Monday, November 26, 2007

Are stay-at-home dads raising dumb sons?

A new UK study suggests that stay-at-home dads hurt their sons' chances in school--but not their daughters'.

"Our analysis points strongly towards the idea that fathers do not, on average, provide the same degree of cognitive stimulation to sons that mothers provide," says the study.

My esteemed allies in the progressive parenting blogosphere have already criticized the study: Equally Shared Parenting faults its methodology; Rebeldad quotes University of Texas professor Aaron Rochelin as saying that the study's conclusions are way too sweeping given its limited data set.

They're right in their particular criticisms, but my take is even more fundamental: A study like this is rigged from the start.

Take single moms. There are many studies showing that single mothers don't do as good a job raising kids--measured in terms like mental health and school achievement-- as two-parent families. However, there are many other studies showing that not all homes headed by single moms have the same outcomes. Most of the time, it turns out that poverty and social isolation, not single motherhood per se, hurts kids chances in life.

Thus the wiser, richer societies craft public policies to support single mothers, by providing basic welfare and health care, quality daycare and preschool, and job training and opportunities. And yes, I am thinking of all those nice Scandinavian social democracies that we American progressives like so much.

The results speak for themselves: Single motherhood in those countries does not contribute to social inequality and children are not condemned for not having a breadwinning father in the house.

Conservatives will argue that the Nanny State is stepping in to replace fathers–and they’re not wrong. When dad runs out, someone has to help. In places where state support is extremely stingy–the United States comes to mind–mothers with strong social networks of friends and relatives still succeed in raising happy, healthy, successful children.

But over two decades, the US government has waged virtual war against single motherhood, heaping burden after burden on mothers in an effort to discourage it. And yet moms continue to head families, as a result of divorce, abandonment, and out-of-wedlock births--and generally speaking, they do a pretty good job of it, despite all the obstacles tossed in their way.

Single motherhood is now a fixed part of the landscape; it's a byproduct of the emancipation of women, who not very long ago couldn't vote, own property, bolt from abusive marriages, or charge their husbands with rape. There's no going back to the bad-old-days when women were property and marriage, with its flip side of illegitimacy, was a life sentence. Instead the question is, how can we leverage the good and mitigate the bad, so that children in these families have the same chances as other children?

What does this have to do with stay-at-home dads?

Stay-at-home dads are another byproduct of women's advancement. Reverse-traditional families are a new family form, and every new family form involves trade-offs, just like older kinds of families. The results of a study like this need to be replicated before it can be considered authoritative, but let's say for the sake of argument, that stay-at-home mothers do provide some marginal benefit to sons that fathers do not. Even in that case, the results are not an argument against stay-at-home fatherhood. Instead we have to ask: Why is that? And then: What can we do to address it?

Because dads are not going to stop taking care of children just because some study somewhere says that their sons will do .17 percent less well in school than other kids. The growth of caregiving fatherhood is being driven by forces that are larger than any one family. We can’t stop it–nor should we, because it comes with huge advantages for men, women, children, and society. These advantages (such as a more caring, emotionally intelligent masculinity; greater paternal investment in children; more work opportunities for women; etc.) far outweigh the piddling objections raised by those who would have us revert to 19th century gender roles .

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reading on November 26 in San Francisco

Mark your calenders: I'll be reading at a free event in San Francisco. We're dubbing it an "issue departure" (as opposed to "issue release") party for the "21st Century Family" issue of Greater Good magazine.

The event will take place at the Cover to Cover bookstore, 7 p.m., November 26th. Cover to Cover is located at 1307 Castro Street near 24th St. in San Francisco's Noe Valley.

I'll be reading along with Lisa Bennett, a freelance writer and former fellow at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. A non-biological lesbian mom, she'll be discussing Amie K. Miller's essay, "Does Barbie Need a Man?" in the current issue of Greater Good. We'll be joined by Rona Fernandez, a second-generation Filipina-American, is a fundraiser, activist, and writer. She'll be reading and discussing an essay on how togetherness has made a life-and-death difference in her family. Readings will be followed by discussion about Bay Area families.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I Need a Makeover

Somehow, at some point, I have become a slob.

My wife and I have debated the stages of the metamorphosis. It correlates strongly, though not exclusively, with the Spot's arrival in our family, though I don't blame him, even if on a daily basis my personal habits are coming to more closely resemble his.

