Tuesday, March 27, 2007

peein like a boy, or the follies of fathering

Note: Just a quick announcement that I will be going up the Northwest doing readings with artnoose of the zine ker-bloom. Along the way will be one of my daughters and her best friend. Here are the dates:

Fri. 3/30 Arcata CA - 8 pm - Muddy's Hot Cup
Sat. 3/31 Portland OR - 6 pm - Laughing Horse Books
Sun. 4/1 Seattle WA - 7 pm - Z.A.P.P.
Mon. 4/2 Seattle WA - 6 pm - Left Bank Books
Tues. 4/3 Vancouver BC - 7 pm - Spartacus Books
Thur. 4/5 Victoria BC - 7 pm - Solstice Cafe
Sat. 4/7 Olympia WA - 7 pm - Last Word Books
Sun. 4/8 Eugene OR - 5 pm - Wandering Goat Café

Please come out and say hello! It will be a fun-filled night of storytelling. Oh, and rad dad 6 is out!


I love being a dad; I feel like I need to say this because over the past few rad dad columns, I've realized that I've been writing about some of the more difficult topics, the ones that challenge my sense of self, my politics, my own securities: things like drug use, ethnicity, pornography. Believe me, it's been very helpful to talk about these things with others and to force myself to consider intimately and deeply how I want to parent, the relationship I want to foster with my children. But I gotta tell you for all the difficult times and moments I deal with, my experiences parenting have been the funniest of my life. Nothing makes me laugh, brings out the kid in me, or makes me realize how lucky I am more than the follies of fathering.

With that said, however, nothing really can prepare you for your youngest daughter announcing:

"Dad, I'm gonna stand and pee into the toilet. So do I need to lift the lid?"

Thankfully I was brushing my teeth, which allowed me to spit the contents of my mouth into the sink with little explanation.

"Ah, well, I don't think so."

And with approval given, she lets it fly. Literally.

I will now defend the ability of men to aim with pretty good accuracy after seeing the torrent of urine released by my daughter and the sheer span of toilet and floor and wall it showered.

"Well, that didn't work," I say.

"Why?" she asks very amazed and slightly embarrassed.

"I don't know. Did you aim?" I kinda stammer as my son sticks his head and demands, "What the hell are you guys talking about?"

Ella screams, and I take the distraction to consider what just happened. Assuming there is no book broaching the subject at the public library and trying to be a caring, supportive father, I remember a zine at the local infoshop on how to pee standing up.

Sure enough, it's there. I buy it for a quarter and pass it on to my nine-year old who tosses it in her room without thinking anything of it as if it was no big deal.

Later, sitting with some friends of mine, we all laugh at this story as well as at our recollections of how difficult it was to potty train our kids, working with angles, strategically aiming body parts, and of course the unavoidable contact with certain bodily excretions. We shared other stories of how parenting never fails to put you in positions of having no answer to queries and in territory totally foreign to anything you've experienced. But it sure was interesting and very entertaining to have every woman I know share some bit of advice for me to pass on to my daughter about the techniques of pissing standing up. "Tell her it's in the way you squeeze your butt cheeks."

So the next time, my daughter tells me, as I'm standing in the shower, that she's decided she no longer wants to pee like a boy, I say, "Well, if you ever try again, there's people who can help you, but you gotta promise to wipe the lid after."

Somehow I felt strangely satisfied saying that.

And that's the easy stuff. My headstrong 11-year old has decided she wants a bra-lette; now I have never heard of this word before (talk about foreign territory), but I have already told her when she feels ready to get a training bra (she rolls her eyes at my archaic language), I'd take her.

"No way!" she screams.

Apparently, I can see her in a bathing suit, I can still take a shower with her, but I am forbidden to see her in a bra-lette. I am promptly banished from any part of the store that she's in when we all next venture to Target to get some swimming supplies for a camping trip.

Trying again to be the understanding, supportive father, I keep my distance and watch from afar as my partner and her pick some out bras while Ella and I play with axes and solar showers. Ella holds my hand and shakes her head and says, "I think she's going into the pre-teen years, Dad."

