular thoughts do almost as good a job at priming altruistic behavior as God thoughts, but people who described themselves as religious did not behave more altruistically than godless counterparts--a finding that a lot of other studies have echoed. (In one study that had different groups of Princeton seminary students walk by a man slumped and groaning on the sidewalk, researchers discovered that their willingness to help depended on one variable: how late they were for their next appointment.)

“Our study adds to a growing body of evidence to suggest that there has been all these cultural institutions that have evolved either purposely or through some blind process of cultural selection that serve to reign in our selfishness so that we can live in larger social groups harmoniously," said Shariff. "We evolved to live in much smaller groups, with more limited range of prosocial behavior, but we’ve developed rituals, beliefs, practices that allow us to overcome our more base natures and cooperate more, which has allowed us to build civilization.”

So can we raise moral children outside of structures of supernatural belief? I believe the answer is yes, and there is evidence to support my belief. But I don't think individual parents can do it alone--and there's evidence to support that contention as well. To curb selfish behavior and cultivate meaning in our lives, we need to be constantly reminded of our interdependence with other people and the natural world. So do atheists need a church? I'd say they do.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Power Peas and Colassal Corn

When I read the article on picky eaters in NY Times earlier this week, I was especially intrigued by this line in the sidebar:

"Giving food cool names can help. In one experiment, Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, found that when peas were renamed ''power peas,'' consumption doubled."

I thought this was a simple and intriguing idea, so I decided to try it with Cole, my 5-year-old, last night. I told him we were going to have some "Colossal Corn" and "Super Sweet Potatoes" along with soup for dinner, and his eyes decidedly widened. And when the food arrived on the table, he did indeed eat significantly more than usual.

He hesitated about eating the carrots and onions in his bowl of No-Chicken Noodle, but I told him they were actually flavor packets that exploded to release delicious tastes when they entered someone's mouth. After hearing that, he enthusiastically slurped them up. (I guess that last one was a bit of a fib, but then again, isn't the main reason we add onions to soup to make it more flavorful?) Overall, I'd rate this experiment a resounding success, and I expect I'll be rebranding a lot of foods over the next few weeks. Awesome apples, anyone?

Be there or be square

A final reminder for Bay Area residents: Today, Greater Good is hosting a panel on "The 21st Century Family," featuring Stephanie Coontz, psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, and psychotherapist Joshua Coleman. I'll be moderating. The panel will start at 3 pm at the Lipman Room on the 8th floor of Barrows Hall, located off of Bancroft Way at Barrow Lane and Eshleman Road, on the south side of the UC Berkeley campus. Click here for a map, parking information, and directions to the Lipman Room.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Alone Together

Is marriage dying, or is it just evolving?

Four Pennsylvania State University sociologists used two national surveys, one conducted in 1980 and the other in 2000, to quantitatively track how the experience of marriage has changed over a 20-year period. In both surveys, 2,000 randomly selected couples were asked an identical set of questions about their happiness, household division of labor, social lives, gender roles and attitudes, values, and more.

The results, just published in Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing, are fascinating. This is an academic book with lots of graphs and numbers, but it's well worth a read for anyone who really wants to understand the meaning and status of marriage these days--and, actually, as academic books go, it's fairly readable.

On the negative side, couples are spending less time together eating meals, visiting friends, and working around the home. Plus, today’s husbands and wives were far more likely to report that their jobs interfered with family life. This confirms the impression, voiced by many social critics and researchers and bloggers, that today’s families are more harried and isolated than those in the past.

Meanwhile, however, marital problems and conflict steeply declined—-reports of domestic violence for both sexes tumbled from around 21 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2000, which is consistent with crime data during the same period. (The authors attribute this good news to public education campaigns against domestic violence, as well as increased likelihood that abusers will be arrested and punished.) Overall, husbands and wives in 2000 reported less anger, hurt feelings, jealousy, and domineering behavior in their marriages than did their counterparts in 1980.

