Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Me vs. Linda

Today's entry is all about me. I'll try to make it interesting and relevant to readers who are not-me.

First: Beacon Press has offered me a contract for my book, Twenty-First-Century Dad, which will argue that the role of the American father is rightly becoming more flexible, giving moms more options and enriching fathers' lives in the process. I haven't signed anything yet, but in many respects Beacon is an ideal home for the book and I look forward to the partnership.

I'm searching for more dads to interview, and I'm going to be in Chicago next week. I'm especially interested in talking to Chicago dads who were thrown into a primary caregiving role by sudden unemployment or disability, as well as former stay-at-home dads who are back at work. If you happen to fit the description, send me an email at jeremyadamsmith(at)mac.com.

Second: Toronto Star family reporter Andrea Gordon quotes me in her column today, entitled "Enough of the Mommy Wars Debate." I'd probably be linking to this column even if I weren't quoted, because it contains so much truth:

The problem with so much of the working mom versus stay-at-home debate is it is conducted outside the realm of the intense emotional rollercoaster that comes with parenthood. It doesn't incorporate that gut-level yearning that some mothers and fathers feel, to be with their children, even though it can be at times thankless and boring and hard. Or the non-financial rewards that family life can bring. As writer Joan Walsh of Salon.com wrote earlier this month, the pro-career arguments are often "deaf to the way a child and family-centered life calls out to a lot of women, and to some men."

Other times, it comes down to what your kids are like. Some children need their mothers. Or fathers. Some take early separation in stride. In the words of writer Jane Juska: "As mothers, we know which of our kids is which." And there's nothing that pulls harder than knowing your child needs you, no matter what the price.

The good news is this is gradually moving beyond being strictly a women's issue. Not that you'll see that in the mom lit, where dads are generally portrayed as useless, uninvolved or worse, written out of the whole equation. The newest wave of dads is more hands-on and increasingly willing to adapt their work arrangements around child care needs or their spouse's work.

Third: It's finally time to respond to Linda Hirshman's March 25 attack on me and Rebeldad. (Hirshman is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Brandeis University and author of Get to Work, which argues that "housekeeping and child rearing [are] not worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings.") Here's what she wrote:

Men are not going to carry their share of the family until women force the issue by not choosing inequality. All the paid leave in the world does not change that fact. If I didn’t believe it before, I’d believe it now that I have studied up on the autobiographies of the legendary stay at home dads of the Internet, “Rebel Dad” Brian Reid and “Daddy Dialectic” Jeremy Adam Smith. Rebel Dad spent under three years at home with one baby, while creating his (now defunct) online personam [sic] of rebel dad and pitching a book proposal all over the internet. Once the second baby came Rebel took his rebellious self right into full time work in public relations, leaving his former lawyer wife with a newborn and a kindergartener [sic]. The Dialectical Smith didn’t even stay home a year, but lived exactly the life the mommy activists dream of. He posts: “You know, my wife and I tried [both working part time] (she . . . is fortunate to have a unionized part-time teaching job that provides full health care) and I must say that it was extremely difficult to maintain . . . I'm interviewing for jobs. For our family, it might better for one of us to work full-time while the other stays home . . . I'm sort of thinking that maybe it's my wife's turn to stay home.” A few hours later: “Well, for us the issue is resolved: yesterday I accepted a full-time job . . . Poof! I'm no longer a stay at home dad and now it's my wife's turn to stay home -- actually, she's still thinking about whether she wants to go back to work. I hope she doesn't; I want her to have time with the boy.”

Poof. I’d hate to be the woman with the desk next to Dialectical Dad, taking family leave while he minds the workplace.

Hirshman gets the details of both our lives wrong, but I'll let that pass, because I don't want my personal biography--which involves my wife and son as well as me--to be a point of debate. Yes, I do talk about my personal life here and elsewhere, but careful readers will note that, as a matter of policy, I restrict my observations to my own responses as a father and caregiver. Most of the blog is consumed with thinking politically about my experience, sharing research with readers, and debating ideas. My wife is seldom mentioned, except in passing. That's because I don't want, and she doesn't want, her life and choices to be subjected to the same public scrutiny that I sometimes receive. The same goes for my son, of course, though at the moment his biggest life choices consist of picking out which toy to play with.

