Monday, February 26, 2007

Family vs. Political Involvement

Naazneen Barma reports:

Julianna Sandell Pacheco and Eric Plutzer analyzed the effects of three important teen life transitions—adolescent parenthood, early marriage, and dropping out of high school—on later political engagement. In a paper published in American Politics Research, Pacheco and Plutzer report that the three transitions “can contribute to a pattern of cumulative disadvantage because experiencing one teen transition often leads to another.” Teen parents are much more likely to drop out of school, which in turn sets of other chains of events that dampen political participation, making it unlikely they’ll be able to advocate effectively for their needs and opinions.

Interestingly, the scholars find that the effects of these life transitions on voter turnout differ across racial and ethnic lines, with the impact of teen parenthood applying more to Whites than to Blacks or Hispanics. They suggest that the differences across racial groups may reflect divergent norms about educational achievement and early parenthood and marriage. This hints that providing the right kinds of social support to teens could offset the negative impacts of their life transitions...

The authors demonstrate that supposedly “nonpolitical” life events can have an influence on political behavior. From a harm reduction viewpoint, it may be possible to cut into the causal chain to prevent one bad choice from leading to another. Their results suggest that efforts to help teen parents in a way that makes it easier for them to stay in school could carry great benefits—both for their immediate educational success and their lifelong political engagement.

I have been thinking recently about how tough it is, period, to be a parent and stay politically active. This past weekend I attended a board meeting for an organization that I've been involved with for about a year, and as I sat there looking at spreadsheets I had a revelation: it's not just me volunteering my time, it's my entire family. I normally take responsibility for Liko over the weekend, which allows my wife to do whatever she wants (hanging out with us is one option, but it's her choice; she spends a lot of time cleaning the house and doing laundry, I'm afraid). When I go to a weekend-long meeting, my wife loses the break from caregiving, and of course my son loses my company. I've started to recently think that maybe it's just not the right time in my life to be politically active, but I fear that if I drop out completely I'll never go back. (I also just had a short story published, "What Do We Want? When Do We Want It?" that touches on this topic--one of my few stories to be available online!)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ted’s Story: Not his father's son

I am in the process of interviewing Bay Area families for a series of writing projects on stay-at-home fathers and non-traditional families. For the next year or so, I will periodically post sketches of the families based on the interviews, as a kind of public notebook of the work I am doing. What follows is the story of Ted, a stay-at-home dad in Oakland, CA. All names have been changed.

Johnny lifts rock after rock, small two-year-old face focused, searching.

“Bug!” he says triumphantly, pointing to a salamander. “Bug!”

His dad Ted squats down. “It’s a salamander. That’s a kind of amphibian, Johnny.”

Ted plucks the finger-length salamander off the ground and slides it into Johnny’s hand.

“Gentle,” he says to his son. “Be very gentle.”

Tell me about your dad, I say.

Ted laughs sarcastically and doesn’t say anything. In another person, it would seem like a self-dramatizing gesture. I sense, however, that Ted is only thinking. Ted is 43 years old, but he’s boyish and stocky and he has a scholar’s face, quiet and a little bit sad. Words come slow to him.

I prompt him: What kind of role model is he for you, as a father?

“He saw himself as a breadwinner and not much else. His attitude was, I’m your father and you will respect me, because of all the things I’ve done for you. He didn’t see our relationship as going two ways. It was more of a one-way thing, from him to me.”

Ted’s parents divorced when he was eleven. At first he and his sister lived with his mom, then one day when he was fourteen, Ted was caught smoking marijuana. It was decided that he would go live with his father.

“I have a lot of fond memories from before, but after I went to live with my dad, I don’t know. It was a closed atmosphere. I didn’t have a lot of friends. The attitude about me was, he’s done drugs before, so let’s keep him in a cage so that he’ll never have a chance to do drugs again.”

What was your father like, during this period? I ask.

“My dad was an alcoholic….”

“Look at me, daddy!” cries Johnny. We look: he’s standing up on a pile of wood chips, legs spread, with one foot propped on a nearby fence, smiling as though he just completed a triple somersault.

“Way to go, Johnny, good job!”

About your father… I continue.

“He was a mean drunk. He picked on the family…”

Ted stops talking.

What do you think he did well? I ask.

Ted thinks. “I can’t think of anything right now. I don’t have a good relationship with my dad.”

