Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Old vs. New

Three links. In all of them, you can see the old world standing side by side with the new:

1. "Workers inventing new types of career models," Chicago Tribune. Describes how young parents of both genders are creating careers paths that permit time off with children. "There's lots of talk these days about finding new career models that no longer force people -- usually women -- to choose between work and family and that provide better transitions back to work for those who take time off," Barbara Rose reports. "The reasons are obvious. The 1950s-era model for success -- a career with no employment gaps and ever-increasing responsibility -- suited a privileged class made up largely of white middle-class males with stay-at-home wives. Today's workforce is far more diverse. Often both spouses work, and younger couples are less willing than their parents to sacrifice family time for careers."

2. "Signs of D├ętente in the Battle Between Venus and Mars," New York Times. This coverage of a study I've already mentioned twice here at Daddy Dialectic. Sociologists Monahan Lang and Barbara J. Risman "analyzed findings from studies based on national census data, in-depth interviews, and dozens of surveys." They found more similarities than differences in men and women. “The evidence overwhelmingly shows an ongoing shift toward what we call ‘gender convergence,’ an ever-increasing similarity in how men and women live and what they want from their lives,” they write. The Times also reports: "Convergence shows up more in younger parents, said Kathleen Gerson, author of 'Hard Choices: How Women Decide About Work, Career, and Motherhood.' After conducting 120 in-depth interviews with men and women ages 18 to 32, Dr. Gerson found that Generation X fathers spent more time with their children than did baby boomer fathers, and that both sexes aspired to the same ideal: 'a balance between work and family.'"

3. "I made a friend..." Thanks to Google, I ran across this personal blog entry, in which the writer, a stay-at-home mom, meets a stay-at-home dad at the playground:

I'm a happily married woman who will be faithful to Mike til the day he dies (cause I plan on out livin him LOL) but today I met someone and it was like we'd known each other for years! He's a stay at home dad with 3 year old who charlotte got on great with. And where did this amazing encounter take place? At the local park... yeah i know LOL

I've been married ten years and apart from Bob, don't really have any male friends any more, and I"ve always liked the company of boys/men. SO not sure if it was a void being filled or not, but in a purely platonic way we talked and talked and talked and talked and pusehd the kids on teh swings and caught them on the slides and we all had an amazing day today.

His son goes to different school to Christine, I declined swapping numbers or emails so there'll be no further contact, but I have to tell you I had an amazing day today. Was like a kid in a play ground LOL It's not often we meet like minded people. If he'd been a woman I think I'd have a new best friend. But he wasn't and well appearances matter, inuendo and the reality is men and women really can't just be friends ...well not in my experience.

This story made me very sad. I once thought that the isolation of stay-at-home dads was either a myth or self-imposed, but the more dads and moms I talk to, the more I realize that it is a real problem for many parents. At a time when families are so diverse and so isolated, it is truly self-destructive to declare certain families out of bounds -- especially when you feel the kind of connection this woman describes.

4. I just published a piece at Mothers Movement Online about friendship between stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads--well, it's really about new gender roles and how that shapes the social world of parenting. Here's my personal prescription for negotiating our differences:

I look around at the other parents, moms and dads, and I see my community. I believe in our creativity and resilience, because experience and science tells me that's who we are, and I believe that we will develop new forms and understandings and names that will be every bit as comfortable and familiar to our grandchildren as the nuclear family was to our grandmothers and grandfathers. We're not at a stage where it pays to limit our options. I say we throw open the gates and let everyone in who loves and cares for other human beings, and let's see what happens.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Equality vs. Equality

Recently I've been hearing a lot of comments from anti-feminists on how feminism has "failed" or from feminists about how men are just as bad today as they were when feminism was reborn four decades ago. Like a snake eating its own tail, these ideas start in different places but end up saying the same thing, mostly to each other: that egalitarian families don't and can't exist, primarily because of the innate perfidy of men and the natural weakness of women. Both positions are empirically wrong: by every measure, women have advanced in rights and economic power, men are taking on more housework and childcare, and the attitudes and behaviors of men and women are converging.

For example: Two weeks ago I was a guest on "The Agenda with Steve Paikin," a Canadian public affairs program. The topic was the "mommy wars," and the star guest was--no, not me--Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake, yet another over-hyped book that denigrates caregiving and promotes the "opt-out" myth. (This refers to the belief that more and more women are opting out of careers for a more traditional homemaker role, a false trend which has been totally debunked by economist Heather Boushey, as well as the sociologists Molly Monahan Lang and Barbara J. Risman. For an intelligent take on Bennetts' book as part of current trends in mommy book publishing, see Mothers Movement Online -- you'll have to scroll to the bottom of the editorial note for that issue.)

The "Agenda" panel started with a whimper when a Canadian conservative activist dismissed feminism as a failure. Her evidence was that women had not yet achieved perfect parity with men in housework and economic power, and therefore, she implied, we should all just get back to the good old-fashioned, all-natural sexual division of labor. This is like saying that a first-generation college student has "failed" if her sophomore year grade point average is only 3.1, and so she should drop out and go to work at McDonalds. Later Paikin told me that my family's childcare arrangement seemed pretty egalitarian to him, and he asked me if that impression was true. I hesitated before I answered, mostly because I was reluctant to pin a medal on my chest for something like this, which I felt like Paikin was asking me to do. But I also found myself locked in a split-second internal debate about the meaning of egalitarianism in a relationship between a man and a woman.

Families with stay-at-home dads are not, strictly speaking, egalitarian. Instead they are reverse traditional. One spouse has money and a career and all the benefits and burdens that come with that. The other is also working, but it is unpaid work that is scorned by our society--which leaves the spouse, male in these cases, profoundly vulnerable in the event of a sudden change in the family, such as divorce. The relationship is indeed asymmetrical when viewed in terms of money and power (an equation that leaves out love, trust, and other intangibles that drive work-family choices, but I'll leave that discussion for another time).