I actually agree with much of what Hirshman writes about women and work. It's hard to say what, exactly, Hirshman is criticizing about my life and choices as she understands them, or what the examples of Rebeldad and Daddy Dialectic are supposed to prove. That men will always choose work over family and force their wives to take care of children? I submit to the reader that our choices, even as mischaracterized by Hirshman, show that this is not always the case. Men can and do choose to stay home with children, and they can and do find the experience to be one of the greatest things to ever happen to them.

Sure, many dads will continue to freelance or consult or work part-time while serving as primary caregivers; most stay-at-home dads ultimately go back to work. This is also true of moms, about eighty percent of whom go back to work at some point after the birth of a child. As those of us who live in the real world know, parental leave can last from two weeks to a lifetime, depending on a range of circumstances, most of them economic, some of them cultural.

It's true that men appear to put more emphasis on work, even when they are the primary caregivers, but I fail to see why this is a bad thing. When Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet studied 125 caregiving dads, she found that almost half of them kept a hand in the labor market and most planned to go back to work. While people like Hirshman might see this as an example of hypocrisy, Doucet sees it as a viable alternative to the career homemaker model. “I think that men do not face the same fatherload because they do carve out time for themselves, even when they are at home with the kids," Doucet told the Ottawa Citizen. "Perhaps there are some interesting things that [women] can learn from men.”

So what's really behind Hirshman's attack on caregiving fathers? Dads like me and Rebeldad are not really her target. Instead she is attacking the very idea of caregiving, a position ably dissected by my colleague Chip. Hirshman has argued that if taking care of children "were the most important thing a human being could do, then why are no men doing it?" I'd like to turn that around: if no men are doing it, Linda, then why are you attacking me and Rebeldad? It is as if she finds the very fact of our existence threatening--as do a lot of people.

In fact, men take care of children every day, which in her masculinist mind might make childcare a more worthy activity. But instead of allowing the reality of male caregiving to modify her ideas, she simply denies that it exists. To Linda, childcare isn't something to be shared equally and happily between men and women; that's not her agenda. Instead childcare is an unpleasant, undesirable task that the privileged classes should outsource to women who have less education, less money, and fewer options. I don't see how this is going to make the world a better place.

One last thing on this comment: "I’d hate to be the woman with the desk next to Dialectical Dad, taking family leave while he minds the workplace." Actually, the woman who sits next to me (well, in the office next to mine) is my boss, a Ph.D., and a former stay-at-home mother of two girls--and although our backgrounds are in many ways quite different, our shared experience of daily caregiving and trying to strike the right work-family balance has made us friends and allies.

Time to wake up, Linda. America has changed, but you seem to have slept through the past thirty years.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes

I rolled out of bed at 5:30, the baby and Shelly still sleeping. I pulled on some clothes and went out the door in search of coffee. Walking down 24th St., hunched over, hands in pockets, I glanced at a newspaper box and saw a headline that stopped me cold: "Kurt Vonnegut dead at 84."

Until I was roughly 12 or 13 years old, I was a voracious reader but I read only comic books, trashy spy thrillers, and bad science fiction. I don't remember why I plucked Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five from the shelf of my school library (a book that conservative moralists have repeatedly fought to ban from library shelves). I was probably drawn to the science fictional premises -- time travel! aliens! -- and I vividly remember how absorbed I was by the end of the first chapter. Slaughterhouse Five, which depicts the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, was my first true introduction to literature, and it served as a gateway to deeper reading.

Why did that strange novel grab me? When I flip through my junior high yearbook, I see bleak, snowy Michigan fields, girls with feathered hair, boys in "Members Only" jackets, and pictures of teachers who seemed ancient at the time, but were probably much younger than I am today. I was a sad, confused kid, but not having a language or avenue to express my feelings, I drove the sadness and confusion underground. I felt sorry for my parents, my classmates, my teachers, my town, and myself, because we all seemed to be locked into schedules, obligations, and values that we did not create and did not want.

During the next year, I read all of Vonnegut's novels and short-story collections that had been published up until that point. I did not understand most of what I read (and today I still get something new out of Vonnegut, every time I re-read one of his stories), but I knew that he seemed to perfectly capture the world I saw around me, giving voice to feelings that I didn't have the words or maturity to express. I see now that sometimes his sadness shaded over into pure depression and that there is a very fine line between his universal pity, which caused him to prescribe kindness as the best basis of human relations, and his own private self-pity, which derailed his more autobiographical work and seemed to cut him off from his readers.

