Thursday, July 26, 2007

Divorce, Stay-at-Home-Dad Style

The following is based on a series of comments I made recently over at Rebeldad:

Stop the presses: Breadwinning moms are divorcing their stay-at- home husbands!

Not really--there's absolutely no evidence that this is happening-- but you wouldn't know it from a recent wave of essays, articles, and blog entries by and about moms who are disappointed with their marriages to caregiving spouses.

Two of the most recent examples: an instantly notorious blog entry by career coach Penelope Trunk on why her stay-at-home husband doesn't love her anymore and an article in the UK Daily Mail on a "househusband backlash" trend that the reporter seems to have invented.

Reports the Daily Mail: "Divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd-Platt says that in her experience, the decision to allow the wife to be the main wage earner will have a detrimental effect on as many as half of these relationships, and that divorce statistics in these cases have risen by at least five percent in the past two years."

I can't attest to Ms. Lloyd-Platt's experience, but, as discussed here many times, we do know that the vast majority of all marriages are troubled for the first three years after a baby is born--the Gottman Institute puts the number at 67 percent for more-or-less traditional marriages. So if only half of the reverse-traditional marriages Ms. Lloyd-Platt encounters are having problems, then they're actually doing pretty good.

But about that divorce stat she mentions--"five percent." The article doesn't compare the divorce rate of reverse-traditional families to traditional or dual-income families, so we have no idea what "five percent" means. We do know that the number of "househusbands" (as they're called) in the U.K. has risen by 83 percent since 1993. If the divorce rate for that group (and I'm impressed that someone in the UK is keeping track of it) has only risen five percent--and again, we have no idea what's happening with other family groups--then I'd say that's not too bad.

Some historical perspective: Non-traditional family forms are always entail some degree of internal and external conflict during their period of emergence--that is, until they become traditional, i.e., widespread and normal. This was, for example, the case when people left farms and extended families and moved to the big city and into small nuclear families -- a period of tremendous stress and conflict, and, incidentally, high rates of divorce and abandonment. Then all of a sudden (around WWII), the nuclear family was considered ideal. Family configurations aligned with the economy, and thus a post-war culture was born. In 1957, J.M. Mogey of the University of Oxford predicted that "the divorce rate should continue to decline for some years to come.”

Ha! History is cruel. That very same year, divorce rates started to once again rise, after a thirty-year decline. One in three couples married in the 1950s would ultimately divorce. Today the divorce rate stands at about 50 percent (that's actually a projection; the actual number of marriages that have failed is apparently closer to 40 percent), and guess what: according to many studies, today's egalitarian marriages are the most stable. "Women are more prone to depression and to fantasize about divorce when they do a disproportionate share of the housework," reports psychotherapist Joshua Coleman in Unconventional Wisdom. "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."

Today, traditional families have their own problems--many of them will fail. And so the question isn't, Are reverse-traditional families more unstable? That's a dumb question, given the context. Instead, the question should be (to adapt a phrase from Stephanie Coontz), What can we do to help reverse-traditional families minimize their weaknesses and maximize their strengths?

I'm not saying that the stories of unhappy breadwinning moms aren't interesting and important, only that they are not as representative as they pretend to be. Some of these moms explicitly blame at-home daddyhood for their problems -- they seem to feel that the arrangement robs their men of masculine authority and self-respect. This is true of Trunk's blog entry, in which she reports being shocked and dismayed to discover that her husband describes himself as a "stay-at-home dad" in an online professional networking profile. "Surely writing stay-at-home dad on a LinkedIn profile cannot be good," she writes, clearly ashamed of her husband.

It's a digital variation of an image that keeps recurring in these stories: the public moment when a coworker or old school friend asks the breadwinning mom what her husband does for a living, and she feels a deep sense of shame. She marks that as the moment when the marriage declined.

It's really quite horrible, when you think about it. I think there's two things going on, socially. One is that some women seem unprepared for the pressures of providing, just as some dads must struggle with the demands of caregiving. They weren't raised for these roles, they never imagined themselves doing it, and they have few role models. The second thing is that social support is extremely important -- this is one of the insights that came out of a recent University of Texas study of at-home dads, and it's certainly true in my experience. If you spend all day, every day, walking uphill with the wind in your face, you get tired. Much better to have people behind you, pushing you forward.