However, we think of these families as egalitarian because if enough men stepped out of the workforce to take of children, men and women as social groups would get that much closer to achieving economic, and possibly political, equality. So, from this viewpoint, inequality between two individuals might result in much greater equality between two social groups. Of course, this might, and probably would, have the long-term effect of equalizing the relationship between individual husbands and wives, because if more men are pausing their careers to take care of kids, then society might open up to seeing caregiving as a legitimate choice.

Leslie Bennetts--like Linda Hirshman, our favorite faux-feminist critic here at Daddy Dialectic--doesn't think it should work like that. She thinks that equality happens only when both spouses work: in this view, personal equality goes hand in hand with social equality. No one should be vulnerable--and when no one is vulnerable, society is equal. In her book, Bennetts provides example after example of women stranded by death, divorce, or the sudden unemployment of husbands, who found themselves shut out of the job market after years as homemakers.

Her case has a certain hardheaded appeal. I believe every single one of the stories Bennetts tells, and I think her basic warning to women is solid and important, though she undermines her case by strongly implying that stay-at-home parents are idiots. Both Bennetts and Hirshman are heavily invested in the notion that men will not share in childcare and housework because childcare and housework are boring and difficult, and therefore these are tasks best left to women who are not as educated and affluent as the ones profiled in their books. Their vision of equality for two people is based on a larger vision of inequality between social classes--which in our society is gendered and racialized. In other words, the people who end up taking care of their children are poor and working class women of color, often immigrants--and many of them are doing it under the table, with little in the way of job security and benefits.

These questions--plus caveats and doubts from my personal life--all raced through my mind in the second before I answered Paikin. (Onscreen, my internal debate sounded like this: "Um, er, ah, well...") Then a week after the Paikin show, I was interviewed by a reporter writing about work-family balance for men. She asked me to respond to an interview she did with a well-known national feminist leader who acknowledged that while men were spending more time with children and doing more housework than ever before, inequality persists even in seemingly egalitarian, dual-income couples because the "men were hogging all the good chores for themselves." Instead of cleaning toilets and changing diapers, the well-known feminist leader charged, men were doing pleasant things, like cooking gourmet meals and watching kids cavort on playgrounds.

Hell, maybe they are. I asked the reporter if the feminist leader had any empirical evidence to back this opinion up. The reporter said, probably not. Later I actually researched this; I didn't find any studies indicating that the men who were taking on more housework and childcare were also taking away chores that their wives might deem more desirable. (In fact, this is an area that needs more research: most studies cover the quantity of domestic labor and how it’s divided; few tackle qualitative questions about how the housework is subjectively experienced.)

Here we see another layer in the question of equality: even when structural equality is achieved between two people, perhaps inequality can persist in the content of the relationship. Husband and wife are making the same amount of money and doing the same amount of housework, but husband thinks he is having more fun and so does wife. (For the record, I think these couples need therapy, not a social movement.)

In each of the examples I've just provided, we can see that one person's equality is often predicated on some other inequality. In different ways, each also raises basic questions about what constitutes individual equality in a society that is based on social and economic inequality. In a winner-take-all society like ours, it's not hard to see why so many people, feminists and anti-feminists alike, have so much trouble believing that egalitarian families are possible and desirable, or that egalitarianism might be compatible with caregiving.

Certainly, we know that couples who do try to build egalitarian relationships face serious cultural and economic obstacles, including criticism from relatives, the absence of parental leave, lack of quality daycare, and so on. But despite this, we know that egalitarian families exist. They really do. Their existence has been documented by social scientists like Barbara Risman and Scott Coltrane. I see them in the research I'm doing and I see them in my own daily life. Yesterday morning I was at a kid's birthday party. At one point there were three dads in a room changing three diapers, with one mom assisting. It was no big deal; it was perfectly normal. But from everything I've ever read or heard, prior to 1968 this would have been a very rare sight indeed.

Far from failing, feminism's impact has been enormously far-reaching; it might well be one of the most successful social movements in American history. But its successes are sometimes hard to define; the new reality is sometimes at variance with the old-time utopian dreams of thinkers and activists. I have discovered that in the real world, egalitarian relationships do not follow one simple-minded ideological model. Sometimes men and women take turns at home and at work, and so their level of equality must be measured over time. Others split it all fifty-fifty. Many parents decide that one of them must stay home--and sometimes the jobs just aren't available--but still do their best to ensure that the stay-at-home parent retains some degree of economic and emotional power parity.

But that equality will always be curtailed when the rules of the game are rigged against caregivers. What combination of policies and attitudes would allow parents of both genders to stay home with children without risking a fall into the margins of our society? We need to culturally validate caregiving as a life choice for both men and women; build social security, legal protections, and training and educational opportunities for caregivers who are returning to work; provide more parental leave, flextime, quality childcare, and guaranteed wage replacement for both men and women of all social classes, not just the affluent; and build infrastructure that the rest of the industrialized world takes for granted, such as national health care, that provide for the basic well-being of all families.

This is where I think progressive leaders and writers like Bennetts should be putting their formidable energies. Women who make choices that white, affluent feminists deem bad are not the ones who created or are maintaining male domination. The same goes for men who take on more housework and childcare, who are making themselves part of the solution. These two groups should not be blamed, attacked, or erased--especially by people who claim that they want to build a more egalitarian society.