When Ted went to college, he became a serious bicycle racer. He’d take classes for a semester, then race for a year. This went on for twelve years, until he got his undergraduate science degree.

“I wasn’t getting rich, but I’d make a couple hundred dollars a week, enough to get by with some other work, and I raced with professionals—some pretty famous guys. My dad wasn’t supportive, except when I won a race. I won about fifty races. I think winning was the only thing that made it worthwhile to him.”

One day he met Shelley, the roommate of the girlfriend of another bike racer. They married and two and a half years ago they had Johnny. The family spent Johnny's second year in China, where Ted worked as researcher for the United Nations on a conservation project. While in China, Shelley was offered a job as communications director of an international development organization in Oakland, CA. On their return to the Bay Area, the couple decided that Ted would stay home with Johnny while Shelley worked.

What does your dad think of you staying at home with Johnny? I ask.

"He’s insulting about it. Not so much about me taking care of Johnny. More about the fact that I’m not having a job right now. He’s in his sixties, his health is deteriorating, so he just lashes out at anything.”

Johnny wanders over to concrete steps that lead down from their street to next neighborhood. Ted lets him stand at a railing, looking down at a ten-foot drop.

I say: My wife would never let my son stand there.

“Shelley’s terrified of the stairs. She won’t let him go near stairs like that.”

Are you more careless than Shelley? I ask.

“I wouldn’t say careless…”

We both laugh.

“He is more likely to get hurt with me…well, not, like, hurt. I’m careful with him, but I like to give him a little bit more room to, you know, experiment, see what he can do. He’d never learn to walk down the stairs otherwise.”

What are some things a good father does? I ask.

For once, Ted doesn’t hesitate. “A good dad is close to his kids. He’s there emotionally. He’s supportive and encouraging, whatever the kids want to do, within reason.”

He pauses.

“But I think the most important thing is for a dad to set a good example. You have to be the kind of man you want your son to grow up to be. You can’t impose your ideas on him. You have to be the idea and just hope he gets it. If they see you being kind to other people, they’re more likely to be kind to other people.”

We stop talking, both of us pondering his words, watching Johnny, who squats for a long time, intently watching another salamander traverse the landscape of his tiny hand. Johnny starts to poke and prod at the salamander.

“OK, Johnny,” says Ted. “Let the salamander free.”

He squats down next to his son and helps the salamander back into its home under the rock.

“You don’t want to hurt him,” says Ted, taking his son’s hand.

You know, I say, Johnny really looks like you.

For the first time that afternoon, Ted really smiles: at that moment, he is the man he wants his son to be.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Liko vs. Binary Gender

After Liko and his mom set up a hummingbird feeder on the back deck:

"I'm not a girl or a boy!"

"What are you?"

"I'm a hummingbird!"

"Really? Cool."

"I'm a hummingbird woman!"

Which reminds me: I recently did a blog search for "feminism" covering the previous 24 hours and found that eight and a half of the ten most recent posts were anti-feminist rants. I say "eight and a half," because of this politically curious post on the politics of daycare in the U.K. -- the only one I'll link to, because it is serious and thought-through and contains some ideas that I think are good.

Two noteworthy things here: the apparent prevalence of antifeminist hatred on the Internet and the bankruptcy and misogyny of antifeminist politics, as represented in these posts. Sample quote: "Businesses are there to make money. All this forcing of businesses to ensure people (primarily women) get their work/life balance in order is fucking the economy up... The old way was pretty good. Men worked and made money, thus able to do their jobs and provide for the children. Women stayed at home and ran the home, thus able to devote themselves to the kids... Businesses, men, women and children were happy."

Uh, sure. Everyone was happy. Here's a guy who has never read a novel published prior to 1962.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Alpha vs. Beta

More reasons to feel guilty: a new study says insecure infants are probably screwed for life. "The kid learns, 'I can count on my parents to calm me down,'" says a researcher. "They learn to turn to others. Whereas insecure kids learn that my parent is either rejecting or they learn my parent is neglectful. Or 'I have to protest to get attention.'"

But the upshot of the study has some interesting social implications:

Contrary to the popular American myth that people left to fend for themselves become strong and independent, the psychological research seems to show exactly the opposite is true: It is the people who are confident enough to reach out to others for help -- and to whom help is given -- who become truly capable of independence.