But surprisingly, none of these improvements seemed to increase the happiness of the couples. According to the surveys, both husbands and wives are just as happy with their marriages today as they were in 1980.

I asked lead author Paul R. Amato why this should be the case. "We know that people's expectations for marriage have been increasing for many years," he told me. "So the fact that there is less violence and fewer relationship problems is what people expect. If there had not been a decline in violence or other relationship problems, then marital happiness probably would have declined rather than stayed the same."

Twenty-first-century married couples are “older, better educated, and more diverse than at any previous time in U.S. history,” write the authors. Because so many women are working, egalitarian attitudes and a fair division of labor are critical to today’s happiest marriages. “The most successful marriages,” they conclude, “combine gender equality, two incomes, shared social ties, and a strong commitment to marital permanence.”

But what about families that don’t fit that mold?

"We can speak only in averages," Amato said. "Many couples who don't fit the above description still have successful marriages. One of the implications of the 'deinstitutionalizaiton of marriage,' which we discuss in the book, is that couples are free to design their own relationships in a way that wasn't possible in the past, when social norms, laws, and religion had more influence on marriage."

Conservatives argue that marriage is dying, threatened by a nefarious combination of feminism, gay rights, and secular humanism. But I think research like this confirms that it's traditional gender attitudes, not marriages, that are dying.

To me, that's something to celebrate.

[This is based on a shorter piece I wrote for Greater Good magazine.]

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Supernanny (and my dog)

Spot's mother does something that I call "the stare." It's a technique of intimidation, overlooked by the Pentagon, but legal and quite effective in civilian life, that she whips out in public places like restaurants or at the mall. The first few times I saw her use it, long before we got married, it scared me. So you can imagine the effect it has on kids whose parents are too busy with their cell phones to keep them from pulling all the shoes off the table at Macy's.

Our discussions about "the stare" were our first real discussions about parenting, over the course of which I learned that we came at the issue from the same angle. Children should be expected to behave in public, and if this was impossible, then children should be removed from public. From these two axioms an entire ethical system was evolved, in which the fundamentals of raising a small child turned out to be not that different from the fundamentals of training a dog -- something we happen to have some experience doing. Reward positive behavior, withhold rewards for undesirable behavior, and provide a firm framework of consistent rules. I can't tell you how many times I've caught myself asking my wife, "Honey, should I put Spot in the crate?"

It turns out that this micro-philosophy of parenting, like most things involving the details of how we live our daily lives, is not quite common sense. If it were, then reality TV shows like ABC's Supernanny wouldn't have become so popular. I tuned in to Supernanny a few months ago on the advice of fellow blogger Jeremy Smith, and subsequently had the strange experience of spending an hour every week with what seemed like most of my friend's children.

I exaggerate, of course. The kids on Supernanny are awful, but the family resemblances were striking. In my own anecdotal way, I had seen the same scenes from Portland to New York, from Paris to Taiwan, across cultures and continents. Children that simply would not behave like anything less than the rescue dog you just brought home from the pound, who peed in the middle of the rug, ate your cell phone, and would not stop counter-surfing. Yet people have been training dogs for thousands of years and seem to have gotten the hang of it. What happened to raising children?

That's the great unanswered question posed by the Supernanny shows. Jo Frost, the down-to-earth and supremely confident "parenting consultant" on the show, typically swoops down upon the doorstep of families at wit's end: almost always with 3 kids or more, very often with one parent who is for some reason gone most of the time, and usually living in a low-density, suburban area where there don't seem to be too many people around to help out. The parents readily confess that they are overwhelmed and don't know what to do. Unlike the Rebel Without a Cause teenager of the 50s, the kids aren't out of control; they have taken control.