But we have tended to focus on social situation of the at-home dad, sometimes at the expense of the breadwinning mom: they need support, community, and role models just as much, if not more. The pressures they face are enormous: all the usual breadwinning pressures, plus sexism, plus the social ambiguities of role reversal.

Despite all that, however, many moms are very happy with their roles; I've interviewed some of them for my book. Their stories also need to be told--and then maybe women like Penelope Trunk won't feel so ashamed.

* * *

A post-script: In an article posted to her old website, Kidding Ourselves (1995) author Rhona Mahony asks: “When the sexual division of labor in the home has melted away, what will divorce mean for children? No one knows for sure. In all likelihood, though, it will be less harmful to children than it is today. I suspect that the average breadwinning mother will be more emotionally attached to her children than the average breadwinning father is today, because of the lingering emotional echoes of her pregnancies and her breastfeeding, if she breastfed. Even if her primary-parent husband catches up with and surpasses her in emotional attachment, she is starting from a higher base than the average father today. Concretely, that means that fewer, absent breadwinning parents will fail to visit, fail to send money, and go AWOL completely. More of them will be mothers. Remember, too, that improvements in child support assurance, and in other programs, will probably be necessary to attract millions of men into primary parenting. Those improvements will also cushion the effects of divorce for children whose fathers are breadwinners, too.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Baby Clothing on the Spot

My high-school friend introduced me to her 5-year old son the other day. Apart from the fact that he stood exactly 180 degrees facing the opposite direction and refused to acknowledge my existence, he seemed nice enough. But what was up with the outfit? A John Deere trucker cap and a t-shirt with a monster car kicking up clouds of dirt from under oversized wheels. Was this an Ashton Kutcher starter kit? I’ll pass over the fact that I knew plenty of kids in high school who dressed like this without even thinking about it. Some of them even knew how to drive a John Deere tractor. But neither of us did. So how did her kid wind up this way?

I was a little surprised at my own reaction. What does it matter what a little boy or girl wears? I remember having a pair of cowboy boots with fancy stitching, and a few Evel Knievel t-shirts that I deeply regretted loosing to whoever stole them out of the laundromat in the late 70s.

But I couldn't help myself. "Gimme a break," I thought. "I'd never buy a shirt like that for Spot." Though my wife and I have never really talked about it, most of Spot's onesies are "gender neutral." We like it that way. Thankfully he looks good in pastels, because he's wearing a lot of light orange, green, and yellow these days. He has a few blue outfits, one ridiculously cute sailor suit, and a few novelty pieces. By and large, he's steering clear of the blue-pink dichotomy.

As far as motifs go, his clothes are decorated with quite a few dinosaurs, a good selection of African megafauna, and various amphibian and mammalian species native to temperate Eurasia. Plus, of course, the usual barnyard crew. So Spot is on his way to being somewhat of a naturalist, perhaps even a paleontologist. What is absent from wardrobe is anything powered by an internal combustion engine or resembling a professional athletic jersey.

Putting this wardrobe together was no easy feat. A quick stroll through the children's apparel section in Target makes it clear that there is a "pink side" and a "blue side". Delve deeper into the infant clothing section, and you'll find that the rack of Target and Gerber brands is about evenly divided according to Yin and Yang, with, as a concession to the way of the Tao, a thin strip of gender neutral offerings in the middle. If you want more selection, you have to go to specialty stores elsewhere in the City. My mother has been doing a yeo-woman's job of culling the gender neutral stuff from various discount department stores, but both she and my wife have insisted that it's not easy.

Why go to all the trouble? After pondering over the question, it's become clear to me that what Spot wears is less about him right now than about us as parents and what we communicate to the world through his outfits. My own folks have told me they paid no attention to what I wore as a small child (always nice to hear), and despite the cowboy boots and the Evel Knievel t-shirts, I failed to turn into either a cowboy or a motorcycle-riding stunt man. No, the way we clothe Spot is more about reassuring ourselves of our parenting choices, and signaling these choices to parents and others around us.

"He doesn't HAVE to dress that way," is what we're saying when we dress him. The complex of associations that make up gender identity doesn't necessarily have to include trucks, rockets, earth-moving machinery, and really really fast cars. It can include some of these things, but it can include other things too. It's all a protest, perhaps mostly symbolic, that the package of traits that is conventionally known as "boyhood" can be mixed up and filled with all sorts of things.