Was it healthy for so young a kid to be exposed to Vonnegut's experience with war, death, and depression? In 1988, the psychologists N. T. Termine and C. E. Izard studied the effect of mothers' sadness on their infants. They found that expressions of sorrow through face and voice slowed the exploratory play of the babies; additional studies show that sadness slows cognitive processes and enables deliberate scrutiny of self and situations. Though we might see happiness as the apotheosis of human existence, sadness has its place in helping us to slow down and reflect upon our experience. Whether we want to or not, we teach our children to be sad, and it's a good thing, too. Vonnegut (and others, of course) taught me how that sadness is something to cultivate alongside happiness. Both help us to get through our days.

Slaughterhouse Five also gave me my first glimpse at the real-world consequences of war and violence, something that American media and popular culture conceal from us. I gradually turned away from books, movies, and TV that portrayed killing as easy for the killers, war as a glorious endeavour, and aggression as a desirable trait. "God damn it," writes Vonnegut in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, "you've got to be kind."

I haven't always lived up to that advice, but I've tried. Thanks, Kurt, for the books.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Opt-Out Myth?

In my March 26 post, I cited a widely reported-upon Bureau of Labor Statistics report that said more and more mothers are dropping out of the labor force to raise children. Today I read an interesting criticism of that report by economist Heather Boushey, prepared by the Council on Contemporary Families:

At first glance, the opt-out stories seem compelling because they appear to explain recent declines in mothers' labor force participation rates. It is true that fewer mothers were either at work or searching for work in 2004 than in 2000. However, between 2000 and 2004 participation rates fell not only for mothers, but also for childless women, childless men and fathers. By 2005 there were 4.8 million fewer men at women at work than would have been in the economy were doing as well as it was in 2000 -- and the majority of those who left the labor market were men.

In contrast to earlier recessions, women were especially hard hit by the rise in unemployment since the recession of 2001, but this applied to childless women as well as to mothers, suggesting that maternal "opt-out" was not the primary cause of recent labor market shifts. In fact, the impact of having children in the home on the likelihood that a woman will leave the workforce has become progressively smaller over the past two decades...

Among highly-educated women aged 25 to 45, the effect of having children on women's labor force participation rates has been negligible since 1984, and remains so today. So recent small changes in the behavior of some highly-educated women do not change the big story: The more highly educated a woman, the more likely she is to be in the labor force, despite the slight dip from 1993 to 2004. And for both college-educated and high school-educated women, the trend has been for mothers to become less likely, not more likely, to leave the labor force because of having children...

It is true that mothers are still more likely than fathers to stay home with a sick child or take a year or two off to care for a new baby. But this is changing. Women are less likely to leave the labor force today because they have children than they were two decades ago. This is a significant change in women's employment patterns and one that indicates that there is a revolution going-not an opt-out revolution, but an opt-in revolution.

All this is not to say that the increasing involvement of mothers in the workforce has not been stressful, for both women and men. Unfortunately, U.S. public policy still lags far behind that of other industrial nations, which provide far more generous family leave and flexibility benefits.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Happiest Dads

...are, apparently, stay-at-home dads. The University of Texas just released a new study of dads who take care of kids, summarized in a most amusing manner by Mike Adamick over at Strollerderby. Well worth a read. Key finding: the less stereotypically masculine you are, the happier you are as a stay-at-home parent. Yes, at left you see my son in a skirt...

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

New Census Numbers

The New York Post has a nice summary of new Census numbers on families:

The bureau, which polled 100,000 homes nationwide, found that about 33 percent of the nation's 73.7 million children under the age of 18 live with only their mom or dad or unmarried parents - a statistic backed by a reported spike in the number of homes headed by single parents over the past 35 years...

According to the bureau's portrait of the American family, there were 12.9 million single-parent families in 2006. Of those, 10.4 million were single-mother homes and 2.5 million single-father families.

By comparison, nearly a decade ago, there were a million fewer single-parent families. That figure broke down into 9.8 million single-parent families headed by women and 2.1 million led by men.

And in 2006, the poll found there were 5.6 million stay-at-home mothers and 159,000 stay-at-home fathers.

A decade ago, there were more than a million fewer stay-at-home moms and 100,000 fewer stay-at-home dads.

It's worth reading the whole article--but be sure to also see Rebeldad's criticisms of the way Census numbers are gathered...