I've come to feel very strongly that we have entered a stage when it is critical for both men and women to see positive examples of egalitarian families in action. They need to hear about successes and they need to help each other to create new expectations. Given that our society provides so little support for egalitarian families, it is nothing short of astonishing that so many couples have come so far. They deserve credit and encouragement, not suspicion and insults.

Next time someone asks me a question like the one Paikin posed, here's what I'm going to say: "My family is as egalitarian as we can make it--and social science tells us that my family is not unique. Parents all over North America are building alternatives to the traditional family, which was based on male privilege, but those alternatives are as diverse as the families themselves. However, these families are largely invisible and their arrangements are not supported by public or workplace policy. We need to change attitudes and policies to support the expansion of egalitarian families, because that's the only ideal that makes any sense in a world where 80 percent of mothers work."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Race, Violence and (Black) Fatherhood

For a little while now, I've been stopping by a local bakery every Friday morning to pick up a challah loaf. Most often I was served by Charles, a good-looking black man who ran the morning shift, seemed to love his job, and clearly had a sense of pride in his work that he shared with the rest of the staff, a mix of young neighborhood and university students.

We never really got to that level of familiarity that sometimes develops between regular customers and staff. But he clearly had a rapport with other customers, especially students, even the geeky foreign ones whose English was not great and who spilled their change all over the counter in the middle of the morning rush. He had an aura of toughness and street-cred that was unmistakable but not threatening. He had been there for what seemed like forever. The staff clearly looked up to him, and he seemed to anchor a hip and friendly camaraderie behind the bread racks.

The last time I stopped by, about a month ago, I had the Spot in a stroller. Charles had just finished the morning shift and was waiting for his ride by the door on a sunny but chilly spring day. I'm not sure if he had a car. I didn't know then that we had a few substantive things in common: fatherhood and age. He had 4 children and was 38, almost exactly the same age as me. I wished him a good weekend, and he returned the pleasantry as I maneuvered my stroller through the foyer, preoccupied with the fluctuating caffeine level in my bloodstream and the timing of Spot's next meal. That was the last time I saw him.

Charles Carpenter was shot to death on Saturday night, May 19.

I happened to know who he was. But he was preceded and followed by others unknown to me. A few weeks before, one teenage black male boarded a CTA bus near a local high school and fired four rounds, killing another teenage black male, who happened to be someone's only son. Just a few days ago, a black bank teller was murdered by robbers when he insisted that he didn't know the bank vault's combination. Tramaine Gibson was 22 and father to a 4 year-old daughter. All of these spasms of violence happened in seconds. They are part of the steady beat of black-on-black violence that fills the morning metro section, a tiny bit of Bagdhad hell here on the Chicago River.

A former black student of mine, a devout 30-something single father, once told me that most young men in his neighborhood felt there were basically two avenues in life that offered real chances of success, and the respect that came with it: rapping or sports. Charles Carpenter wasn't heading down either of those avenues. Neither was Tramaine Gibson. They were both holding down jobs and raising children on the classic middle class model. They were doing what for so many American men is a matter of course. In their case, it was heroic.

Looking at the Spot as he fidgets in his stroller, I've become aware that his being is the greatest risk I will ever assume. His conception was an enormous gamble in a game of chance that never ends. In a lot of ways he has the odds in his favor -- so far. Not all children are so lucky. If Charles at the bakery were still around, I would make it a point to say hello more often. To find out what he thinks about being a dad, what his kids are like. To let him know that he has my respect.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Be a Man!

The Spot had no idea what was coming when he started rehearsing his routine for the future Olympic sport of synchronized water-disco on the pediatrician's examination table -- supine, rhythmical frog-kicks, accompanied by a succession of grandiose arm gestures cribbed from ballet (my wife's pre-natal influence, no doubt), all topped off with that silent, toothless smile -- none of this prepared him for the triple whammy of vaccination shots administered to his thighs. The lag between stimulus and response was shorter now than it had been before; this time, it only took him about three seconds to realize he had been double-crossed, that this wasn't water-disco, and that it really hurt.

Our pediatrician's nurse, a street-wise 30-something woman from Chicago's south-side, quickly withdrew each syringe from Spot's leg and slammed it into the vinyl-coated cushion of the examination table, leaving three hypodermics wavering on their long beaks like some kind of ancient marsh grass. While Spot was working to connect the sensation of pain in his leg to his sensation that his leg was a part of his body, I was thrown off as I tried to process the needles in the cushion, like arrows stuck in a straw target, or cutting knives on a butcher's block. None of it seemed to match the high-tech vision of a sterile medical utopia that I had brought with me that groggy morning.

Before I could sort out my own sensations, the nurse leaned over to Spot, still lost in his wasp-like fury, and advised him: "be a man!" Tongue-in-cheek, of course, given that it would be a challenge at this point for Spot to match the intelligence of a dog or the coordination of a chicken, let alone the fortitude of a "Man." But I marked the event. Here was a quite conspicuous intrusion of cultural conditioning. For all my friends who ponder why it is that boys just gravitate towards trucks or become aggressive on the playground, I can now point to this: just four months out of his mother's womb, and Spot was being told how to manage pain in a manner appropriate to his gender. No doubt the larger process of gender acculturation has already started, in a million ways that we are unaware of, interacting with all the hormonal feedback loops that go hand in hand with learning, socialization, and development.

Granted, there is great value to managing one's relfexes, to gaining discipline over one's sensations, control of one's body and its processes, and building a high tolerance for discomfort. But this is Spot we're talking about, not an advanced yoga guru or a Stoic philosopher. The pain may as well have come from an out-of-control nail-gun that threatened to perforate his entire bottom. Cries of alarm were entirely warranted, adults had to be notified, dangers removed.

