Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Nude on a Staircase

Coming home from work to find your wife nude in the living room is supposed to be one of the classic male heterosexual fantasies. So I naturally wondered if the reverse might be true when, at about 6:30 one evening, I stood naked at the top of the stairs as my wife came in the door below.

"What's with the nudity?" she asked.

I don't imagine the stereotypical male fantasy usually played out quite like that, but perhaps the fact that a few inches from my leg, Spot was bouncing up and down in his jumper chair voided the scene of any erotic charge whatsoever.

Why the nudity? Was it not self-evident? Spot just had the barf of the century.

Which is why I was in the kitchen, at the top of the stairs, my clothes in a moist, warm pile beside the changing table upstairs, where I had managed to wipe down my son but not myself, before I decided that the only way I could then take a shower, without him crawling around and either destroying something or electrocuting himself, would be to hang his jumper chair in the kitchen below, and then put him in it. Which is what I was doing when my wife came home to find me naked at the top of the stairs.

All that, however, is incidental. The central part of this story is the trauma of being barfed on by someone you love, when there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- that can be done about it. You just have to sit there and take it, letting your body and your clothes take the hit in order to save the sofa, the rug, and the baby. I've since learned, thanks to my wife's diligent researches, that the kind of power-barf I had just lived through may occasionally result from "over-feeding," something which I had thought was impossible with a baby.

Yet it would make sense. Spot was crying and I didn't know why. I sat him down in the rocking chair and offered him the bottle. He seemed more interested in holding it and turning it around, but I touched it to his lips, and he took it. But I still wasn't sure if he wanted it. Down went 6 ounces, easily enough, so I popped him onto his feet and stood him facing me on my lap. Well, what a happy baby!

The eruption that followed lasted for what seemed like 30 seconds, more than enough time for an earthquake to level a major city, and generated a solid stream of white liquid that poured onto my chest and lap. It looked like the pictures of milk splashing into a bowl of Cheerios or Corn Flakes on the side of a cereal box: solid, thick, and white, jumping dandily upwards on impact, together with a few dislodged strawberries. I happened to know, thanks to some friends of mine in the advertising industry, that those illustrations are an illusion, that they used Elmer's Glue because real milk wasn't white enough to really look like milk. But the way it bounced up off my lap sure looked like the way it bounces up on the side of a cereal box.

Spot barfed two more times that night, but that was by now my wife's problem. My more immediate concern, as I punched out at the end of my shift and took my shower, was whether whiskey or rum would be the more appropriate way to cure my headache and ring in the eventide. And whether or not I ought to put some clothes on.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not-so-new after all

In my August 14 meditation on family history, I call gay families "something totally new under the sun."

But my landlady, Ruthanne Lum McCunn, an award-winning author of Chinese-American historical novels, says that it's more complicated than that.

"Gay families may be new here in America," she told me, "but some of the 19th century independent spinsters who lived as couples in China's Pearl River Delta adopted and raised daughters."

That's interesting, and I just learned of a new study by Allan A. Tulchin of Shippenburg University that argues for evidence of homosexual civic unions in 15th century France.

Yes, I agree, that sounds pretty freaking unlikely. Turns out that Tulchin doesn't have a smoking gun of hot man-on-man marriage, but he did discover a legal framework, called a affrèrement ("brotherment"), that allowed same-sex people ("affrèrés") to set up households together.

“All of their goods usually became the joint property of both parties, and each commonly became the other’s legal heir," writes Tulchin in the September issue of the Journal of Modern History. "They also frequently testified that they entered into the contract because of their affection for one another. As with all contracts, affrèrements had to be sworn before a notary and required witnesses, commonly the friends of the affrèrés.”

Most of the affrèrés were brothers, but Tulchin finds examples of single unrelated men. "I suspect that some of these relationships were sexual, while others may not have been," he writes. "It is impossible to prove either way and probably also somewhat irrelevant to understanding their way of thinking. They loved each other, and the community accepted that."

My verdict: Intriguing and fun, but highly speculative. Gay and lesbian families might have historical precursors, but I still think that we are witnessing a rare and wonderful event: the emergence of a new family form, where same-sex parents can live their lives free of euphemism and fear--in San Francisco, anyway, and in plenty of other places.

Incidentally, Ruthanne just published a new novel, God of Luck, that is well worth a read. You can see Ruthanne read tomorrow, Sept. 26, at the San Francisco Main Public Library at 6:30 pm in the Latino Community Room.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Old vs. New Tapes

From today's New York Times:

For the first time, women in their 20s who work full time in several American cities — New York, Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis — are earning higher wages than men in the same age range, according to a recent analysis of 2005 census data by Andrew Beveridge, a sociology professor at Queens College in New York.