When we all meet up again in the check out aisle to pay and I start taking the colorful assortment of bra-lettes out; I hear her plead, "Dad" as her older brother walks up. I quickly put them back in the bag as he demands again, "Hey, what are you guys buying?"

"Nothing," I say, "go see what your mom's doing."

He leaves and she smiles and leans her head on my waist and says, "Thank you." And it is then I see her again as the wild middle child and simultaneously as a young woman coming into her own. I feel honored to have been a part of that transition. I hug her back.

It is when that transition is almost complete that those moments of secret hugs and childhood flashbacks count the most.

My son at 16. My son, too busy to talk. Too busy to hang around. Never too far away though to ask for cash, for rides, for more time away. I won't lie; the last few years have put me to the test and as my dad used to say, "He been on the wrong side I right for too long now." So when it came to taking a two-week trip with just my son, I was scared shitless. Little did I know, shit would be the thing to bring us together.

Now let me segue to something seemingly irrelevant. I have lost more friends over my assertion that Dumb and Dumber is one of the great movies of the last 10 years than any other faux pas I've committed. And I realize why they disagree; most of them are kidless; anyone who has gone through the obsessive banter about poop from kids at each stage of development either must become apathetic to bowel humor or jump in and enjoy the fun.

Back now to our trip to Chiapas where the look on my son's face as he walked up to the door of our hostel was pure terror and fear. Big time. He nodded to his leg, and his chalky complexion gave it all away. To make matters worse, we were about to venture to a village in the jungle on horseback for the next four hours. But he's a trooper (and a pooper, I tease) because he held it together. Literally.

It was on this trip that I made a startling discovery: the mind of a two-year old and a fifteen-year old are eerily connected. Especially when poop is the subject. My son couldn't stop talking about crap. And I was like a new father in love with changing diapers making cutesy little doo-doo sounds along with him. It's true; we bonded over poop banter.

We spent two wonderful, ruin-filled, Zapatista-focused weeks in Mexico and many of these days seemed to also take place in various bathrooms. Dylan's favorite phrase was, "It feels like I'm pissing out of my asshole." Now I don't know why, but we laughed ourselves to sleep many a nights over this phrase as well as devised ways of bringing back bottles of water and tricking various friends and enemies as well as his sisters into consuming said water to share the pleasures of "pissing out of one's asshole." And, of course, the toilet scene in Dumb and Dumber came up repeatedly as a measuring stick to our own bathroom experiences.

But it wasn't until the end, on our way home, we sat next to each other on the plane, and he looked over at me and smiled and said, "Thanks, Dad. This was a pretty good trip." Nothing more, but it was enough to remind myself just how damn lucky I am to have him in my life. To have all them in my life even if I'm never sure if the lid should stay up or down anymore, even if I am banned from parts of their life and certain departments in stores, even if I lose friends over shit jokes. For them, it's all worth it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Stay-at-home parenthood: a privileged debate?

I hear it a lot: the debate over stay-at-home dads (and moms) is a privileged one, since, some say, most couples must work two jobs just to stay afloat. "The whole idea of there being just one person who earns the money is so foreign to most families now," writes Jeff at Feminist Allies, in response to my March 2 post on breadwinning moms. "Perhaps there are some class issues around couples who are having the sorts of problems that Jeremy is talking about?"

I used to think so--and I said as much in my very first post to Daddy Dialectic: "Dads-at-home will be a tiny minority for as long as parents have to scramble to keep their heads above water, trying to make enough money to survive and give their kids the best life possible, under the circumstances."

At the time I wrote that, I had thought about the issue for all of two seconds: like Jeff and many other people who should know better, I just reflexively assumed that stay-at-home parenthood is a luxury of the affluent. Since then, I've interviewed dozens of families with a stay-at-home parent, read scores of empirical studies and books, and spoken with leading family researchers.

As a result, I discovered that the reality is complex--as it almost always is, when closely examined. Let's start with the numbers. Men are sole breadwinners in 39 percent of families with children under the age of six. Meanwhile, seven percent of families are supported primarily by women. That means at least 46 percent of families with young children are supported by one breadwinner.