But there has been a metamorphosis. While the traveling salesman Gregor Samsa woke in the bed Franz Kafka made for him, to find that he had acquired a chitinous exoskeleton and half a dozen legs, I woke up one morning to find that my eyebrows had grown together, and the hair that has receded from my brow has largely migrated to my nostrils.

Grooming myself has gotten to be like caring for an old house: as soon as you fix one thing, something else goes to hell. I'm lucky if I can get out the door with 5 out of 10 fingernails clipped; getting both hands and feet at the same time is out of the question. I'm sporting the hairdo that I last wore when I was 7 years old, and have picked up the habit, instead of washing my eyeglasses, of tilting my head to see around the smudge.

I live in t-shirts and jeans, find the feel of a collared shirt exotic, and recognize that my son is now better dressed than I am. For every new pair of knickers, overalls, sweaters, and funny little hats that we try to cram in his bedroom drawer, I chuck another pair of my own old pants or a hopelessly outdated shirt into the donation box, as if his wardrobe must be enhanced in inverse proportion to my own.

If I were a mom, this would be the point when I cry out, "I need a makeover!" and duly flip over to Lifetime or the Oxygen Channel in search of a vicarious personal renaissance. On comes the fantasy of a hot stone massage, followed by an avocado and oat-infused mud bath, the Beverly Hills stylist rescuing my hair while his sidekicks rescue my cuticles, capped off with the gift of a new and fabulously stylish wardrobe, all shopped for and paid for by someone else. At the end of it, out comes a new Father of Spot, grinning, feeling like Brad Pitt, and ready for the next diaper change.

An acquaintance of mine joked, once he had become a new father, about how he had now become "one of those guys": one of those guys, according to him, who you see on the train at 6AM with mismatched socks, a pant leg hitched halfway up his calf, and shoelaces dragging.

What is reassuring about "those guys" stories is the general understanding that they apply to new dads only. While some men experience the couvade, or "sympathetic pregnancy" while the mother is heavy with child, I suspect that after birth many more experience a phase of "sympathetic dishevelment," like the couvade a temporary condition for which I can find no precise term. A few months later, or once baby starts sleeping through the night, dad's ability to dress himself usually improves dramatically.

Unfortunately, the Spot started sleeping through the night 6 months ago and I'm still "one of those guys." My dishevelment is no longer sympathetic, but chronic. I worry that I might follow in my father's footsteps, entering into a life-long downward spiral towards utter slobbishness. My socks have steadily disintegrated, and some of my clothes now have that musty, "I don't get out much" smell. That's what happens when you're locked down like a prison guard assigned to the world's most dangerous inmate. He can't leave the house, and neither can I, which means goodbye to the shopping trips that made me the dashing man I was before I became the rock-solid care-giver I am.

There's no easy way out, no feel-good wrap-up to my story. Even the glow of a five-star makeover courtesy of Oprah Winfrey would surely fade after a few weeks, and my dilemma would return. Care-giving throws us into a different orbit, knocks us from a solar to a lunar calendar, from industrial to agricultural work rhythms, from a modern world of hard resins to an antique world of absorbent fibers. The common pleasure of knowing "what's up" that comes from spending a few minutes of the day on the bus, walking through the city, chatting in the office, and people-watching all vanish, leaving you with an entirely different set of cosmic orientation points.

So I'm on a fashion sabbatical and in grooming triage. A mother-friend of mine suggested I view it like a few years spent in Africa with the Peace Corps. Things are just different for a while. My wife, in her infinite understanding, does what she can: this very morning, on her way to work, she paused for a moment in the kitchen, long enough to give me a gift: a 20% discount card for the GAP.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

You Tell 'Em, Rush!

I just finished a long essay for Public Eye magazine on the ideal and reality of Christian Right childrearing, which will be published sometime in the next month. I discovered that while Christian Right parenting ideals--primarily about the supremacy of fathers, subordination of mothers, and inborn wickedness of children--are simple and often frightening, the actual behavior of conservative evangelicals is pretty complex.

As I write in the article, conservative evangelical homes must confront the same problems as their nonevangelical counterparts: the erosion of real wages, the rising costs of necessities like health care and education, the ubiquity of electronic media, and the declining rights of workers, to name a few. This explains why, for example, rates of teen sex and divorce are not significantly lower in these homes. In fact, divorce is especially high in Bible Belt states, due at least in part to higher unemployment.