But does that include dresses? At coffee one morning with a mom down the street, I saw her 8-month old daughter in a skirt for the first time. "Oh boy," I thought, "once you cross that line, there's no going back." Boys go hither, girls girls go yon. "What about a kilt?" my wife asked. Yes, there are options: the eminently practical Middle Eastern dishdashah, and various central and south Asian tunics, for example, none of which I have ever worn nor am likely to. And while experiments with all this might be fine now, while he is a
tabula rasa, he will have friends one day, and in that Lord of the Flies world he will be forced to choose sides. And he will think we were foolish for not having prepared him.

Or, if we take the trouble to get him comfortable dressing beyond the pink-blue dichotomy, to take him shopping where there really is a range of things to choose from besides frilly blouses and football jerseys, perhaps he will feel comfortable designing a wardrobe that expresses who he is, and not the category in which he must be classified.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Axel’s Story: Alone and together

I am in the process of interviewing Bay Area families for a series of writing projects on 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 Axel and Lex, who live in San Francisco's Noe Valley. Some names have been changed. (The photo above was taken by Jackie Adams.)

“We’d only been together for two months before Marjorie got pregnant,” says Axel, 37. Until that point, Axel had been working as an actor, with no regular income—but with a child on the way, Axel overhauled his life. “I stopped going out and partying,” he says. “I quit sports. I stopped acting. I got a job again and got an income again.”

At first, says Axel, “it seemed very grand and romantic, having a baby.” But the couple started bickering even before Lex was born, and after the birth they found themselves thrown together in the most intimate, uncomfortable circumstances imaginable. “The first 48 hours after Lex was born was like living on a remote island,” he says. “In hindsight, it would have been better to first build a community as a couple and as parents. I wasn’t comfortable in the relationship. I was happy in Lex’s birth, but I wasn’t comfortable being a dad, I had no idea with what I was doing.”

Their fights grew in frequency and intensity, keeping pace with the couple’s rising anxiety and sleep deprivation. “It was all emotional issues, in my opinion based on the fact that we didn’t get on well together and the situation was largely forced on us…forced on us by ourselves, of course.”

Even before Lex was born, Axel and Marjorie had joined a parenting group, seeking to build a new community as parents. But, while the meetings were enjoyable and provided the basis for individual friendships, the group did not translate into a durable, village-like community. “It seemed like everyone [in the group] was silently hoping for a community, because they hoped for emotional support as well as practical help,” says Axel. “The first year we certainly didn’t get that. Since all the couples were under the same pressure, they didn’t want to hear about it, because they didn’t want to hear anything that would remind them of how fragile their own situation is. I don’t blame them for it. They had no time or emotional energy to give us.”

Over the course of Lex’s first year, the rift between Axel and Marjorie developed into a serious crisis and then one day, just after Lex’s first birthday, Axel left Marjorie. He slept on the couches of his few remaining single, childfree friends, while Lex stayed with his mother. “I felt horrible,” Axel says. “Everything had just fallen apart. But I knew that I couldn’t stay. The only thing that would have been worse was staying.”

During this period, Axel was truly isolated. His friends, even those with children, didn’t understand what he was going through. His entire family lived in Germany. Worse, he immediately lost the small, fragile community he and Marjorie had constructed. “All of a sudden, it looked to me like all these parenting groups we’d joined ceased to exist at all,” he says. Both Marjorie and Axel still received support from individuals, but the group as a whole was not able to shift its "structure and energy" to accomodate the break-up.

“The first five weeks were horrible, but then it got better,” says Axel. Though they were initially enraged at each other, Axel and Marjorie gradually calmed down, “got back in touch with reality,” and ironed out a fifty-fifty custody agreement for Lex, with no lawyers involved.

Now Axel faced a new challenge: learning to be a single, joint-custody dad. “You know, Marjorie had this mama’s group, but there I was, trying to do all this by myself, and I thought, this is insane, so I actually tried to find a father’s group. And it was almost impossible to find. I finally found some people. They were all half-time single fathers, but most of their troubles were surrounding their divorces. I didn’t really feel at home there either. There’s hundreds of mothers’ groups, but almost no groups for dads.”