Even if this was a relatively privileged group, it is certainly not, as Jeff implies, a marginal group. That number represents millions of people, almost half of all families, and they are facing real and difficult trade-offs when it comes to balancing home with work. Mostly, of course, it's moms who stay home, and in recent years, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more moms are quitting their jobs to take care of kids. "The biggest percentage-point declines in work-force participation," reports the Wall Street Journal, "did come among mothers with a bachelor's degree or more, followed by women with husbands in the top 20% of earners." This confirms the impression that families with a stay-at-home parent are relatively privileged--that is to say, educated and affluent.

However, the same Bureau of Labor Statistics study cited by the Journal reveals that once the decision is made for one parent to stay home with the children, those same affluent families take a very serious financial hit. They lose the ability to save, invest, buy homes, or make discretionary purchases--in short, they are no longer affluent. They are simply getting by.

That by itself is important. But focusing on families who sacrifice affluence so that one parent can stay home obscures the experience of a huge number of families that are poor and working class to begin with. Almost a quarter of minimum wage workers are the sole breadwinners for their families. Many low-wage and even many middle-income workers find that childcare is too expensive; they crunch the numbers and discover that it's cheaper, or nearly, for one parent to stay home.

Others simply make life choices that put family and children first, based on a combination of (sometimes sexist) ideology and values: these are often immigrants or people of color. Recently I interviewed sociologists Ross Parke and Scott Coltrane, both at UC Riverside, about their five-year longititudinal study of how Latino and Anglo families in Riverside cope with economic stress. They are finding that Latino families are often willing to accept much higher levels of economic stress in exchange for time with children. "The middle-class profile of the Latino families would make them poverty level among the Anglo families," Coltrane told me. "A lot of the mothers are not employed. In one sample, only a third of the mothers, in another, only 40% of the mothers, are employed, and that’s very different from the Anglo families where 80% of the women are employed." Though we might arrogantly (and perhaps also rightly) see this as a sign of how much more patriarchal Latino communities are, I think the simple truth is that working-class Latino parents and educated Anglo parents want the same thing, to be the ones to take care of their own children.

Here's where issues of inequality arise: when more women than men opt to stay home, women as a group lose economic power and independence. Which is why the debate over stay-at-home dads matters: it is not a privileged, marginal debate, but one central to the real lives of millions of people, and key to building a more equitable society. "Will women ever achieve real equality with men?" asks Rhona Mahony in her classic 1995 book Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies, and Bargaining Power. "I propose that the answer to that question is another question: Can a father raise babies and can a woman let him do it? This is a key question, because in order for women to achieve economic equality with men, men will have to do half the work of raising children."


Update: A bunch of people just emailed me to say that I was personally attacked yesterday by Linda Hirshman. Go check it out; I'll respond sometime in the next couple of days, when I have more time.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Have you loved your at-home parent today?

I just stumbled across this really sweet list of "Ten reasons why I love my stay-at-home dad." Then I ran across this just-as-sweet appreciation of a stay-at-home mom by a working dad. So, yesterday I reminded all our readers, both of you, to enjoy your kids; today's reminder is to appreciate your spouse. As if you needed it...OK, I'll stop now...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Liko vs. Binary Gender, Part II

Said this evening, apropos of nothing: "I'm a pretty working man!"

Don't forget to enjoy your kids today!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Values Check

I just came across a list I made earlier this year, detailing the values I'd like to be teaching Cole. I like to write these things down every once in a while -- it helps me make sure that the life I'm living doesn't stray too far from the life I'd like to be living. Anyway, here's my list -- how's it compare to yours?

Core values I’d like to communicate to Cole

He should learn that he is loved unconditionally, always, and doesn’t need to do anything or behave any certain way to earn that love.

He should learn that food is something that should be enjoyed and appreciated, and he should always be provided with a variety of healthy, nutritious things to eat.

He should learn how to build a rich, diverse social community, and be encouraged to find common threads of connection with other people.

He should learn that our bodies are our own, and that no one should be hugged, kissed or touched without their permission.

He should learn that his ideas are important and that we will listen to his thoughts. When problems come up, he should be encouraged to help develop solutions as much as possible.