In an interview, the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, who studies the impact of conservative evangelical faith on the behavior of both men and women, urged that I distinguish “between what elite evangelicals [like James Dobson] say and what average people are doing.” While elites may rail against the social and economic changes of recent decades, Wilcox said that “your average evangelical takes all that with a grain of salt.” That’s in part because most evangelical wives work. “Part of that is a class issue,” Wilcox said. “Evangelicals are more working class, than, for example, mainline Protestants, [and] they have less economic flexibility. And so the reality on the ground, with gender issues, is more flexible than some might expect.”

I immediately thought of Wilcox's point when I stumbled across this recent broadcast transcript from right-wing blowhard Rush Limbaugh. In it, Rush grumbles against fathers cooking for their families and parents buying toy kitchens for boys. "This is not men reshaping and rethinking their roles," says Rush. "That's being done for them with various sorts of pressure being applied if the behavioral model that is demanded isn't met"--and the pressure, he says, is coming from "feminazis."

This is all par for the course, and not really worthy of comment. But then the calls start coming in from listeners. Here's the first:

RUSH: To the phones, to Fort Wayne, Indiana. This is Steve. Nice to have you on the program, sir.

CALLER: Mega dittos, Rush. I absolutely love you.

RUSH: Thank you.

CALLER: I'm a stay-at-home dad. I run a small business out of my home, and my boys -- I got two boys -- are great cooks. Now, I haven't bought 'em a kitchen set, and it's not on my short list of toys to buy, but they can make a mean batch of cookies, but they're in wrestling, and they'll kick somebody's tail with a sword -- playing swords with them -- and I wouldn't have a problem with them cooking at all. That's not a... I cook every meal in our house.

RUSH: How old did you say that these two boys are?

CALLER: My boys are eight and five.

RUSH: Eight and five, and they bake cookies?

CALLER: They do. They buy a brand-name mixer and...

And so on. As he listens, Rush is obviously confused. It's hilarious, ironic--and a perfect illustration of Wilcox's research. It's also a measure of the degree to which conservative ideologues are being left in the dust by their followers--who must, after all, live in the same 21st century as the rest of us.

Monday, November 12, 2007

who's your daddy?

Hello -- it's been a while since I posted, and since rad dad 8 is taking shape, I thought I’d post something from rad dad 7 as a way to say, "hey come on, I know you all got something to say, so say it -- write for rad dad 8!"

It’s been so difficult to get father's to write birth stories! In fact, I received no birth stories, so I’d love to get someone to write one for this issue out at the end of November.

Also I really like Jeremy's post about his own blog "where we are writing from." It reminded me why I enjoy writing about all this craziness called fathering. This piece is about how fatherhood gets represented in the media, and well I apologize in advance for the tone; it's a bit much but I tried...


Some of you may know this about me, but for those of you who don't, let me just spill the beans: I am a media whore! I'll be the first one to own up to my obsession with romantic comedies, with horribly bad TV dramas, with power ballads; in fact, I can identify the various stages or periods of numerous cultural pop icons—there's the Hugh Grant evolution pre or post his blowjob bust, there's the musician turned actor careers of J-Lo, Justin, and a slew of others. There's the progression of TV shows to the big screen…you get the picture.

However, I also consider myself an astute critic, ready to recognize gender stereotypes, to point out class issues, to call out racist tropes; my favorite is Justin Timberlake himself. How the fuck can Justin bring sexy back when it never went anywhere? What a perfect example of white entitlement? But I was kinda shocked the other day when my daughter said something that made me laugh but soon started gnawing at me like one of them zombies in Evil Dead.

"Dad, you should be in a TV show," Ella said innocently, and then of course added, "with your belly and your dog and you always making chili."

"Hey, don't be saying nothing about my mean vegan chili!" I replied.

And we went on to the next subject. However, the next day I was working on an essay about how men can challenge patriarchy, and I was bouncing ideas off my Official-Idea-Bouncer-Offer Andrea, and we came up with the idea of exploring stereotypes about fathers. It clicked; Ella was putting me into the category of so many images she has seen of how this society views fathers. Why had I never seen it before? But wait a second here, I'm no stereotype. Ella knows that…right? Perhaps though I hadn't noticed because even while I adamantly disagree with these images of fathering, I may in fact benefit from them, even play into them? I began to think back to early parenting roles my partner and I fell into. Most of the time we clearly processed who did what and why, what felt fair, and when we felt overwhelmed or overburdened. But it's true; I almost always would watch the kids while she would cook. And then I'd clean the dishes. How often did I mop or do some other big house-cleaning project while she took the kids to the park? Looking back on those first few years, not as often as would like to admit.