Axel gave up trying to find a group to join, accepted his isolation, and, for the first time, was able to focus totally on trying to be a good father. Ironically, this acceptance is what allowed him to find a new community. As Lex got bigger, he started playing with other kids and Axel found that it was easier for him to interact with the parents with a clear identity as a single dad. It wasn’t enough for Axel and Lex to do things that seemed best for Lex; Axel had to genuinely enjoy their activities and the company of the parents who were there. Their community grew when father and son found people they could both play with. “I feel much more comfortable being a parent and I’m finding a community that works for me and for Lex,” he says.

Ultimately, he feels, the separation from Marjorie was good for the whole family. “Having this structure and having the relationship with Lex separated from my relationship with Marjorie, it made it easier for me to see myself as a father,” he says. “It made it clear to me and also to Marjorie, that I’m Lex’s dad and I’m going to do all these things that are a part of being Lex’s dad, and it has nothing to do with the relationship, which wasn’t working out. For Lex, it’s better than what he was in before, when we were fighting all the time. It’s really changed my relationship with him and allowed me to focus on being a dad. I can be with him 100 percent.”

* * *

A post-script: “Through most of history,” writes family historian Stephanie Coontz, “marriage was only one of many places where people cultivated long-term commitments. Neighbors, family and friends have been equally important sources of emotional and practical support. Today, we expect much more intimacy and support from our partners than in the past, but much less from everyone else. This puts a huge strain on the institution of marriage. When a couple's relationship is strong, a marriage can be more fulfilling than ever. But we often overload marriage by asking our partner to satisfy more needs than any one individual can possibly meet, and if our marriage falters, we have few emotional support systems to fall back on.”

Monday, July 23, 2007

Why we are having only one child

There are two hot new trends in my social circle: divorce and second children. Some couples are separating, others are reproducing, again.

We won't be jumping on either bandwagon, I'm afraid.

It's no surprise to see that as families grow, marriages are strained. I can cite, off the top of my head, a half dozen peer-reviewed studies that all say more or less the same thing: about two-thirds of couples experience a big increase in hostility and disagreement in the three years after the birth of their first child. According to the current numbers, half of marriages won't survive.

Why? Oh, I know the conservative line, and so do you. They blame the divorce rate on feminism, gay marriage, Murphy Brown, etc. In short, it's Satan's fault. But social scientists who study marriage and family--people like Phil and Carolyn Cowan at UC Berkley, John and Julie Gottman at U. of Washington, psychotherapist Joshua Coleman, and historian Stephanie Coontz--have actually asked couples about their troubles, and they discovered that there are many factors driving the divorce rate that have nothing to do with the dark prince of evil (unless you're referring to Dick Cheney and the Bush Administration's economic and family policies).

These include economic instability, more hours at work, social isolation, longer life spans, ambiguous roles, and unrealistically high emotional expectations. In their two-decade study of 200 nuclear families, the Cowans discovered that "the normal process of becoming a family in this culture, at this time sets in motion a chain of potential stessors that function as risks that stimulate moderate to severe stress for substantial numbers of parents."

In plain English, becoming a parent today can drive you crazier than a shithouse rat. Once upon a time, parents had a village to raise their children. Today, it's usually just you, your equally crazy spouse, and whatever help you two can afford.

Many parents cope admirably with the stresses of modern life. But for others, it's too much. Here's a fun fact: When the Families and Work Institute asked 1,000 children what they would change about their parents' work and how it affects family life, only 10 percent of kids made wished their mothers would stay home more and 15.5 percent made that wish about their fathers. Instead, the most popular wish by far was for moms and dads "to be less stressed and tired"—-which tells me that a) parents are really stressed and it affects their relationship with children; and b) it's the quality, not quantity, of time with parents that matters most to children.

Thus I think part of the secret to building a happy family today is knowing where to draw the line. I'm often asked when we are going to have our second, and people who don't know me well seem surprised when I reply, Never. "But you seem to love being a dad," said one person, eyebrows raised. It's true. For example: Recently my wife went away for four days and I took time off work to take care of Liko. By the end of our little vacation, I was in a terrific mood; I felt better than I'd felt in years. When I am able to give him my full and undivided attention, nothing makes me happier than to be with my kid.

But that's the problem. I can only rarely give him "my full and undivided attention." Among other things, I have to work. I have a one hour commute to my work. Outside of work, I have dishes to wash, relatives to call, emails to check, blogs to read, errands to run. So do you. It's not that our lives are harder than those of previous generations. My grandparents had it much worse, in many ways. They had their own problems, like, you know, the Depression and World War II. Our specific, contemporary problem is that our lives are rootless and overstuffed. Every time you have another child, life gets that much crazier. "Two kids are twice the fun, ten times the work!" says my friend Jodi. No kidding.