How did we get here? The most obvious explanation, and the one that jumps off the screen in each of the Supernanny episodes, is that it's not the kids who are the problem, it's their parents. Like dogs, the kids want to know what the rules are. But the parents have forgotten how to be the Alphas. That's the message, in a nutshell, and there's no escaping its conservatism. Or at least, the message is conservative from the perspective of the trend of ever-greater unraveling of social hierarchies in American culture since World War II -- which is not to say it's bad. In fact, as I see it, it represents a swing of the pendulum back to the middle, someplace between the unstructured "free to be me" philosophy of baby-boomer child-rearing, and the iron discipline of their predecessors.

The picture I get from Supernanny is that, yes, a lot of parents have forgotten how to train, nurture, husband, and shape something over the long haul. Partly it's a breakdown of consensus in the larger society as to what the best practices are. Where ethnic or religious traditions have weakened, the empire of TV and paperback self-help techniques grows up to fill the void, by first pointing it out.

As the anthropologist Ruth Benedict argued in her 1934 book, Patterns of Culture, the only way for any patterns to emerge in human behavior is for some combinations to be neglected or ruled out. This requires the existential iron stomach needed to say, "We're going this way, not that." Where the parents on Supernanny might think discipline equals damage, from the perspective of cultural anthropology, discipline equals possibility.

In a parent's terms, that's the possibility of getting a good night's sleep, of not having to wrestle your child to the floor to enforce the smallest request, of a family meal without voluntary regurgitation, of eliminating back-talk, and public wildness. Helping to restore this depleted repertoire of social wisdom is indeed one contribution, as I see it, of the Supernanny phenomenon. Not as good, of course, as having grandma or grandpa around, or the full participation of two parents, but certainly better than nothing, and more than a lot of people have.

Where we are writing from

I've refrained from writing posts in this blog about this blog, because I can't imagine anyone would be interested in how I view it--I mean, what you see is what you get, yes?

But lately I've been thinking about what I like and don't like about other blogs, especially blogs about gender, feminism, sexism, politics, and parenting--and especially blogs on those topics written by guys.

Some of these blogs are quite popular, which Daddy Dialectic isn't. We get about 200 unique visitors on a good day, 100 on an average day when no one has posted for a while, maybe 3,500 in a month. In contrast, the bigger parenting blogs--some of which are great--will get 30,000 visitors in a single day.

Since I have a background in magazine publishing, I think of our readership as being akin to that of a literary magazine and I'm pretty happy with it. The only promotion I've ever done is to tell friends, family, and bloggers whom I genuinely admire and who feel kindred in some way--you'll see some of them listed in the blogroll.

No one who writes for Daddy Dialectic writes a post because he thinks it will be a hit in the blogosphere and get lots of links. Instead, we write about changing diapers, Proust, imaginary friends, loneliness, feelings of empathy and compassion--that sort of thing. I also blog quite a bit about recent research into families. Nothing that will get us mentioned in DailyKos.

We avoid writing about Bush, abortion, the war, and so on. Those things are important, but our culture and the blogosphere is filled with angry arguments on political issues of every kind. We're writing from a quieter place.

As a corollary, we tend to avoid rhetorical posturing; it creeps in sometimes, of course, but in general, I think it's fair to say that Daddy Dialectic posts are rooted in either quotidian life or empirical evidence. I read a lot of "pro-feminist" guy-blogs that are deeply theoretical: there's a lot of arid talk about "privilege" and "oppression" and so forth that really doesn't speak to my actual life as a dad who is committed to equality and justice.

Part of that pro-feminist guy mindset involves a self-hating denial of the validity of their own experience, that oftentimes seems to lead to ideological passive-aggressiveness, where anything an opponent says is framed as a product of privilege or identity. This is the enemy of understanding ourselves and the world.

The entire basis of Daddy Dialectic is that the daily experience of caregiving dads is valid and even important, even--no, especially--with the contradictions that are embedded in our experience.