For instance, the median income of women age 21 to 30 in New York who are employed full time was 17 percent higher than that of comparable men.

Professor Beveridge said the gap is largely driven by a gulf in education: 53 percent of women employed full time in their 20s were college graduates, compared with 38 percent of men. Women are also more likely to have graduate degrees. “They have more of everything,” Professor Beveridge said.

A lot of young women “are of two minds,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, a research organization. “On one hand, they’re proud of their achievements, and they think they want a man who shares house chores and child care. But on the other hand they’re scared by their own achievement, and they’re a little nervous having a man who won’t be the main breadwinner. These are old tapes running in their head: ‘This is how you get a man.’”

Bay Area residents, mark your calendars: On Wednesday, October 17, I'll be moderating a panel with Stephanie Coontz on the challenges faced by new parents, along with psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, and psychotherapist Joshua Coleman. The event will start at 3 pm at the Lipman Room on the 8th floor of Barrows Hall, on the UC Berkeley campus. Barrows Hall is located off of Bancroft Way at Barrow Lane and Eshleman Road, on the south side of the Berkeley campus. Click here for a map, parking information, and directions to the Lipman Room.

This event will celebrate the release of Greater Good's Fall 2007 issue on “The 21st Century Family,” with contributions by Stephanie Coontz, Scott Coltrane, Ross Parke, Constance Ahrons, and me, writing about how today’s non-traditional parents overcome social isolation and build new communities. I'm still providing free copies of the issue to any blogger who pledges to review it online--send me a note at jeremyadamsmith (at)

Monday, September 10, 2007

More Imaginary Friends

Marjorie Taylor is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and an expert on imaginary friends. She read my August 27 post on Liko's imaginary characters. "Mostly what your son is doing is not having an imaginary friend," she told me in an interview. "It’s having a pretend identity. There’s usually a gender difference there. Boys and girls are similar in that they create imaginary characters, but there is a gender difference in what they tend to do with those characters. So, the little boys tend to put on superhero capes and run around. They take on the characteristics of the character and act it out. Whereas little girls, at least during the preschool period, are more likely to invent this other person that they’re interacting with. By the time they get to be about seven or eight, though, little boys are just as likely as little girls to have an imaginary friend rather than a pretend identity."

Taylor's research into imagination and pretend play is fascinating--and I found that it illuminated quite a lot about my son's behavior and propensities. Liko--who has imaginary friends as well as pretend identities--is a very sociable, verbal, empathic little boy who is prone to flights of elaborate fantasy. In her research, Taylor has found a strong correlation between those qualities and the prevalence of imaginary companions.

"Children who have imaginary friends are better able to take the perspective of another person," she said. "We’ve been able to show that in our work." But she cautions us against believing that one causes the other: researchers still don't know if empathic instincts cause kids to make up imaginary friends or if imaginary friends help kids to learn to take another person's perspective.

Whatever triggers these qualities, it appears early in life. "Children who go on to develop imaginary friends really show an interest in fantasy from a very early age," she told me. "So even before the first year, they tend to be the kids who really like puppets and stuffed animals, rather than building blocks or things that are more reality-oriented. Those are the kids who go on at [a later age] to have imaginary friends." Yep, that sounds like Liko. He's never had much interest in "reality-oriented" toys.

One of the interesting implications of the gender difference Taylor found is that little boys appear to be more wrapped up in projecting themselves into roles of power, while girls from early on are developing characters outside themselves who demand attention and empathy. This plays to certain gender stereotypes, but her research also implies that boys and girls alike can develop empathy and caregiving behavior by developing their imaginations.

Once in place, it seems that imaginary friends can take on a life of their own, becoming characters with autonomous motivations and unique feelings. "Part of the fun of imaginary friends is that they don’t always think like you do," said Taylor. "In fact, it surprised us at first that with a lot of imaginary friends, there is a lot of arguing going on and a lot of negativity, even. An imaginary friend will be mean, hit you on the head, put yogurt in your hair, and so on."

Does this mean that imaginary friends ought to all be all locked up in imaginary jails? Taylor says no. "Like adults who think things through before they act, this gives children an opportunity to play it through before they encounter the situation [in real life]. If something is bothering you, you can control it or manipulate it in the world of pretending. That’s a way of developing emotional mastery. Pretend is something children have available to them, that is a coping mechanism they can use in their lives. And they don’t have a lot of other ones, really. They’re pretty helpless and small and have to depend on others, but they do have their imaginations, and they use them to cope."