So Spot and I decided to turn the tables on our well-meaning nurse. Rather than adopting the grim ideal of manly impassiveness -- admirable in its way, at certain times, in certain circumstances, by both men and women -- we turned on the power of babyhood. I got Spot up on his legs to work out the pain, and helped him do a little jig on the table. Before you know it, he was cooing and clucking, the toothless smile was back, and our nurse was down on her elbows, down in Spot's world. It is an enviable place, where there are no grudges, where the joy is in the moment, and a universe of fascination unfolds from the smallest thing. This is a baby, I thought, not a man, not even really a boy. He will become those things, or something else, or some combination of them all -- whatever they mean, whatever they are -- later, and hopefully of his own volition.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Paternal Expectations

On a cool and rainy spring morning about one month ago, I saw my wife to the door after three months of maternity leave. I took a picture of her as she lingered by the gate under her umbrella in the drizzle. A random person looking at that particular image might be forgiven for failing to discern its true significance. Unlike most great thresholds in life, it was not marked by ritual paraphernalia or ornamental signs of collective observance. Yet it was no less meaningful for that. In our nuclear morning solitude we bid our mutual farewells. She walked down the street, got on the train, and went back to work. I picked up the paper, shut the door, and became an "at home dad."

I had worried about that moment for some time. Up till then, I had had an ally and a teammate in my wife, as well as the psychological advantage that comes with superiority in numbers. As soon as she walked out the door, it was me and baby. I had some idea of what might lie in store. I had been "hosed" several times already by my son at the changing table, and our pediatrician had cheerfully told me that "Spot" (I do call him that) could send stuff out the other end at an even greater projectile velocity. So I envisioned a sort of involuntary Jackson Pollock experience, a deux, with our home a cubic canvas that changed by the hour. This would all be accompanied to the tune of great wailing (his) and gnashing of teeth (mine), leaving my wife to find me, by the end of the day, a broken reed, an empty shell of a man.

As with most expectations of things we have no direct experience of, it didn't work out that way. Though it is physically exhausting, and I am convinced that a clinical psychologist unaware of my extreme sleep deprivation would diagnose me as having a borderline personality disorder, the experience so far has exploded all sorts of preconceptions: about being a parent, about being a father, about being a father who stays at home to change his baby's diapers, and about how those three things fit together. At the same time, it has left me clutching at cliches as I try to write about one of the most profound -- and utterly common -- of all human experiences.

As the mental fog of sleep-deprivation begins to roll back in, the best I can say for the moment is this: I couldn't feel more normal. My wife walked out the door to catch the train, and I went back upstairs and gave Spot a meal. She wanted to get back into the swing of things, and she has; we needed her to shift back into high-earning gear, and she has. We wanted Spot to be cared for by a family member, and he is; I wanted to combine my caregiving role with a low-gear career from home, and I am. We're fortunate, and it seems like it's a happy -- though particular -- resolution to our particular family situation.

But when the spare mental capacity allows me, I do wonder if perhaps there is something unusual about what's going on, as if our life together were a photo negative of the 50's ideal, with me holding baby at the door as mommy goes off to work, and all the novelty that this implies. Of course it's not a symmetrical role inversion; unlike the stereotypical 50's housewife, I have an advanced degree and work experience; I also anticipate managing some version of my current career while raising our son. Neither of us subscribe to any overarching normative presumptions about what "men" and "women" are and should be doing. Perhaps that puts us at odds with some deep social mentalities; perhaps that means that when I strap my son into the Baby Bjorn and go do some errands, I'm part of an avant-garde, a part of something that is really truly new, a taste of the future. I would like to think so. But whether it is part of a rising trend, or just some interesting yet limited expression of the current configuration of post-industrial capitalism in North America, I'll leave to the sociologists.

But if parenting is about presenting our children with role models, about exemplifying how to live well, then I think we might be onto something that's worth passing on.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Mother Talk Blog Tour
Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion

by Chip

A few months ago, in a post entitled "Kids vs. Religion," I argued that kids don't need religion. Then a few weeks ago I was asked to take part in the Mother Talk blog book tour on the book Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, edited by Dale McGowan. The book looked interesting so I agreed.

The book has its good points, and the pieces in the anthology are all very readable. There are some useful suggestions, and a few thought-provoking pieces. But I have to say that overall, I was disappointed. And since the other reviews of the book on the blog book tour have all been pretty much positive, let me express some of the problems I had with the book.

First, on a positive note, a few of the chapters directly illustrate why it's so important for a strict separation between church and state, and for tolerance of all beliefs and disbeliefs. Most striking to me in this regard was the piece by Margaret Downey on the experiences of her child in different Boy Scout troops, where he was bullied into declaring a religion for his family. When they refused, he was expelled from troops less tolerant than the one he'd belonged to in New Jersey. This has certainly clarified for me why the Boy Scouts should not be receiving any kind of government assistance, including the use of public school facilities.

The book seems however to have several themes that strike me as problematic.

One of them is the strong fear expressed by a number of authors that children of nonbelievers will be "indoctrinated" into believing in God. This fear seems to be misplaced.

My wife and I are not believers, though we were both raised in religious traditions -- her family was Episcopalian, mine was Catholic. As I blogged before, for various reasons when the kids were little we nevertheless started going to the local Catholic church and sending them to Sunday school. Yet despite this, and although we did not present ourselves to them as nonbelievers, both of my kids have ended up as nonbelievers. The best indoctrination efforts of the Catholic church -- in my case seven years of Catholic school plus several more of religious ed -- failed to indoctrinate me or my children.

My point is that I don't think it is quite so easy to indoctrinate children into beliefs contrary to their parents' belief systems. The fear that children are so easily indoctrinated by outside forces seems overplayed. Even my mom, a very religious Catholic, sent two of my siblings off to Baptist summer day camp, secure in the knowledge that any "indoctrination" they received wouldn't really have much effect. And it didn't.