Men still have more social power than women. A great deal of that social power is derived from a gendered division of family labor. Therefore, part of the solution is to erase the division of labor. This entails men entering traditionally female realms, even as women have entered male realms. This brings about a conflict between protected female spaces and men who are actually quite vulnerable, though they might loathe to admit to being vulnerable. I'm talking about literal spaces--for example, moms' groups--but I'm also talking about psychic and cultural spaces.

In 100 years, scholars will use current-events-oriented blogs as mere footnotes, even if today they are getting half a million visitors a day. I strongly believe that blogs like Daddy Dialectic--or Doodaddy or Lesbian Dad--will be ones that future historians read closely. Their value lies in that they are documenting the individual, subjective experience of world-historical change, in the same way that letters and diaries did for earlier generations.

Perhaps that seems a trifle lofty and even self-important, but I don't care. It's not a statement of personal importance; it's a statement of how urgent it is that we speak honestly about our experiences, even when they seem to conflict with what we believe. We live our daily lives in the unhappy gap between real and ideal, experience and imagination. At Daddy Dialectic, that's where we're writing from.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The 21st Century Family

The Fall 2007 issue of Greater Good magazine is out, featuring essays by historian Stephanie Coontz on the rise of the new family, sociologists Ross Parke and Scott Coltrane on lessons from Latino families, psychotherapist Ruth Bettelheim on binuclear families, sociologist Constance Ahrons on tips for a better divorce, writer Amie K. Miller on recent research into the well-being of children in same-sex families, and me, writing about how today's diverse families overcome social isolation.

And a reminder for Bay Area residents: On Wednesday, October 17, we're holding an event to celebrate our new issue, featuring Stephanie Coontz, psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, and psychotherapist Joshua Coleman. I'll be moderating. The panel will start at 3 pm at the Lipman Room on the 8th floor of Barrows Hall, located off of Bancroft Way at Barrow Lane and Eshleman Road, on the south side of the UC Berkeley campus. Click here for a map, parking information, and directions to the Lipman Room.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Nude on a Staircase

Coming home from work to find your wife nude in the living room is supposed to be one of the classic male heterosexual fantasies. So I naturally wondered if the reverse might be true when, at about 6:30 one evening, I stood naked at the top of the stairs as my wife came in the door below.

"What's with the nudity?" she asked.

I don't imagine the stereotypical male fantasy usually played out quite like that, but perhaps the fact that a few inches from my leg, Spot was bouncing up and down in his jumper chair voided the scene of any erotic charge whatsoever.

Why the nudity? Was it not self-evident? Spot just had the barf of the century.

Which is why I was in the kitchen, at the top of the stairs, my clothes in a moist, warm pile beside the changing table upstairs, where I had managed to wipe down my son but not myself, before I decided that the only way I could then take a shower, without him crawling around and either destroying something or electrocuting himself, would be to hang his jumper chair in the kitchen below, and then put him in it. Which is what I was doing when my wife came home to find me naked at the top of the stairs.

All that, however, is incidental. The central part of this story is the trauma of being barfed on by someone you love, when there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- that can be done about it. You just have to sit there and take it, letting your body and your clothes take the hit in order to save the sofa, the rug, and the baby. I've since learned, thanks to my wife's diligent researches, that the kind of power-barf I had just lived through may occasionally result from "over-feeding," something which I had thought was impossible with a baby.

Yet it would make sense. Spot was crying and I didn't know why. I sat him down in the rocking chair and offered him the bottle. He seemed more interested in holding it and turning it around, but I touched it to his lips, and he took it. But I still wasn't sure if he wanted it. Down went 6 ounces, easily enough, so I popped him onto his feet and stood him facing me on my lap. Well, what a happy baby!

The eruption that followed lasted for what seemed like 30 seconds, more than enough time for an earthquake to level a major city, and generated a solid stream of white liquid that poured onto my chest and lap. It looked like the pictures of milk splashing into a bowl of Cheerios or Corn Flakes on the side of a cereal box: solid, thick, and white, jumping dandily upwards on impact, together with a few dislodged strawberries. I happened to know, thanks to some friends of mine in the advertising industry, that those illustrations are an illusion, that they used Elmer's Glue because real milk wasn't white enough to really look like milk. But the way it bounced up off my lap sure looked like the way it bounces up on the side of a cereal box.