Meanwhile, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and of neurology at Stanford's School of Medicine, has some good advice for young men:

For the humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man—if I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive prowess is important—balls, translated into the more abstractly demanding social realm of humans. What's clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don't waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that's not what pays off in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap. I could not have said that when I was 25.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

We vs. Me

Over at the Greater Good blog, Christine Carter McLaughlin and Kelly Corrigan continue their dialogue on childhood happiness, this time with a focus on social connections:

Kelly: So about connection. You know how there's this prevailing desire for space and privacy? People dream of a home with a long driveway on five acres but if and when they get there, it's too quiet, too isolated, too removed from the comforting sounds of a neighborhood. At least for me, the thing I like most about my home is seeing people walk by as I do my dishes or bumping into friends as I walk my kids to school.

Carter: This is what sociologists call social integration, and the upshot of all the research on it is that social connectedness is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated. Robert Putnam wrote a really interesting book, Bowling Alone, about how we Americans are becoming less and less connected to one another.

"Countless studies document the link between society and psyche [he writes]: people who have close friends and confidants, friendly neighbors, and supportive co-workers are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping…The single most common finding from a half century's research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one's social connections (Putnam 2000, p. 332)."

Many people would love to have the kind of connections Putnam talks about, yet still find themselves living lives of lonely desperation. "Families are isolated," says Carolyn Cowan, a research psychologist with the UC Berkeley Institute of Human Development (also my employer). With her husband Philip, Carolyn studied 200 nuclear families and found that up to a third experienced "tension, conflict, distress and divorce in the early years after the arrival of a first child," conditions that thrive in social isolation.

"Increasingly, new families are created far from grandparents, kin, and friends with babies the same age, leaving parents without the support of those who could share their experiences of the ups and downs of parenthood," write the Cowans. "Most modern parents bring babies home to isolated dwellings where their neighbors are strangers."

Sounds dire, yes? And probably familiar to many readers.

At the moment I'm working on a set of interlocking writing projects, all of which involve interviewing families with young kids, all in the Bay Area. I'm struck by two things: 1) how isolated many of them are; and 2) how differently individuals react to the isolation. One stay-at-home dad I interviewed knew that he was isolated, but he only worried that his son wasn't being properly socialized--he honestly didn't care that he had few parent friends (important caveat: he's only three months in to his stint as a SAHD). I've also talked with people who have what appear to be busy social lives--but they lament the quality of their social contacts, which they feel lack the kind of intimacy they found in school-age friendships.

But what's most interesting is that many new parents seem to have chosen lives that leave them isolated; for example, by moving away from parents and hometowns. Why? When I quiz people about this, the kneejerk response is that people in general are following jobs. But when I drill down and ask, "Why don't you live in the place where you grew up?" I find the answers vary a great deal.

Some people did indeed follow jobs and careers. Others (this applies to me) grew up moving from place to place, and don't have any one town to call home--often, their relatives are dispersed. The most interesting group consists of people who came to the Bay Area seeking some degree of social freedom--this is true, for example, of many gays and lesbians. Here many such people discovered, for the first time in their lives, communities in which they were not the outsiders.

Then they had kids, and found themselves once again on the outside, but this time they were far away from family.

Last week my short story, "Same Street Twice" appeared in the literary magazine Instant City. (Sorry, the story's not available online, but you can order the magazine at its website. You can also find Instant City on sale in fine bookstores like Pegasus in Berkeley or Adobe in San Francisco. It's a publication well worth supporting.)

In the thinly fictionalized "Same Street Twice" I document the experience becoming a parent, but I also unconsciously dramatize the social trends I'm now writing about: our young urban couple, Rachel and Graham, find themselves saddled with a baby, far from family or friends, and uncertain of their new roles and responsibilities. They're surrounded by the raunchy street life of the Castro, but it comes to seem like a "slightly boring play" that they can only watch.

It had been a while since I read the story and there's something about seeing your work in print that makes it seem like it was written by someone else: this allows me to feel some degree of pity for the writer. I wrote "Same Street Twice" while in the thick of the experience being described, two and a half years ago. Reading it today, it seems to me that at certain points the story is about to collapse from exhaustion and anxiety.