Thus pretend play and imaginary characters are often a healthy sign of resilience and creativity. Taylor is routinely contacted by parents who are concerned about what the imaginary friends are doing, fearing that imaginary play might point to something wrong in real life. “We see lots of negativity and difficult stuff going on in the pretend play of kids who are healthy and doing just fine," says Taylor. "That can make parents uncomfortable."

But Taylor found that "children just like to think about being bad. Why not have an imaginary friend who is like that, to explore what it means to be bad? You have to think of it as exploring emotional space. There’s a lot to think through about behavior. Kids use pretend to try it on, they do [bad things] in their pretend play so that they have some control over it.”

One parent came to Taylor because her child’s imaginary friend was always sick. "The child didn’t want to leave home because she didn’t want to leave the imaginary friend because [the friend] was so sick," said Taylor. "We put our heads together and thought about how to work within the pretend play. So we had the mother invent a new imaginary friend who could stay home with the sick one. And then the child was totally happy to go! Children like it when parents pretend along. Some people say, 'Well, the imaginary friend is a private thing that [the child doesn’t] want to share.' But that’s just not true. Kids love it when adults participate in their pretend worlds."

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Objects of My Affection

In the first months after my son was born, I experienced an emotional response to my dealings with other people that was truly new to me. It occurred to me, in the forceful and almost physical way that the most fundamental truths come home to us, that everyone was, once, a baby. The UPS guy at the door this morning. The rather unhealthy-looking guy behind the wheel of the semi that just passed me. The wheelchair-bound lady in the park that afternoon. The gang banger with a gun. My mother. My father.

Further reflections arose from this first, bracing realization. Having all started out as children, more or less like mine, doing the things that babies and toddlers do, how did we all become so different? The languages, the accents, the ways of moving, of thinking, the patterns of belief and action -- where did all of it come from? And if all of it expressed such variation, what hope was there of any connection among us? Here I am, almost a middle-aged man, and having just had a child, I am asking childlike questions myself.

This new mental state, almost an altered state of consciousness, didn't last long. I'm not sure what would have happened if it had. In any case, being cut off from humanity while shepherding an infant through a Chicago winter went a long way towards dampening my reflections. But the original realization did leave traces, and I try to summon them back once in a while. It seemed valuable and worth preserving, like the early sensation of falling in love. Perhaps it was like an emotional molting, the growth of a new sensibility that overwhelmed everything else as it outgrew a more constraining psychic shell. Or maybe, it was really just a passing illusion.

If one kept this idea on our minds, that we were all once babies, then it seemed to be the kind of idea that could radically alter one's behavior in life. It seemed that caring for an infant brought out something virtuous in a person that shouldn't be shared only with those who can't walk, who soil themselves regularly, and who have yet to know language. But how do you translate that love for a small, dependent creature into an ethical framework for dealing with the clamoring, boisterous and often disconcerting variety of other people?

The overwhelming sense that we all share the same lot, and even more importantly, we all in some way or another need others is more pronounced in some people than in others. I am convinced, for example, that a highly developed sense of this interdependency is at the root of the most admirable qualities of deeply religious people. The concept of "humanity," with all of its obligations and expectations, is one of its secular derivatives, and can be equally motivating for people of different political outlooks.

But the question still remains: what to do with this impression and the emotional awareness that comes with it? It seems that something of what we learn in caring for small children ought to carry over into other relationships. But for most of human history children have existed in a special world that was left behind upon entry into adolescence. The multitude of rites of passage into the world of sexuality, power, and self-control in different cultures all worked to draw firm lines between the world of the child and the world of the adult. Caring for children, historically, was something that was animal, material, feminine, and as such needed to be separated from the world of the spiritual, abstract, and masculine. Much depended on this segregation. As one of the most familiar passages of the New Testament goes, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." There's no clearer dividing line than that.

But now that those binary oppositions are eroding, it would seem that the pairing of the child-adult might also become more complex. The emotional capacity to care for small children -- or for any dependent individual -- certainly isn't limited to females, just as the capacity for abstract, adult functionality is not limited to males. Likewise, the set of emotional sensibilities that can emerge in a parent might not be limited in their extension to children only, but might positively infuse our relationships with other adults. I'm not sure yet just how, and it may take a while for me to figure it out. But I'll check back in if and when I do.