Spot barfed two more times that night, but that was by now my wife's problem. My more immediate concern, as I punched out at the end of my shift and took my shower, was whether whiskey or rum would be the more appropriate way to cure my headache and ring in the eventide. And whether or not I ought to put some clothes on.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not-so-new after all

In my August 14 meditation on family history, I call gay families "something totally new under the sun."

But my landlady, Ruthanne Lum McCunn, an award-winning author of Chinese-American historical novels, says that it's more complicated than that.

"Gay families may be new here in America," she told me, "but some of the 19th century independent spinsters who lived as couples in China's Pearl River Delta adopted and raised daughters."

That's interesting, and I just learned of a new study by Allan A. Tulchin of Shippenburg University that argues for evidence of homosexual civic unions in 15th century France.

Yes, I agree, that sounds pretty freaking unlikely. Turns out that Tulchin doesn't have a smoking gun of hot man-on-man marriage, but he did discover a legal framework, called a affrèrement ("brotherment"), that allowed same-sex people ("affrèrés") to set up households together.

“All of their goods usually became the joint property of both parties, and each commonly became the other’s legal heir," writes Tulchin in the September issue of the Journal of Modern History. "They also frequently testified that they entered into the contract because of their affection for one another. As with all contracts, affrèrements had to be sworn before a notary and required witnesses, commonly the friends of the affrèrés.”

Most of the affrèrés were brothers, but Tulchin finds examples of single unrelated men. "I suspect that some of these relationships were sexual, while others may not have been," he writes. "It is impossible to prove either way and probably also somewhat irrelevant to understanding their way of thinking. They loved each other, and the community accepted that."

My verdict: Intriguing and fun, but highly speculative. Gay and lesbian families might have historical precursors, but I still think that we are witnessing a rare and wonderful event: the emergence of a new family form, where same-sex parents can live their lives free of euphemism and fear--in San Francisco, anyway, and in plenty of other places.

Incidentally, Ruthanne just published a new novel, God of Luck, that is well worth a read. You can see Ruthanne read tomorrow, Sept. 26, at the San Francisco Main Public Library at 6:30 pm in the Latino Community Room.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Old vs. New Tapes

From today's New York Times:

For the first time, women in their 20s who work full time in several American cities — New York, Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis — are earning higher wages than men in the same age range, according to a recent analysis of 2005 census data by Andrew Beveridge, a sociology professor at Queens College in New York.

For instance, the median income of women age 21 to 30 in New York who are employed full time was 17 percent higher than that of comparable men.

Professor Beveridge said the gap is largely driven by a gulf in education: 53 percent of women employed full time in their 20s were college graduates, compared with 38 percent of men. Women are also more likely to have graduate degrees. “They have more of everything,” Professor Beveridge said.

A lot of young women “are of two minds,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, a research organization. “On one hand, they’re proud of their achievements, and they think they want a man who shares house chores and child care. But on the other hand they’re scared by their own achievement, and they’re a little nervous having a man who won’t be the main breadwinner. These are old tapes running in their head: ‘This is how you get a man.’”

Bay Area residents, mark your calendars: On Wednesday, October 17, I'll be moderating a panel with Stephanie Coontz on the challenges faced by new parents, along with psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, and psychotherapist Joshua Coleman. The event will start at 3 pm at the Lipman Room on the 8th floor of Barrows Hall, on the UC Berkeley campus. Barrows Hall is located off of Bancroft Way at Barrow Lane and Eshleman Road, on the south side of the Berkeley campus. Click here for a map, parking information, and directions to the Lipman Room.