In my own case, not only did my Catholic schooling not produce a believer; my nonbelief was absolutely not the result of indoctrination -- where I grew up, there was no such thing as an atheist or even an agnostic. I just never believed all the stuff I was taught.

A second problem I see with the overall approach of the book is the degree to which the church model seems to be the one being emulated. Nontheistic congregations such as some Unitarian Univeralist (UU) churches are held up as a model. On the one hand, this is understandable. Church-going is one form of American sociability. Yet on the other hand, this seems forced.

Plenty of Americans, even religious ones, get along just fine without attending church services. At least 40 percent of Americans – including many believers -- never attend church, or go only once a year. In other developed countries, the figures for church attendance are drastically lower.

Given these numbers, it is clear that one can live a full life with social connections and have nothing to do with a church. So I am not sure why nontheistic writers feel the need to emulate Christianity by focusing on weekly services, especially since doing so reinforces the claim of religionists that religious communities are vital to being a full human being. This seems like a message we wouldn't want to send our children.

As I've written before, I do believe that for cultural reasons alone our kids need to be familiar with religion and religious texts, and even be comfortable in church services. And it's probably best to learn about religions from their believers; this is a problem I had with the UU Sunday school that my children briefly attended, where other religions were explained and described in ways that I can only describe as unintentionally condescending. This isn't addressed by the authors, many of whom would probably see believers providing information about their religions as endangering their children.

Finally, there seems to be a need among a number of the authors to establish a "free-thinking" identity. Again, this is perhaps an understandable reaction in a society where religious identity is often foregrounded. But it also seems, ironically, to put way too much emphasis on God, to define oneself with reference to a deity -- in this case denying that deity -- thereby reinforcing a theistic framing.

And one small additional point: the label "free-thinking" is so reminiscent of the all-too-many holier-than-thou (so to speak) upper middle class liberals who populate the region where I live, who, whether they realize it or not, exude a class-based elitism or snobbery.

Perhaps I am spoiled. I am raising my kids in a town in the Northeast USA where religion is not really an issue. Most of the people we know don't attend church, and many are probably nonbelievers. And none of it is a big deal. We don't discuss it, it's not part of our identities, it's just not really significant or relevant to our lives. Perhaps if one is living in a town surrounded by fundamentalists, where you are an embattled minority, this book will provide solace and even some ideas.

Overall though, I feel that unintentionally the book is reinforcing a religionist way of identifying and of seeing the world.

Cross posted at daddychip2

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jackie and Jessica's Story: The missing piece of the puzzle

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, collected as the "21st Century Family Project." 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 Jackie and Jessica, who live in San Francisco's Noe Valley.

Jackie and Jessica met ten years ago. “I think we were destined to be parents,” says Jackie. “We would stay home, we would watch movies, then we moved in together. It was always about creating this home. We always talked about having a kid.”

Of course, a lesbian couple cannot simply stop using birth control in order to get pregnant.

“We decided to put the word out that we were looking for a donor,” says Jackie. “When we met Dave, we knew immediately that this was going to work. He didn’t want to have any fathering responsibilities, but he just thought it would be a great idea and he wanted to help us.”

After work, Dave would drop by the couple’s apartment, where he found a discrete glass of wine, a tube of lube, a stack of porn videos, and a small jar waiting for him in the living room. It didn’t take long for Jackie to get pregnant.

After a 28-hour labor, Eli (“the only name we could agree on”) was born.

“I don’t think I slept for literally a month after he was born,” recalls Jackie. “I was pretty messed up for that first month of his life. Jessica needed to work, she only got two weeks off, and she slept in the living room so she could actually sleep and function at work. I remember just being with him 24-7 and I don’t remember sleeping, and he would just sit there awake or I would be awake while he was sleeping, and I remember actually hitting my head against the wall at one point, because I just couldn’t control it at all. I couldn’t go away from it, I knew needed to be there, and it was so much, so crazy. It was such an intense beginning, that it just kind of broke me. There is just something that you have to succumb to, in order to maintain your sanity.”

Meanwhile, Jessica’s life and self-image were being turned inside-out. Though she had read dozens of books on birth, nothing prepared her for the brute reality of the labor—or the demands her new role as breadwinning, non-biological parent placed on her. “I remember during the labor just feeling really useless,” she says. “After we got home, we had this situation where she was in bed with him and I was on the couch. I was just like, ‘Are you OK, can I get you anything?’ That surprised me. Because I think culturally we’re trained to assume that that’s what the father does. In the movies, the mother does stuff and the father runs around looking silly and saying, ‘Are you OK?’”

“I did feel silly,” says Jessica, “but I definitely didn’t feel like a father, because I’d grown up learning to be a mother. Growing up and in our relationship, it was always my intention to have a baby. I think anyone who gives birth has this very instinctual knowledge of what that baby needs, but I didn’t know how to make myself a part of the nourishing of this little person. We had both grown up believing that this is the mother’s role, and she was doing the mother’s role, but I wasn’t going to do the father’s role. To call myself the father felt like that was a further step away from being the parent, from being the mother.”

“When I’m not at work or not here at home, then I feel very guilty,” continues Jessica. “I don’t have a lot of time to myself. I feel like I have a job that I’ve had for eight years and I guess that makes a career, but I could just as easily have a different job. I grew up with a father who said, you don’t take a job unless there are benefits and health care. He taught me first you get the things you need, then you get the things you want.”