He should learn that animals should be treated with respect and care, and that they shouldn’t be hurt or killed unnecessarily.

He should learn that playing, fun and laughter are important.

He should learn that when he says he’s going to be somewhere or do something, he should actually follow through.

He should be encouraged to use his imagination, and value creativity over passive entertainment.

He should learn that it is important to find fun and enjoyable physical activities, and he should be encouraged to do some physical activity or exercise every day.

He should learn that violence, yelling, put-downs and threats are not effective tools for solving interpersonal conflicts.

He should be encouraged to do as much as he can to help other people.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Housework vs. the Rest of Life

Rebeldad points to this study that says dads do about 7 hours of housework and moms do twenty-one--which is consistent with other recent studies of domestic labor.

"From a gender equity standpoint," writes Rebeldad, "it's bad that dads are lagging behind moms... but 21+ hours a week on housework--no matter who is doing the work--seems like overkill. Surely there are better ways to spend three hours a day."

Here's how I responded over at Rebeldad:

Does my family do at least 21 hours a week of housework?

Let's see: my wife and I each do about 4 hours of housework over the weekend, and I spend about a half hour in the morning and a half hour in weekday evenings doing dishes or picking up clutter. I can only guess how much my wife does during the day (most of her time is consumed with childcare/playing), but let's say at least one hour (mostly picking up toys or washing dishes), plus an additional two hours one morning a week. I'm excluding cooking, which my wife does most of.

So we're doing at least 20 hours a week cleaning and maintaining our two-bedroom apartment (that's a pic, at top, doll in foreground), and we are not neat freaks. I can easily see how a rural/suburban residence would involve more hours of housework. So I guess those numbers don't seem unreasonable to me.

But I think the key line from the source report is this one: "Girls spend more time doing housework than they do playing, while boys spend about 30 percent less time doing household chores than girls and more than twice as much time playing."

In many respects, this is the thing that needs to change. If we can equalize those hours (and there's no reason why we as parents couldn't) then we might really see equality down the road, when our children have children. For me, this is a reminder that my son needs to learn how to do housework--something that I wasn't really raised to do, and when I got to college, it showed.


After reading this post at Rebeldad, I scrolled down to see what I've been missing--and was surprised to see that Rebeldad nominated Daddy Dialectic for "best new daddyblogger," a contest being run over at the At-Home Dad site. From what I gleaned, the actual voting won't happen until the end of 2007.

That's good. Thanks, Rebeldad, and to everyone who has ever supported Daddy Dialectic by telling a friend or linking over here.


Update: After coming home and reviewing our housework hours with my wife, I have to revise my estimate. In reality, I think we do an average of about 15-16 hours per week.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Breadwinning Moms vs. Alimony

More signs of the times:

The idea that men can receive spousal support from their wives may feel like a freakish concept, but as women have become higher earners, it's increasingly common.

And as men set their sights on women's earnings, women have become more protective of those dollars. In fact, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 44% of attorneys included in a recent survey said they've seen an increase in women asking for prenuptial agreements over the last five years, where in previous decades, prenuptial agreements were almost always sought by men.

A lot of women are indignant now that the shoe is increasingly on the other foot, says Carol Ann Wilson, a certified financial divorce practitioner in Boulder, Colo. "There's this sense of, 'What's yours is ours, but what's mine is mine,'" Wilson says. "My first response to that is, 'All these years we have been looking for equality; well, this is what it looks like.' I think women get angrier about having to pay than men do."


Wilson emphasizes that it's not just actresses or the wealthiest women who are seeking prenuptial agreements or paying spousal support. "I've seen thousands of clients," she says, "and almost every time I've seen a stay-at-home dad seek alimony, the wife--she's usually a software executive--goes ballistic."


Just as some women object to men's request for spousal support, some men are particularly uncomfortable seeking it. Either they find it emasculating to ask, or they find the idea of receiving an allowance from their ex-wives humiliating, according to divorce attorneys.

"The fact is that you still don't see too many cases where men seek alimony," says William Beslow, a divorce attorney in New York City. "One reason is that although women may earn more than men, they often wind up with custody of the children, and when a woman takes up primary responsibility for the children, men don't request maintenance."