This event will celebrate the release of Greater Good's Fall 2007 issue on “The 21st Century Family,” with contributions by Stephanie Coontz, Scott Coltrane, Ross Parke, Constance Ahrons, and me, writing about how today’s non-traditional parents overcome social isolation and build new communities. I'm still providing free copies of the issue to any blogger who pledges to review it online--send me a note at jeremyadamsmith (at)

Monday, September 10, 2007

More Imaginary Friends

Marjorie Taylor is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and an expert on imaginary friends. She read my August 27 post on Liko's imaginary characters. "Mostly what your son is doing is not having an imaginary friend," she told me in an interview. "It’s having a pretend identity. There’s usually a gender difference there. Boys and girls are similar in that they create imaginary characters, but there is a gender difference in what they tend to do with those characters. So, the little boys tend to put on superhero capes and run around. They take on the characteristics of the character and act it out. Whereas little girls, at least during the preschool period, are more likely to invent this other person that they’re interacting with. By the time they get to be about seven or eight, though, little boys are just as likely as little girls to have an imaginary friend rather than a pretend identity."

Taylor's research into imagination and pretend play is fascinating--and I found that it illuminated quite a lot about my son's behavior and propensities. Liko--who has imaginary friends as well as pretend identities--is a very sociable, verbal, empathic little boy who is prone to flights of elaborate fantasy. In her research, Taylor has found a strong correlation between those qualities and the prevalence of imaginary companions.

"Children who have imaginary friends are better able to take the perspective of another person," she said. "We’ve been able to show that in our work." But she cautions us against believing that one causes the other: researchers still don't know if empathic instincts cause kids to make up imaginary friends or if imaginary friends help kids to learn to take another person's perspective.

Whatever triggers these qualities, it appears early in life. "Children who go on to develop imaginary friends really show an interest in fantasy from a very early age," she told me. "So even before the first year, they tend to be the kids who really like puppets and stuffed animals, rather than building blocks or things that are more reality-oriented. Those are the kids who go on at [a later age] to have imaginary friends." Yep, that sounds like Liko. He's never had much interest in "reality-oriented" toys.

One of the interesting implications of the gender difference Taylor found is that little boys appear to be more wrapped up in projecting themselves into roles of power, while girls from early on are developing characters outside themselves who demand attention and empathy. This plays to certain gender stereotypes, but her research also implies that boys and girls alike can develop empathy and caregiving behavior by developing their imaginations.

Once in place, it seems that imaginary friends can take on a life of their own, becoming characters with autonomous motivations and unique feelings. "Part of the fun of imaginary friends is that they don’t always think like you do," said Taylor. "In fact, it surprised us at first that with a lot of imaginary friends, there is a lot of arguing going on and a lot of negativity, even. An imaginary friend will be mean, hit you on the head, put yogurt in your hair, and so on."

Does this mean that imaginary friends ought to all be all locked up in imaginary jails? Taylor says no. "Like adults who think things through before they act, this gives children an opportunity to play it through before they encounter the situation [in real life]. If something is bothering you, you can control it or manipulate it in the world of pretending. That’s a way of developing emotional mastery. Pretend is something children have available to them, that is a coping mechanism they can use in their lives. And they don’t have a lot of other ones, really. They’re pretty helpless and small and have to depend on others, but they do have their imaginations, and they use them to cope."

Thus pretend play and imaginary characters are often a healthy sign of resilience and creativity. Taylor is routinely contacted by parents who are concerned about what the imaginary friends are doing, fearing that imaginary play might point to something wrong in real life. “We see lots of negativity and difficult stuff going on in the pretend play of kids who are healthy and doing just fine," says Taylor. "That can make parents uncomfortable."

But Taylor found that "children just like to think about being bad. Why not have an imaginary friend who is like that, to explore what it means to be bad? You have to think of it as exploring emotional space. There’s a lot to think through about behavior. Kids use pretend to try it on, they do [bad things] in their pretend play so that they have some control over it.”