And when I was in public with my son, I remember the constant reproaches from usually older grandmotherly women about the way I held my baby, the way he was so damn dirty or the way I dressed him, especially my keen ability to never have socks on my kid's feet. But hey, who can keep track of socks, I argued. With all the advice and suggestions and snide looks I received, I often marveled at what I was doing, particularly because I didn't have that many male role models to fall back on. Was I really that weird, that unmanly, that lucky to be able to parent my kids and keep them alive or at least warm?

We need to ask ourselves why so many in our society don't trust men to be competent at parenting, to be trusted to handle a newborn without being watched over by the mother or the grandmother. And a good place to start would be to start questioning the images of bumbling fathers we're inundated with. It is the butt of our parenting jokes: men fucking up, dressing kids, trying to feed kids, trying to be both macho and cool, because parenting in our society equals mothering. Not fathering or fathers. And is not cool.

So I decided to do a little investigative research: how are dads represented in the media? It took me only like five seconds to come up with a slew of movies all reinforcing the loving but clearly not primary parent material father: Daddy Daycare, and the new sequel coming out Daddy Day Camp, the Ice Cube movies, the Adam Sandler movies, it just goes on and on. Or there's the action adventure movies in which you threaten a Real Man's family and then you'll see what Real Fathers are like—you know the male protector/patriarch and all.

But it has gotten even worse now as parenting has become a trend with more pop icons having babies because with celebrity comes a market for cool hip parenting stuff. Sure enough, along with designer sippy cups and bibs, there has been a bunch of new books on fathering. And they all seem to have one common premise, which is how to maintain gender privilege, those traditional notions of men and masculinity, and still parent; how to be that cool dad, that hip dad, that (gulp) rad dad.

So I decided to read one and peruse a few others. I chose Alternadad by Neal Pollack because it was in my library. For a taste of some others, I moseyed on into a bookstore and, as I am walking through the aisle, I see the new GQ and pick it up (yes, because it had Jessica Alba on the cover). I kid you not, but I flip it open and come to a spread of nine famous fathers all dressed up with their kids. The headline was something like: How to Still Dress like a Winner When You Have Kids. Because of course kids make you a loser, make you so not stylish, ruin your cool life (assuming of course that the point of life is to be cool). I was shocked and turned to go find the other books when I saw Parents Press' new issue, the only free parenting newspaper in the baby area, and what is one the cover, I kid you not, but the picture of a new daddy book by some pop-punk rock singer and his three kids.


Now there is nothing wrong with being interested in fashion, with telling your story, with connecting punk rock and parenting (in fact that can be a key politicizing event for parents; check out China Martens' new book The Future Generation: The Zine-Book for Subculture Parents, Kids, Friends and Others) but something seems so disingenuous, so exploitive, so apolitical about these books. As if fathering is simply a trend.

Low and behold, as I move into the kids section they had a little display of other papa books seeing as how Father's Day was coming up (because that's the only time fathers ever speak up about parenting and it's all about being fucking cool anyways). I'll be the first one to tell you never judge a book by a cover, but I actually did in fact judge the store by their display. There were five books in the Celebrate Fathers floor display: Alternadad, Punk Rock Dad: No Rules, Just Real Life by Jim Lindberg, Dadditude: How a Real Man Became a Real Dad by Philip Lerman, and Dinner With Dad: How I Found My Way Back to the Family Table. All by white men. All by very upper middle class white men. All by upper middle class, white men with wives at home. Wow. After I mention this to the children's section coordinator, she was aghast and immediately put out a Bill Cosby book!? Somehow I felt too bummed to do anything else.

So I grabbed the books and set out to skim them as best I could. Now I will admit that most of them brought up interesting points about struggling with discipline, creating honest lines of communication, trying to maintain a healthy relationship with a partner. So I want to acknowledge that their stories are worth sharing, that I did smile at times, despite my best intentions, that I did nod my head in agreement with their struggles, that I did find connection with some of their points. But as I said they were just so similar, so privileged, with no mention of race or recognition of class differences or anything substantive outside of individual family struggles, which of course are extremely important.

However, there is not much to say for the book about making a yearlong commitment to, and I kid you not, come home at least six days a week to help make dinner with his family. See, men, we should make such a huge, committed, life-changing commitment to actually spend time with our families. His conclusion—it really changes your relationship with your family. Do people really buy these books? Ah, but cynicism is never revolutionary I remind myself, so let me take the plunge and actually read a whole fathering book.