Both moms say that parenthood has invested their lives with a meaning that they’d never had before. “Before I was a parent,” says Jackie, “I’d be running these errands and doing grocery shopping, and it just felt so meaningless to me. I feel like with Eli there’s more meaning now, with the cooking and dish-washing. Everything is so structured. When am I going to have that moment when I scream, ‘I just can’t do this anymore!”? I’m waiting for myself to go crazy and just let everything go, and then I’ll have one of those houses that everyone is really scared to come to, but it hasn’t happened yet. Right now I just live moment to moment.”

Though he now lives in Hawaii, the donor, Dave, is close to the family. “We had a hard time with that in the beginning,” reports Jackie. “I was very, very possessive, and I didn’t want Jessica to lose that feeling of being a parent, because people are so focused on that question of who’s the father. But Dave is just such a love, there’s such an honesty to him, that it makes me want to open up more and allow this extended family to work out. Today, he’s more than an uncle, he’s closer than that.”

Jackie and Jessica have also found a wide circle of parents, straight and queer, who share their values and accept them as part of the community. “The companionships that we have developed over the past year or so have felt genuine and that has meant the world to me,” says Jackie. “Respect plays the main role in my day-to-day existence. When I see other parents respecting other parenting styles that are unlike their own, I take note and appreciate their ability to be open and accepting. I find myself instantly drawn to them and I, who used to be an extremely shy person, am sparking up a conversation and making a new friend. Parenthood has definitely turned me into an open person. Something I thought I would never be.”

Jessica agrees. “We are finding that because Jackie took Eli to the playground so often, and we go to the farmers’ market together, we have started to find a legitimate community of people we like. [Now] hanging out with Eli and other kids and their parents is essentially my only social interaction with adults. Outside of work, play dates are my social life...and it’s pretty nice.”

“When Eli was born,” says Jackie, “we felt like he was the missing piece of the puzzle, for some reason. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to being just Jackie.”

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Interview with Family Historian Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie Coontz is a professor of history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. She is widely recognized as one of the leading authorities on the history of the American family.

Coontz has authored numerous books and articles, including,
The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are. In 2005 Viking-Penguin published, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage—a tremendously important book that's just been released in paperback.

Marriage, A History argues that marriage has evolved from the economic and political alliance of two or more family groups, to an individual love-match, which over the past thirty years has catalyzed the creation of new family forms like gay and lesbian families and helped dissolve the division of labor between husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker. The result, says Coontz, is not the end of the family as we know it, but instead its revitalization as a more just and equitable institution.

I sat down to talk to Coontz at the tenth anniversary conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, an organization she helped to found.

In your books, you’ve demonstrated how the family is constantly evolving. But have you identified any traits shared by all families that successfully cultivate the health and well being of their members?

In the broadest sense, there are some universals. For example, helping members to go outside the family – I think there’s been an incest taboo for a good reason, for thousands of years. We even find a primitive version of it in chimpanzees. It’s important to create individuals who not only can build successful relations within the group, but that are not so physically or emotionally incestuous. The good family teaches its members to reach out and form bonds with others.

So the family is a facilitator of human diversity.

Or rather, of social connection. The healthiest families are those families that don’t try to be everything and do everything. But I do think that what makes a family work really depends on social circumstances.

Let’s take the question of marriage. I think that in the 1950s you could build a successful marriage and rear kids who were going to do pretty well on the basis of a union of two gender stereotypes. And it wasn’t really necessary to have the depth of intimacy and friendship that is required now. That could lead to all sorts of abuses, and did. But on the whole, it could produce pretty decent people in the context of that time.

Today, that doesn’t work. When you have two people coming together at an older age, they are both economically and emotionally independent in very important ways. Men don’t require women to do their housekeeping services, women don’t require men to support them. In that circumstance, the level of friendship has to be much deeper and the level of intimacy needs to be much deeper. You can’t raise your kids with the same degree of authoritativeness—or especially, with the same level of authoritarianism—that they could, many years ago.

And each of these changes, I think, creates new problems. We solve old problems but create new ones. A good example is parenting. We have solved so many old problems in parenting. There is so much less child abuse, both emotional and physical, than there used to be in the past. There is a real interest in developing the child’s individuality—not necessarily individualism.

But, some parents go too far in the opposite direction and forget the need to establish generational boundaries and not be their kid’s best friend. So over and over again, what families need changes with the social and historical context and we create new challenges in the process of solving old problems.

As new family forms are emerging—and I mean the whole range, including reverse traditional families, gay and lesbian families, stepfamilies, and so on—how might that evolution contribute to the well-being of family members and society as a whole? How does the evolution hurt well-being?

Well, it’s another one of those trade-offs. Families have always been diverse, but that diversity was swept under the rug, and they were made to be ashamed of it. They were not helped, nobody analyzed their potential strengths and helped address their absolutely clear weaknesses. So as we’ve brought this diversity into visibility and increasingly legitimized that diversity, we’ve opened the way for all sorts of positive things. For example, preventing people from being forced to stay in a heterosexual marriage when, in fact, their impulses go the other way, or forcing people to stay in an unfair or unsatisfying marriage, which has been a huge relief for many people, I mean, literally a life saver. In every state that adopted no-fault divorce, the next five years saw twenty-percent declines in the suicide rates of wives.

But again, it certainly opened up more opportunities for people to make more bad choices, more opportunities for failure. It’s opened new opportunities to misjudge how much work it takes to build a new family form in an environment where the economy, the work practices, the school schedules, and the emotional expectations favor—privilege—one family form. So you have some people being overly optimistic about how easy it is to carve out a new life – they might say, “Oh, I can be a single mom, no problem,” and they’re not prepared for the difficulties they’ll encounter.

So I think that it does have some negative effects, but I would emphasize that these changes are not going back underground. They’ve had tremendous positive effects by rescuing people from very difficult situations and they pose us the challenge of helping people make more informed choices.