I don't want to put that strain on my life and my marriage. I've had one child. He's a great, beautiful gift that I never expected to receive. I know he wants a sibling--he's asked for one, several times, provoked by the bulging bellies of his friends' mothers--and I know that in many ways, he'd be better off in a larger family. But then the higher brain functions take over and I do the math of money and hours--and I look at our divorcing friends--and I know that we can't and shouldn't do it. He deserves to have two parents who love each other, who get along, who have civic and intellectual lives outside of the family.

Perhaps our hearts aren't big enough. Maybe we're not tough enough. But I think three is enough.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Social Capital: Do Dads Have it?

You probably already have a gut sense of what the social science buzzword 'social capital' means. Warren Buffet has financial capital; George Bush at one point thought he had political capital; someone with 'social' capital has a store of power and knowledge about 'how things work' in social institutions. The value of this capital isn't measured in terms of equities, cash, or political favors; it's measured in terms of who you know and how many of them you know. In the simplest terms, social capital is all about being part of a network and being able to easily move around within it.

The idea of social capital throws new light on the day-to-day challenges of the at-home dad in the early years before schooling begins. For example, much of the discussion of gender equity vis-a-vis childcare currently revolves around issues of labor and reward: how much unpaid or paid labor each parent does, how this balance is structured according to certain gender norms, and how enlightened public policy or changed mores can tweak this balance to achieve maximum benefit to both the parents and children in the 21st century economy.

What is less commonly discussed is the way certain gendered forms of sociability act to accrue resources that will benefit the child and family unit, apart from the issue of labor in and out of the workplace. Looked at this way, even dads who willing and able to pull their load of household and childcare labor may be dirt-poor in the kinds of social capital that are essential to getting their kids into the right city school, the summer camp of choice, or just positioning them to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way. Social capital means getting out there and mixing it up with the people who have information. Those people, in the world of early childcare, are mostly moms. You can do the math.

Among at-home dads, a big topic of reflection is the issue of social acceptance at the play-park. The moms congregate their in cliques, the men are a distinct minority, and awkwardness prevails. As with any new technology or social practice, a new etiquette struggles to be born: is it OK for a dad to arrange a playdate with a mom he just met? Is it manly or not for two dads at a playpark to exchange phone numbers? Is it worth the time for a dad to get involved with a playground clique of mostly moms?

The idea of social capital would suggest that the answer to the last question is "yes," because cliques of neighborhood moms are much more than social groups: they are information networks. Without a doubt they are highly gendered, based on forms of sociability that are heavily feminized according to traditional gender constructions. But in a "networked" society, this form of sociability is now where the advantage now lies -- across the board, not just with regard to parenting -- and women therefore have a distinct edge.

I've met a number of moms in my neighborhood so far, and all of them have been extremely helpful and generous in sharing information and welcome advice. Even though most of the parenting list-serves and play groups are run by and populated by moms -- who tend to be very good at gathering and disseminating information -- by no means does this mean that they are closed sororities in which men are unwelcome. Nor are the social skills that help these organizations take shape and flourish limited to women alone. In an economy in which the general ability to network is now a fundamental survival skill, more and more men are likely to feel comfortable adopting the hitherto strictly feminine practice of kibitzing at the playpark in order to gain access to vital childcare knowledge, support, and healthy camaraderie.

But this means that the issues involved in discussions of reverse-traditional families, or gender equality in childcare, need to expand beyond the core concerns of labor and reward, to include basic practices of sociability that can have tremendous impact on the future prospects of one's child. Blogs about at-home dads are certainly one step in that direction. But because most educational and daycare questions are unavoidably local, nothing beats face-time on the neighborhood mommy beat. The 'strong, silent type' of dad will be a disaster when it comes to setting a child up for academic success, even if he outdoes mom in terms of diapers washed and dishes cleaned. Much of what is most valuable in parenting resides in intangible but significant networks of information and the ability to access the network at different points.