One parent came to Taylor because her child’s imaginary friend was always sick. "The child didn’t want to leave home because she didn’t want to leave the imaginary friend because [the friend] was so sick," said Taylor. "We put our heads together and thought about how to work within the pretend play. So we had the mother invent a new imaginary friend who could stay home with the sick one. And then the child was totally happy to go! Children like it when parents pretend along. Some people say, 'Well, the imaginary friend is a private thing that [the child doesn’t] want to share.' But that’s just not true. Kids love it when adults participate in their pretend worlds."

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Objects of My Affection

In the first months after my son was born, I experienced an emotional response to my dealings with other people that was truly new to me. It occurred to me, in the forceful and almost physical way that the most fundamental truths come home to us, that everyone was, once, a baby. The UPS guy at the door this morning. The rather unhealthy-looking guy behind the wheel of the semi that just passed me. The wheelchair-bound lady in the park that afternoon. The gang banger with a gun. My mother. My father.

Further reflections arose from this first, bracing realization. Having all started out as children, more or less like mine, doing the things that babies and toddlers do, how did we all become so different? The languages, the accents, the ways of moving, of thinking, the patterns of belief and action -- where did all of it come from? And if all of it expressed such variation, what hope was there of any connection among us? Here I am, almost a middle-aged man, and having just had a child, I am asking childlike questions myself.

This new mental state, almost an altered state of consciousness, didn't last long. I'm not sure what would have happened if it had. In any case, being cut off from humanity while shepherding an infant through a Chicago winter went a long way towards dampening my reflections. But the original realization did leave traces, and I try to summon them back once in a while. It seemed valuable and worth preserving, like the early sensation of falling in love. Perhaps it was like an emotional molting, the growth of a new sensibility that overwhelmed everything else as it outgrew a more constraining psychic shell. Or maybe, it was really just a passing illusion.

If one kept this idea on our minds, that we were all once babies, then it seemed to be the kind of idea that could radically alter one's behavior in life. It seemed that caring for an infant brought out something virtuous in a person that shouldn't be shared only with those who can't walk, who soil themselves regularly, and who have yet to know language. But how do you translate that love for a small, dependent creature into an ethical framework for dealing with the clamoring, boisterous and often disconcerting variety of other people?

The overwhelming sense that we all share the same lot, and even more importantly, we all in some way or another need others is more pronounced in some people than in others. I am convinced, for example, that a highly developed sense of this interdependency is at the root of the most admirable qualities of deeply religious people. The concept of "humanity," with all of its obligations and expectations, is one of its secular derivatives, and can be equally motivating for people of different political outlooks.

But the question still remains: what to do with this impression and the emotional awareness that comes with it? It seems that something of what we learn in caring for small children ought to carry over into other relationships. But for most of human history children have existed in a special world that was left behind upon entry into adolescence. The multitude of rites of passage into the world of sexuality, power, and self-control in different cultures all worked to draw firm lines between the world of the child and the world of the adult. Caring for children, historically, was something that was animal, material, feminine, and as such needed to be separated from the world of the spiritual, abstract, and masculine. Much depended on this segregation. As one of the most familiar passages of the New Testament goes, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." There's no clearer dividing line than that.

But now that those binary oppositions are eroding, it would seem that the pairing of the child-adult might also become more complex. The emotional capacity to care for small children -- or for any dependent individual -- certainly isn't limited to females, just as the capacity for abstract, adult functionality is not limited to males. Likewise, the set of emotional sensibilities that can emerge in a parent might not be limited in their extension to children only, but might positively infuse our relationships with other adults. I'm not sure yet just how, and it may take a while for me to figure it out. But I'll check back in if and when I do.