After a month of toting it around, it became overdue and I had read only about half of Alternadad and felt like I couldn't finish it. But knew I had to. To his credit he is hella funny, and we connect as I think all parents do on the issues of poop. He relished it like a true veteran and told some very funny stories. However, Alternadad, like the other books, is just another one of those cynical, nauseatingly self-justifying stories of how a once-privileged white male aware of the issues around him chose to forgo all political and systemic critique in the wake of becoming a dad. Pre-parenthood, he always lived in neighborhoods in the edgy parts of town or places where cars had booming bass, which, of course, 'booming bass' is code word for 'young male of color,' but as a father, he's not so sure. When it comes down to it, he'd rather opt for white flight than stay in shitty neighborhoods because he can leave. He has that privilege to pack up and move cross country. Yes, he loves his neighbors, but he just wants things safer, calmer, cleaner. He knows he doesn't belong there. He ends the book with a story of enrolling his son in a hippie/hipster daycare and celebrates moving to Los Angeles because of the last straw in his old neighborhood in Austin: four youths spray painting Vatos Locos in his neighborhood. Ah, people of color again; I hope he knows they are in LA too.

Okay, I know I'm being too mean, too sensitive perhaps. And in the end I realize it actually is very important to have books out there about fathering. But man do we need other stories, other views, other perspectives about fathering that go beyond the stereotypes we see in the media all the time: the bumbling fools, reformed womanizers, and amazed businessmen about how fun being a daddy can be, golly.

So from books to TV to films, I still haven't changed my wicked ways and will probably be the first to see Transformers on my block, but I will also no longer allow the parenting/father stereotype to go by unchecked. Adam Sandler better watch out! Perhaps one day a few other fathers and I can write a script for a movie about ordinary dads from various backgrounds and ethnicities trying to parent in conscientious ways who, en route to a fun camping trip in the woods of Califas, get lost and end up in the vile clutches of the mean patriarch called Walt and are forced to rely on wits, trust, and patience to foil his plot at global domination and destroy his nefarious, dangerous alternate world called Disneyland…hmmm someday.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Ever been a jerk at work?

The next issue of Greater Good will feature a series of essays about the psychology of power, including an essay by Stanford professor Robert Sutton, author of the best-seller The No Asshole Rule. As he does in his book, Sutton shows how a little power can turn almost anyone into a cruel, insensitive jerk.

To run alongside this essay, we’re looking for a short (350-word), first-person essay written by someone who has been the kind of asshole Sutton describes--poisoned by a position of power and abusive toward co-workers of lower rank--who later realized what power did to him or her and subsequently tried to do things differently.

Does this sound like you? If you have a story you want to share, email Jason at jhmarsh(at)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Walk

Liko and Shelly are both ill and they both go to bed early. I tuck them in, do the dishes, pick up his room.

Now what? It's only 8:45 and I'm not tired. I pull on my coat, grab a book, and walk out the door and down Castro to 24th. I walk into The Dubliner and order a Guinness.

Thirty minutes later Amanda strolls in with a gaggle of friends.

"Hey," she says. "What are you doing here?"

I tell her the situation. "And you just went out for a beer?" she says.


"That so cute!"


Amanda is with the other mothers in her coop preschool. They gather in the back, sipping beers, excited to be out at night.

"I love the coop right now," Amanda says, glancing over.

"That's great," I say.

She goes to join the moms.

I finish my second Guinness, leave The Dubliner and walk back up 24th. I see my friend Joey in the window of the restaurant where he works as a bartender, putting chairs on tables, wiping down the bar. He doesn't see me outside; watching him, I realize that I've known him now for seven years. Seven years. His wife is about to have their second baby.

I remember teaching Liko to walk on 24th. I'd give him his little cart and make him push it towards me, and then one day I took the cart away. Passerby would gape at Liko toddling down the sidewalk, his wide-open smile promising all of us that there is always something better. It hits me that those days are gone and they're never coming back.

Now I'm turning up Castro: up, up, up, I don't even notice the climb. My hill. There's my house: the blue and yellow Victorian, our landlords below, us above; our lights are on in the gable. I think about Roxie, how she hooked me up with my publisher, and I feel grateful to her.

All these people who have helped me in life: Why do we help each other? None of us can make it without help. I unlock the door and go inside.

We won't last too much longer in this house; it gets smaller every day, and San Francisco seems to get more expensive. I turn on the laptop and start writing this. My fingers feel thick as I type, but I have to get this trivia down, before it goes away.