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Measure of a Father

From the Guardian in the UK, courtesy of frequent Daddy Dialectic tipster Susan:

Children are more likely to suffer development problems if their fathers do not take paternity leave or spend enough time with them when they are very young, according to an analysis of thousands of babies born around the turn of the millennium.

A report published today by the Equal Opportunities Commission and based on research tracking 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001 found emotional and behavioural problems were more common by the time youngsters reached the age of three if their fathers had not taken time off work when they were born, or had not used flexible working to have a more positive role in their upbringing.

Previous research has highlighted the importance of a mother's involvement when a child is small, but the EOC says this is the first study to confirm that the close involvement of a father also has a significant impact on a child's future...

The EOC points to a "social revolution in fatherhood", in which fathers are increasingly involved with their children's upbringing and feel confident as carers, yet 63% felt they did not spend enough time with their new baby.

That fathers are being studied at all is part of the revolution. I recently interviewed UC Riverside Sociologist Scott Coltrane, author of many studies and books on fatherhood. In the past, says Coltrane, researchers looked only at whether the father was present and married to the mother. They might also have looked at demographic or economic information about the fathers. But they did not study how fathers interacted with their children or what impact fathers had on children's development. Until the 1970s, it was (unconsciously?) assumed that mothers were solely responsible for child outcomes.

Coltrane describes how "in the late Seventies researchers started saying, 'Wait a minute, why don’t we measure what the fathers are actually doing? How do they parent? What do they do?'" Today scholars "tend to include father variables in their studies, so we are doing a better job of tracking the father participation that is occurring. And we are considering that men might be doing housework beyond taking out the trash and mowing the lawn. And because women are more likely to be employed and earn good wages, more families are sharing more of the family work - so when we look we see shifts." Applying the same measures of mothers and fathers, says Coltrane, is still "relatively novel, as simple an idea as that is."

The Guardian article concludes: "The government last night pointed to moves including the introduction of paid paternity leave and more than doubling of maternity pay as evidence of commitment to helping families balance work and caring responsibilities."

Ah, sounds lovely.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Mom vs. Herself

There's something in the air. After a wave after MSM articles about stay-at-home dads, we're now hearing from the other side: their wives. And boy, are they pissed--or so we are led to believe.

I found too many pieces to list, but I'll cite some articles and blog postings:

One blogger (a "life coach," whatever that is) finds "feelings of resentment, jealousy, frustration" on the part of breadwinning moms. "Many of the women I know who are the bread-winners of their family tend to be controlling. Not necessarily a 'control-freak' or not necessarily consciously but by default. Husbands in the role of a stay-at-home dad may relinquish their role and behave in a subservient manner. The frustration for women comes when they not only work long hours in their career but are also expected to oversee or manage the household despite having someone capable at home."

In "A Breadwinner Rethinks Gender Roles," M.P. Dunleavey writes that breadwinning moms "are seething--with uncertainty, resentment, anxiety and frustration." While her own husband "cooks, cleans, shops and takes care of our son," Dunleavey is filled with "terror that I'll be the breadwinner forever."

But the mother of all these pieces is this essay in the women's magazine Marie Claire entitled, "Why I Left My Beta Husband." Initially author Amy Brayfield loved it when her first husband Mark stayed at home with their daughter, which allowed her to focus on the career she loved. Then she found herself "mortified" when co-workers discovered that her husband was a stay-at-home dad. "I had it all back then," she writes, "including a gorgeous toddler and a cool job. What I didn't have was a husband I felt proud of." She continues:

I felt guilty about being glad to go back to work, and in my head, I made it Mark's fault. Because he couldn't find a job, I blamed him when I was working late and had to miss the baby's bedtime; it was his fault I had to go in early every day, since the fact that he couldn't find a job meant that I couldn't afford to lose mine.

And when I got home, I seethed. I couldn't walk across the living room without tripping over some plastic toy or container of wipes. The baby was in the same little nightgown she'd slept in the night before. There wasn't a hint of dinner on the horizon. He was home all day—couldn't he at least run a freaking load of laundry?