Ah, so sad. But there's a yet-unwritten sequel: the young urban couple survive the experience of becoming parents. They meet other parents on the playground who are exactly like them. They form playgroups; join community associations; rendezvous every Saturday at the neighborhood Farmer's Market; hold parties. They start helping each other out. Their kids get older and the kids become friends. The couple grows to accept their new identities and the limitations the identities impose, and they craft roles for themselves that make sense and seem fair. In the wreckage of their lives, they build new lives and create new social capital.

"Sure, kids'll destroy your life," someone once told me. "But don't worry: you'll get a new one."

This might also be the sequel to the Cowans's study, though happy endings are not as common as we'd wish. The happy ending (what is that anyway? a good death?) might even be the exception. Many of the couples they studied ended in divorce; many doubtless continue to struggle, even if they stay married. A great deal, I suspect, depends on geography, the community's existing social capital, and individual circumstances too numerous to mention.

If we're honest with ourselves, I think many of us will admit that we gain a certain amount of freedom in our modern isolation: it's part of the landscape of our lives and therefore we, tough little monkeys that we are, learn to love it. But I've discovered, slowly, that Christine and Kelly (and Putnam) are right: social connections are key to happiness, if happiness is something that we want.

Knowing that is small comfort to people who are lost in the city, or the suburbs, or anywhere. It's not so easy to find those connections, when a thousand obstacles, many of them self-imposed, some of them not, cut you off from your neighbors and co-workers and relatives--and community, once achieved, is by no means an unmixed blessing. But, you know, if you're struggling, all you can do is keep going. Don't stop. You're probably not as alone as you think you are.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The U.S. vs. the Rest of the Post-Industrial World

The Council on Contemporary Families released a new study of how the U.S. ranks in family-friendly work policies. The study found that the U.S. ranked high in protecting the right of all people to work, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age or disability. The study also found "marked success in lowering the poverty rates of the elderly, although they have been less successful than other affluent nations in protecting children from poverty...In addition, the U.S. is also one of 117 countries guaranteeing a pay premium for overtime work."

All to the good, and thank your lucky stars for the labor, feminist, and Civil Rights movements. Beyond that, however, the U.S. left much to be desired:

Out of 173 countries studied, 168 countries offer guaranteed leave with income to women in connection with childbirth; 98 of these countries offer 14 or more weeks paid leave. Although in a number of countries, many women work in the informal sector, where these government guarantees do not always apply, the fact remains that the U.S. guarantees no paid leave for mothers in any segment of the work force, leaving it in the company of only 4 other nations: Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.

65 countries ensure that fathers either receive paid paternity leave or have a right to paid parental leave; 31 of these countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave. The U.S. guarantees fathers neither paid paternity nor paid parental leave.

107 countries protect working women’s right to breastfeed; in at least 73 of these the breaks are paid. The U.S. does not guarantee the right to breastfeed, even though breastfeeding is proven to reduce infant mortality.

137 countries mandate paid annual leave, with 121 of these countries guaranteeing 2 weeks or more each year. The U.S. does not require employers to provide any paid annual leave...

145 countries provide paid leave for short- or long-term illnesses, with 127 providing a week or more annually. More than 79 countries provide sickness benefits for at least 26 weeks or until recovery. The U.S. provides only unpaid leave for serious illnesses through the FMLA, which does not cover all workers. Moreover, the U.S. does not guarantee any paid sick days for common illnesses.

And so on. I suspect that very few Daddy Dialectic readers will be surprised by these findings. The press release concludes:

There is an enormous payoff to improving working conditions -— from lowering long-term family poverty to improving population health and education and increasing their associated economic and social benefits. The comparative data do not support the common notion that establishing good working conditions leads to job loss. Our studies found that none of these protections is associated with higher unemployment rates on a national level. In fact, on a global scale, countries that provide longer parental leave, as well as more leave to care for children, are among the most economically competitive.

At the top of this post you'll see my son Liko, fighting for everyone's right to work...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Mary Cheney vs. Borat


“Every piece of remotely responsible research that has been done in the last 20 years on this issue has shown there is no difference between children who are raised by same-sex parents and children who are raised by opposite-sex parents,” said [Mary Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney]. “What matters is that children are being raised in a stable, loving environment.”

I also read in this article that Ms. Cheney "came 'pretty close' to quitting when President Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage." Way to stand up against evil, Mary! I'm sure the President was quaking in his boots.

Meanwhile, Borat does the right thing.

Yes, I'm in a snarky mood.