Some universities have already implemented controversial gender-based affirmative action policies -- for men. Young men are being outnumbered and outperformed in terms of college admissions by young women. I'm convinced that social training in a network-based sociability is a big part of this. Dads can't afford to sit in the play park and read the sports page while the moms pow-wow by the sand box, not if they want their kids to get the best care and education possible.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Zen of Strolling

The Spot is my zen master. He does it all while wrapped up like a monk in his sedan chair -- I mean stroller -- while being pushed around the neighborhood, an ageless child-sage. My wife and I have wondered if he might be on the short list for a shot at incarnating the Dali Lama, though his timing is a little off. Why not? The rabbis will tell you that both your child and mine knew the Torah by heart until forgetting it all at birth. That's a lot of reading, so surely a little spiritual virtuosity is not impossible?

Every day, for about an hour or so, we pick a circuit in the neighborhood and head out. Occasionally I bump into my friend Steve down the block, and we caravan for a few blocks before parting ways. That's about as social as strolling gets -- with a few exceptions -- and that's fine with me. We swing wide of the play parks and their fountains like freight traffic getting shunted off onto a business beltway. We'll be in the play parks soon enough. For now, I need my stroller zen.

The Spot more or less goes along. He could just as happily be on his activity mat, yanking on multi-colored giraffe legs or trying to eat the blue monkey. Instead, being the mensch that he is, he lets me get out of the house, and doesn't object when I occasionally call a halt to our perambulation before a passing but sublime moment of urban beauty.

It's hard to find the peace of mind that this brings while sitting in my living room. Strolling with Spot forces me to inhabit the world of the concrete, consisting primarily of the sidewalk in front of us. We judge the size of cracks in the pavement. We gage the slope of the street. We keep an eye on the thunderheads above. With every change in direction, I readjust the awning and carriage to protect Spot from the sun. We dodge sprinklers. If we get caught in a shower, I batten him down. When it's windy, I listen to him laugh while the awning brushes his face.

It's these everyday details of strolling that get me out of my head. And this is where the zen comes in: absorption in the immediate leads to the transcendent. In a way that would be impossible in a car, attention to the simple details of slow travel opens my mind to the occasionally edifying things around us. We could be hiking in Yosemite, or canoeing in Ontario. We just happen to be strolling in Chicago.

In June we strolled through clouds of cottonwood seed, blowing through the neighborhood like a summer snow, collecting against the curbs in small drifts. Out by the Lake we saw the waves roll in on a dry, northerly Canadian breeze. Later, we saw the water lie flat under a soggy dome of Gulf air. On the right block at the right time, the city can feel deserted, the wind in the canopy of oaks above is audible. A flock of green parakeets bobs down the street and flies up through an opening in the trees, and I notice that the sound of internal combustion has, for the moment, disappeared.

I can't imagine taking care of the Spot someplace where it was difficult or unpleasant to do our daily stroll. I know such places exist. They tend to be suburban or exurban areas with no sidewalks and 8-lane roads, or pockets of urban, gang-ridden social pathology. Small towns are perfect for strolling, as are dense urban neighborhoods. Either way, all you really need are halfway decent sidewalks, and some trees for cover against the summer sun and winter winds. Plus a good zen master to help you see things again, but for the first time.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

gangsta father

the intro from rad dad 7 -- out this week

note: i'll be tabling at the portland zine fest from aug 10 - 12. stop by! there will be a few other parent zinsters: miranda, pirate papa as well as artnoose and a load of other cool things. i'll have the new issue with me and any copies of the last few issues that remain...

and finally, i realized we've never had a birth story in rad dad so maybe next issue -- nothing but birth stories????


rad dad is not cool; it’s not about being hip, not about trying to be in style, not a trend. rad dad is for radical parenting. The uncomfortable kind. The difficult kind. Radical as in not complacent, as in conscious and conscientious of our impact on our children, our partners, our environment. Radical as in taking responsibility for the privileges some of us have, whether we want those privileges or not. Radical as in being cognizant of how we challenge patriarchy (or not), how we participate in capitalism, how we depend on unquestioned roles of authority and hierarchy. And then, radical as in having the courage to consider ways of changing these aspects of fathering.

Lately I’ve seen numerous new books or web sites that clearly are trying to profit off of or benefit from or create a market for hip fathering, talking about how men can still remain men (whatever that means) and be a cool dad as well. What so many of these books or sites lack is a social critique, an understanding that for so long fathering has been intimately connected to patriarchy, to violence, to capitalism. Unless we as fathers do something to change that, no amount of coolness, no amount of humor, no amount of hip papa clothes can cover it. So my new mantra: We need radical change, not radical baby accessories.