Eventually, communication between Mark and me deteriorated to the point where all we talked about was the baby. Had she gotten enough sleep? What had she eaten for lunch? How could she have run through an entire value pack of diapers in one weekend? "Wait till I tell you what she did," he'd say every once in a while, as we gazed adoringly at the baby and at each other. In those moments—watching him gently rock her to sleep while singing "Punk Rock Girl"—I was reminded why I had once thought Mark was the sexiest man in the world.

But our sex life was in ruins. I chalked it up to the transition period all new parents go through. Then one day, I realized it had been almost a year since Mark and I had made love.
Perhaps we should stop there, before it gets uglier. Amy divorces Mark, and gets custody of their daughter. But there's a twist ending: "Nobody was more surprised than I was when I went ahead and fell for another stay-at-home dad."

Which, of course, allows her to continue to pursue her high-powered career.

Many breadwinning mommy bloggers disowned the image of the "seething" working mom who doesn't respect her "subservient" stay-at-home husband: see, for example, Elizabeth at Half-Changed World or Rebecca at Adventures in Applied Math. But we should not dismiss the feelings expressed by Brayfield and Dunleavey--there's obviously a parallel between the fish-out-of-water feelings they express and the angst of a new stay-at-home dad who finds himself alone on the playground.

So what should we think?

Let me tell you a story. One day I was talking with another stay-at-home parent on the playground. While our kids chased each other around the slide, we got to commiserating. I told her how overwhelmed I felt by the daily routines of childcare and housework.

"Well, now you know how women have felt for centuries!" she said, almost cheerful.

Right. I get it. It's a good perspective. And so, to all you ladies out there in reverse role families, let me return the favor.

When I read about women who "seethe" with resentment against the obligations that supporting a family forces on them, or when I hear that they live in "terror" that they'll be the breadwinner "forever," I'm afraid that there's only one response.

Get ready.

You can feel it coming.

Here it goes:

"Well, now you know how men have felt for centuries!"

So there. This is not to imply that we exist in a state of equality. Women still face the glass ceiling, the double shift, sexual harassment, and so on. Men are still the privileged group. We still run the world, though our overthrow is well on the way to happening.

But do women like Dunleavey and Brayfield (elite members of the East Coast media) really carry more burdens than, say, an African-American dad who works as a custodian in a place like East St. Louis or perhaps a Latino migrant worker dad who sends money back to his family in Mexico or a gay dad in Lincoln, Nebraska who works every day to support his husband and children, despite all the obstacles society throws in their way? Or even just a regular Euro-American dad in a regular Midwestern city whose life has thrown him one too many curve balls?

Dunleavey and Brayfield sound to me like they have (or had) damn good husbands, not to mention good jobs and happy, healthy kids. The husbands' main failing is that they don't measure up to Dunleavey and Brayfield's image of traditional fatherhood: "Someone who walks out the door with a pressed shirt on, a leather briefcase, and a confident gait. Someone who wins bread." But whose failing is that, really? As their writing makes clear, the problem here is not that their husbands are failing as partners and parents. The problem for Dunleavey and Brayfield is that their image of the father and their image of the mother are both stuck in the 1950s, a long-gone era.

My simple point is that when we talk about these things, we need some perspective and we need some empathy--and we need to look forward, to what we really want and where we're really going.

When I read stuff like this, I just want to take these women gently by the shoulders and tell them this is the way it is. "I write here a fair amount about what I call 'reverse traditional families'--families with working mothers and at-home fathers," says Half-Changed World. "One of the strains on women in these families is that we rarely give ourselves mothering credit for being breadwinners. We often beat ourselves up for the things that we don't do, without giving ourselves corresponding brownie points for the things we do. Maybe we should stop worrying about whether we're good enough mothers, and decide that we're damned good fathers."

These are wise words. It's certainly better than the angry and unhealthy alternative described by Dunleavey and Brayfield. To them I say, as a working father: Welcome to the club! Stop by and talk anytime! We're all in it together!


Readers should also see my February 28 post, "Shelley's story," for another perspective on being a bread-mommy.