In Marriage, A History, you show love and intimacy have become more important to marriages. How has that evolution contributed to the rise in male caregiving?

This is one of the real, unambiguous good news stories that we’re finding. When the women’s movement first encouraged women to make these demands on their husbands, to spend more time at home, it caused a lot of conflict in families. And I think the conservatives are quite right to say that women’s liberation destabilized marriage.

But as men made adjustments—and they really have—the result has been tremendous good news, that, first of all, these adjustments have strengthened marriage. Men who do more caregiving have more satisfying marriages, they are less likely to have their wives leave them, and their kids do better. It’s a win-win situation, because if the parents do divorce, men who have been involved in such caregiving are much less likely to walk away from their kids. They have developed an independent relationship with the kids that is no longer mediated through the mom, and they don’t have that old-fashioned idea that, “Since I no longer get the mom’s services, so I can’t relate to the kids either.”

So I think that there are all sorts of positive things about it. There’s a myth in sociology and among many feminists that there’s been a stalled revolution, that there’s been a lagged one, but the fact is that men are changing very rapidly. In fact, as a historian, I have to say that they are changing, in a period of thirty years, in ways that took most women 150 years of thinking and activism. Every cohort of men is doing more in the house, and if you look within a cohort, the longer a man’s wife has worked, the more likely he is to do caregiving and housework. This is a huge change.

How has the rising importance of love in marriage contributed to the emergence of gay and lesbian families?

Social conservatives claim, as James Dobson put it, that gay and lesbian marriage is turning 5,000 years of tradition on its head. I actually believe that 5,000 years of tradition has been turned on its head, but it was heterosexuals who did it, and they changed marriage in ways that encouraged gays and lesbians to say, now this institution applies to us – after, in fact, having rejected that institution, because of its rigidity and inequality. I think this is good evidence that the institution has been evolving in a way that means it is not inherently oppressive.

Now I have gotten attacked by a couple of feminist authors for saying that. They want me to keep arguing that there’s something inherent in the institution of marriage. I think, in fact, we’ve transformed it and discovered that it’s not inherently oppressive, except in so far as it is put forward as the only way to honor long-term obligations. But if it is not, then I think marriage has become much fairer through the ages and much more capable of really being equal, and I think that’s why many gays and lesbians have started to embrace marriage.

You describe a lot of change. What hasn’t changed?

There are still a lot of rigid gender roles. It’s a lot worse around the world, where women still face incredible amounts of domestic violence. There are massive gender inequities on a global scale to be addressed, and there is the residue, and a serious residue, of inequality at home, too. But the biggest problem we need to address is the peculiarly American assumption that individuals can learn individual responsibility without any social responsibility. We ask individuals to keep commitments that we don’t ask corporations or politicians to keep, and that needs to change.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rally at St. Luke's in San Francisco

Our son Liko was born at St. Luke's hospital in San Francisco. We were supposed to go to Kaiser, but in the most harrowing sixty minutes of our lives, Liko came out as a double-footling breech in what is technically called a precipitous labor -- that is to say, really, really fast. The closest hospital was St. Luke's in the Mission, where my wife was prepped for an emergency Caesarean. But things moved too quickly: one of Liko's feet was out and he wasn't waiting for surgery.

(My wife remembers hearing somebody yelling, "Where's the anesthesiologist? Where the fuck is the anesthesiologist!?" I don't remember hearing this.)

Doctors aren't usually trained in this kind of vaginal delivery. Fortunately, St. Luke's is one of a handful of hospitals in the city to employ a staff of midwives. The midwife raced into the room. (I was later told she just happened to be nearby.) She reached in and pulled the other leg out. Liko's arms were up around his head, preventing delivery, and so she next reached in and pulled his arms down. Now Liko's face was facing the ceiling and his chin (if memory serves) would have caught on the pubic bone--and so the midwife turned Liko's face toward the floor and Shelly pushed him out.

Everything I described in the previous paragraph happened in a matter of seconds. Literally five minutes later, my wife was alert and energetic, and was able to hold and play with newborn Liko. Afterward she felt only minimal pain. This would not have been the case if she had had a C-section.

St. Luke's merged with California Pacific Medical Center on Jan. 1 of this year, and shortly thereafter stopped scheduling patients who wanted a vaginal birth after having had a C-section, known as a VBAC. There is, in fact, a serious risk associated with VBAC: "a .5 to 1 percent chance of tearing the uterine seam from the previous surgery, causing heavy hemorrhaging and requiring an emergency C-section to save the mother's uterus, her baby, and herself," as the SF Weekly reports. The decision to have a VBAC is not one to be made lightly.

However, "VBAC advocates argue the decision was more about money than safety, since St. Luke's has been successfully delivering post-Caesarean vaginal births for years. Advocates say the move limits a soon-to-be mother's control in one of the most important events of her life — forcing women to choose between a natural birth at home that lacks the safety net of an operating room steps away, or hospitals that may be more likely to urge women to have a repeat C-section, a surgery with more risk of complications and a longer recovery than a vaginal delivery."

Now my friend Karen (whose child is due to be delivered at St. Luke's) tells me that in another cost-cutting measure, a portion of the midwifery section called Homestyle Midwifery that serves low-income women at St. Luke's is being shut down. It's not clear to me what impact the closure will have on St. Luke's ability to serve low-income families or what it means for midwifery at St. Luke's. I don't know if this is part of a reorganization or a genuine cut-back. But with four fewer midwives on staff, I wonder if St. Luke's still has the ability to deal with an emergency like the one we faced.