For me rad dad is about reaching out to community. It’s not a place to provide excuses for some of the fucked up ways fathering is manifested by some men in our society nor about absolving ourselves of our complicity in the ugly history of Traditional Fathering. We gotta own up to it. And that’s why I know I need other radical parents, both mamas and papas, to help me see how I am caught up in this history. Especially when I’m unaware of it. I need them to show me how myths of fathering are perpetuated in the media or to help me see when fathering is being used as a marketing ploy or is being packaged for consumer convenience.

rad dad for me is recognizing how I need help. I can’t do it alone because I already know I’m a sucker; I’m a fool. I laugh like hell during Shrek and his silliness, and my kids love him, so he’s gotta be a good model for fathering, right? And I’ll admit I’m the first one at the bar getting all stupid when the Warriors were in the playoffs. Don’t get me wrong. We as people can and should have our own interests outside of parenting, enjoy the company of other adults in places that perhaps aren’t super kid friendly. But we are straight up wrong if we think that the word father means to be cool, to be part time, or that it’s temporal, ending when we are not with our kids, or that it’s limited to the realm of the house.

I want the word father to mean: warrior, to be synonymous with dedicated; I want it to be analogous to activist, environmentalist, feminist, gangsta, anarchist. I want people to step back when we announce we’re fathers and that we’re here and we ain’t leaving until some things change.

Starting with ourselves.

rad dad is as much about radical parenting as it is about fighting patriarchy in all aspects of our society. I believe actually that to reclaim fathering, it will be contingent upon men to work diligently for equal access and rights for women in the world outside parenting. We can’t expect to be equal partners in parenting and not have women be equal partners in the rest of society. To reclaim fathering we will need to reconsider intimately what it means to be successful and how capitalist notions of success are tied to the construction of male identity. To reclaim fathering we will need to question the social stereotypes of fathering that for so long have been used to justify gender specific parental roles.

Now I also wanna recognize that how we individually manifest our parenting and our relationships is up to us. There is nothing inherently wrong with a man providing the main income for a family and a woman being the primary caretaker. But it needs to be transparent, needs to be a choice and not the default. Fathers need to actively consider what might be the underlying reasons for their decisions about how they father and what they give priority to.

And, most importantly, fathers will need to actively, vocally, publicly support and speak up for other fathers.

So let me give a shout out to the amazing fathers and mothers and other parental allies that I had the pleasure to meet and depend on as I ventured out on the Kerbloom/rad dad speaking tour of the Pacific Northwest. It was so inspiring to realize that there are people I can call up and say, I need a place to stay or can you help me out or come to our event, and they are there lending you a pillow, offering what they can, bringing their kids and neighbors to see you read. So that is what rad dad is about, what Kerbloom is about, what creating radical community is all about. There are so many people doing so many different, cool things that every time I feel slightly exhausted or overwhelmed, I just need to look around me or think of those that have helped me, and feel reinspired, rejuvenated. You all rock.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Dads and the Dangers of Metaphysics

I doubt many folks checking in on Daddy Dialectic bother to read the Wall Street Journal, but someone (my wife, who in fact needs to understand the economy, for which I begrudge her not) forwarded me a muddled and masculinist Father's Day essay ("Boys to Men", Tony Woodlief, June 15, 2007, p.W11) by an avowedly un-masculine father of three boys who somehow feels that they should deliberately be set on the path to his preconceived idea of manhood. It's a prime collection of unexamined assumptions, pop-genetic determinism, psychological unawareness, and run-of-the-mill conservative shibboleths about the need for manly courage in a dangerous world, all rolled out like sparkly plastic trinkets and baubles in an antique store.

I can't link to it because it's subscription only. Instead, a few of the choicer excerpts:

"Many academics would consider my lack of manliness a good thing. They regard boys as thugs-in-training, caught up in a patriarchal society that demeans women. In the 1990s the American Association of University Women (among others) positioned boys as the enemies of female progress (something Christina Hoff Sommers exposed in her book, "The War Against Boys"). But the latest trend is to depict boys as themselves victims of a testosterone-infected culture. In their book "Raising Cain," for example, the child psychologists Don Kindlon and Michael Thompson warn parents against a "culture of cruelty" among boys. Forget math, science and throwing a ball, they suggest -- what your boy most needs to learn is emotional literacy."