Monday, August 27, 2007

My son's top five imaginary characters

1. Frank Lloyd Wright: During a visit to Chicago, we took Liko to see two Frank Lloyd Wright houses. We bought him a Frank Lloyd Wright doll. We had no inkling of what forces this would unleash: The kid is now obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright. During a later trip to New York City, he insisted that we see the Guggenheim--which he'd seen in posters and books. When he rushed into the lobby of the Guggenheim, he ran in ecstatic circles and tossed his Frank Lloyd Wright doll into the air and spoke in toddler-tongues. Now, when he builds things out of blocks and so forth, he becomes the personification of Frank Lloyd Wright. One of his favorite songs: Simon and Garfunkel's "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright," which Liko listens to thoughtfully, making tight little circles with his hands. What's the source of his fascination? I can only guess, but I think Liko finds it amazing that people design houses and buildings, as opposed to them just growing right out of the ground like trees. I also believe that Liko just thinks that Wright's buildings are really neat.

2. Sally: That is to say, Sally from the very first 1969 episode of Sesame Street, the DVD of which my father gave Liko as a present. Liko becomes the little girl Sally (that's her, above, standing between Big Bird and Mr. Hooper) when he wants to be cuddled or put to bed. It's very sweet. I'm not sure why he fixated on Sally, the new girl in school whom Gordon shows around Sesame Street, introducing it for the very first time in the history of the world. As far as I know, Sally was never again seen on Sesame Street (foul play?), but Liko has shown no interest in becoming such beloved characters as Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird, et al.--though Cookie Monster has made a few appearances at our dinner table. I should add that in that first episode you can see how very cool Sesame Street used to be: the cast consists almost entirely of African-Americans and Latinos, set on a gritty urban street (as opposed to the usual bucolic or trippy settings of children's TV), with TV's first openly gay couple -- I speak of Bert and Ernie, naturally. Plus, the music and graphics are terrific, vastly more creative that anything you see in today's Sesame Street, which is just a pale shadow of its former self.

3. Liesl von Trapp: Who the hell is Liesl von Trapp? She's sixteen years old and she don't need no stinking governess. She's the eldest daughter of the Trapp Family Singers, whose origins are fancifully depicted in the 1965 musical The Sound of Music. For two weeks after first seeing The Sound of Music, Liko would wake up in the morning, announce that today he was Liesl, belt out a few lines of "Do-Re-Me," and leap gracefully about the room. Liesl still makes regular appearances in our home. What's up with that? No idea. I just hope he doesn't decide to become family patriarch Captain Georg von Trapp and start singing "Edelweiss." If that happened, I'd have to jump out of the nearest window.

4. Mozart: This fantasy was triggered by Peter Sis's beautiful children's book, Play Mozart, Play. In Liko's mind, Mozart is some kind of MacGyver-like superhero. Last week, Mozart, as channeled by Liko, built (by hand!) a cargo plane out of couch cushions, filled the bay with musical instruments, flew it all to Africa, unloaded the plane, draped at least four instruments around himself using various straps, and gave an epic concert, performed on the stage that is our bed. Amazing. Ten times better than "Cats." Fifteen times better than "Phantom."

5. Spider-Man: Liko can pretty much do whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. He catches thieves just like flies. Look out, readers! Here comes Liko the Spider-Man. I once asked Liko why he likes Spider-Man so much. "I like his costume," said Liko. "And I like how he shoots things out of his hands and flies through the sky." I've since noticed that quite a few little kids like Spider-Man and I've started asking them the same question, and the answers are all more or less the same as Liko's. I also think Spider-Man is cool, but that has more to do with his origin as the world's first anti-authoritarian superhero and the wonderful emotional and philosophical dynamics of the series' main characters. Also, the costume. And the way he shoots webs out of his hands. During the aforementioned trip to New York, I kept imagining Spider-Man swinging around over our heads...and so did my son.

Runners-up: The Wicked Witch of the West; Glenda, the Good Witch; a "mean, scary pirate"; Superman; Doctor Baker (from Curious George Goes to the Hospital); Nurse Carol (Ibid.); Sigmund Freud (Liko has the action figure).