There will be a protest of the VBAC ban on Friday, May 11, though I know some people will be there to generally rally against St. Luke's moves away from natural childbirth. Participants are asked to meet at the 24th and Mission Bart Station at 10:30 AM and then march to St. Luke's Campus at 11:00 AM. A rally will follow at Dolores Park. With questions or to get more involved, contact

I can't be there, but Shelly and Liko will!

Fact vs. Fiction

I just got back from the tenth anniversary conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, a network of family researchers that I recently joined. There they released a new report entitled "Unconventional Wisdom" that summarizes recent research and clinical findings by CCF members. Some highlights:

In contrast to the media focus on gender differences, a new consensus challenging this view is emerging from the research literature. Many well-designed studies find no significant gender differences with respect to such cognitive and social behaviors as nurturance, sexuality, aggression, self-esteem, and math and verbal abilities. The big story is that there is far greater within-gender variability on such behaviors than there is between-gender difference. For example, when young boys act up and get physical we are accustomed to hearing their behavior explained away by their high levels of testosterone. In fact, boys’ and girls’ testosterone levels are virtually identical during the preschool years when rough-and-tumble play is at its peak.

When we compare the work-day hours that Gen-X and Boomer fathers spend caring for and doing things with their children in 2002, we find that Gen-X fathers spend significantly more time with their children, an average of 3.4 hours per workday versus an average of 2.2 hours for Boomer fathers -- a difference of more than 1 hour. Because Gen-X fathers typically have younger children than Boomer fathers, we adjusted for the age of youngest child and still found the same significant difference favoring Gen-X.

Numerous studies reveal the benefits to a relationship and family when a father participates in housework. Women are more prone to depression and to fantasize about divorce when they do a disproportionate share of the housework. Wives are more sexually interested in husbands who do more housework. And children appear to be better socially adjusted when they regularly participate in doing chores with Dad. In my clinical experience, men do more in homes when they have stronger egalitarian attitudes, and when their wives are willing to negotiate standards, act assertively, prioritize the marital friendship, and avoid gatekeeping.

People often think that women whose husbands make “good money” stay home when they have children. But it takes being married to men in the top 5th percentile (men earning more than $120,000 a year) to seriously reduce women’s employment -- only 54 percent of mothers with husbands with these top earnings worked for pay. Among married women whose husbands were in the top 25 to 5 percent of all earners (making salaries ranging from about $60,000 to $120,000), 72 percent of mothers worked outside the home, almost identical to the 71 percent work participation figures among married moms whose husbands' earnings were in the lowest 25 percent of men’s wages. Women’s own education has a much bigger effect on her likelihood of working than her husband’s earnings; highly-educated women who can earn a lot typically don’t become stay-at-home mothers.

Despite concerns of policy makers that children are not receiving sufficient parental time, married parents’ time with children is higher now than during the “golden era” of the nuclear family in 1965: Married mothers increased their time in childcare by 21% (from 10.6 to 12.9 hours per week between 1965 and 2000) and fathers have more than doubled their time in childcare (from 2.6 to 6.5 hours per week). How have they done this? Mothers in particular have shed large quantities of housework in order to accommodate their increased time with children. Married parents of today’s era also spend more time multitasking, and less time with their spouse and friends and extended family. Although parent-child time has increased over the years, almost half of American parents continue to feel they spend too little time with their children, particularly married fathers who spend less time overall with children than married mothers. Married mothers also long for more time for themselves and both mothers and fathers feel they have too little time for each other.

In a study of 130 couples from wedding until their first babies were three years old, John and Julie Gottman found that 67% of couples had a big drop in relationship happiness and a big increase in hostility in the first 3 years of the baby's life. In addition, the parents' hostility during pregnancy was associated with baby's responsiveness at three months. Based on this, they designed and tested an intervention to help new parents: the workshop reversed the drop in couple happiness and the increasing hostility. They also found a reduction in postpartum depression. At three years old, the babies whose parents had been to a workshop were more advanced in terms of emotional and language development. Part of this was due to father's involvement: the workshops improved father's involvement.

A nationally representative study of more than 1000 young people in the 3rd through the 12th grades asked children: “If you were granted one wish that would change the way that your mother’s/your father’s work affects your life, what would that wish be?” In a parallel study, more than 600 employed mothers and fathers were asked to guess what their children would wish. Most parents (56%) guessed that their children would wish for more time with them. But more time was not at the top of children’s wish list. Only 10% of children made that wish about their mothers and 15.5% made that wish about their fathers. Most children wished that their mothers (34%) and their fathers (27.5%) would be less stressed and tired.

Men and women who were married or had children were asked in 1977 and again in 2002, “How much do your job and family life interfere with each other?” In 1977, 41 percent of women, but just 34 percent of men, reported experiencing some or a lot of work-family interference. By 2002, however, more men (46 percent) than women (41 percent) reported experiencing work-family stress. Fathers in dual-earner families are no more likely to experience some or a lot of work-family interference (53%) as fathers who are in single earner families (52%).

Based on a representative sample of a major metropolitan area, almost eight out of ten young adults who grew up in a home with a work-committed mother believe that this was the best option. In contrast, those who lived in homes where mothers did not work in a committed way are more divided in their outlooks, with close to half wishing their moms had pursued a different path. Those who lived in a single-parent home are similarly divided. While a slight majority wished that their biological parents had stayed together, close to half concluded that, while not ideal, a parental separation provided a better alternative than living in a conflict-ridden or silently unhappy home. Conversely, among children who grew up in an intact home, most agreed that this was the best arrangement, but four out of ten felt their parents might have been better off apart. In all these family arrangements, sustained parental support and economic security are more important than family form in shaping young adults’ satisfaction with their childhood experiences.

The full report is well worth a read.