"But I can't shake the sense that boys are supposed to become manly. Rather than neutering their aggression, confidence and desire for danger, we should channel these instincts into honor, gentlemanliness and courage. Instead of inculcating timidity in our sons, it seems wiser to train them to face down bullies, which by necessity means teaching them how to throw a good uppercut. In his book "Manliness," Harvey Mansfield writes that a person manifesting this quality "not only knows what justice requires, but he acts on his knowledge, making and executing the decision that the rest of us trembled even to define." You can't build a civilization and defend it against barbarians, fascists and playground bullies, in other words, with a nation of Phil Donahues.

Who said emotional literacy had anything to do with timidity? If this dude spent more time wondering why so many husbands beat their wives, he might have less time to get spooked about Fascism. Still stranger is how parenting, boyhood, manhood somehow all gets refracted through the lens of a value set essentially derived from paganism. No reflection on, say, the ethics of Augustine, the Church Fathers, the Rabbinical tradition, or any of the many other ethical sources that conservatism claims to know all about; instead, we have tough-guy paganism straight-out of Ben Hur and other Hollywood comics. (Those Romans, and the Empire they defended against barbarians, were, of course, pagans):

"The good father, then, needs to nurture his son's moral and spiritual core, and equip him with the skills he'll need to act on the moral impulse that we call courage. A real man, in other words, is someone who doesn't run from an Osama bin Laden. But he may also need the ability to hit a target from three miles out with a .50 caliber M88 if he wants to finish the job."

Why, the Global War on Terror is the perfect moral framework for raising my son! What a quaint little idea, the notion that warfare is an opportunity for "real men" to show valor. I think that one died sometime in August 1914, along with several million other soldiers in the trenches of France. It certainly was gone by the time of the Second Iraq War of 1990-1991, in which bombs did most of the killing. Given the reference here, one might add that "finishing the job" would also call upon skills such as an understanding of Arabic, Persian, Pashtun, Parsi, and Urdu, or perhaps the domestic politics of Arab and Central Asian states, listening to other people's ideas and information, etc....but of course all that bookish nonsense is for sissies, and what everything comes down to is whether an infantry grunt can pull the trigger when he sees a turban. Assuming he can find one to shoot.

Also of note is the way emotional literacy is downplayed when, as the author freely admits right in the first paragraph, his biological father abandoned him in childhood, and his stepfather didn't pay attention to him. Hmm. So what the author's deficient male parents really needed was the ability to shoot a .50 caliber M88? Then they wouldn't have been tempted to dump their parental responsibilities on their wives while they went off to be manly? Seems like these dudes were lacking in a few other qualities, too, like the willingness to stick around and just do the work of a parent, "finishing [a] job" which for the most part doesn't include Courage, Honor, or Gentlemanliness, and if you're lucky and don't live on the south side of Chicago, doesn't involve guns.

Which is not to say that Courage, Honorableness, etc. are bad qualities. But why do they belong only to men? I like Honorable and Courageous women. I'll take help and inspiration whenever I can get it. While this guy's kids are learning how to Honorably and Courageously fight over a rubber ball, his neighbor's daughters are probably acing the SAT and getting into better schools and landing the jobs that will drive the economy. And Gentlemanliness, if it means anything at all in this post-medieval age in which most "real men" couldn't manage to fit into a suit of armor without serious liposuction, seems to me centered on respect for the weak. This is a universal value that we should ALL aspire to, regardless of gender, age, race, or anything else. Ironic twist: the very idea of Gentlemanliness, as derived from the courtly culture of late medieval Italy and Spain, is in fact heavily influenced by the high MUSLIM culture of the period, with some pagan residues thrown in. So, dad, you want your kid to be like the noble Black Saracen in The Song of Roland? The one who kills the Christian hero? Bravo! Those particular "barbarians" were reading Greek long before your own ancestors could spell their name.

I'll give the guy credit for admitting he's a couch potato from a broken home -- this itself is an index of how far we've come -- although rhetorically-speaking, anything less would have immediately alienated the educated women who read the WSJ as well as many of the moderate men -- and for suggesting that boys need moral training in addition to open-ended physicality. But if this is the conservative version of modern fatherhood, then I'm nostalgic for the days of old-fashioned Judeo-Christian patriarchy, rather than this pagan code that essentially consists of being able to use a gun and stand up to Osama bin Laden. Let's see this guy's kids use those skills when they get laid off for the first time.