Friday, July 25, 2008

The Daddy Track

Another neat post from the Sloan Work and Family blog:

Australia’s federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, has just announced her position on several work-family policies (paid maternity leave, women in leadership positions, and sexual harassment, to name a few) as a result of her “Listening Tour,” a 6-month venture across Australia speaking with over 1,000 people about their journey for gender equality. I found one of her post-tour agenda items particularly interesting. As it turns out, she finds herself in a great corner to advocate for gender equality in the workforce, specifically mentioning sex discrimination against working fathers.

While Broderick was once hired to promote women’s equality in the workforce, she recently stated that she wanted to strengthen the Sex Discrimination Act to penalize employers who stick family-friendly fathers on the “daddy track” by refusing to promote them. Fathers have reported that they are not seen as serious players when they “raise their hand” for flexible work schedules, as they are still seen as the breadwinners and as individuals who need to be more committed to their careers. They find that women are more easily granted leave for family time.

Currently, the law only protects fathers who have been fired, not those who have been put on the daddy track without the possibility of promotion. Broderick stated, “If there is one thing I could do to promote gender equality in this country it would be to better share paid and unpaid work between men and women…If we strengthen the family provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act, that will allow men to be more involved in their family and women to be more involved in paid work.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

My Favorite Playground

The other day I decided that I have a favorite playground.

After a six-month study of a dozen neighborhood parks, in which the research subject (Spot) was strollered up to the recycled, consumer-product extrusion that is the modern playground -- beds of wood chips walled in by recycled milk-jug bricks, and springy pads made from discarded tires -- our subject was dumped to earth and allowed to roam, all while dad found a shady bench where he could search out a few stray moments of inner equipoise.

So after watching Spot fall on his face in this park, and then fall on his face in that park, it's a nice feeling to have picked a favorite place for Spot to injure himself. It's not big, it's not full of new stuff, and it's not the closest park we could go to. It's surrounded on 2 of 3 sides by unfinished brick walls and creaky wooden back porches, and the third side is a fenced-off alley. There's more concrete than grass. Usually it's empty, and it's not full of mommy groups. But Spot and I have had some good times there. It was at this park that Spot got his first wave of recognition, from a little girl named Briolla, who like Spot was blissfully unaware of the late-morning turd that was then in his pants.

Maybe there will be a mom there, or a dad, or someone's cousin watching the kids, a nanny or two, but there are always more kids than adults and hardly ever any teenagers. And hardly ever any parents introducing kids with names that piss me off, like Blaise (pronounced ˈblāz, not blez), Itaxaso, Trevelyan, or Dante. To me, all this makes it perfect playground.

But even more than these qualities, the best thing about my favorite park, the one that really sets it apart from all the rest, is its location across the street from an in-home day care facility that, every day around 11AM, unloads a chirping, hopping, wobbly, and incoherent mess of toddlers into our midst, storming past Spot in a dusty cloud like some great prairie herd. Tre, Cole, Sam and Briolla are the ones I've come to know by name. Most of them can talk more than Spot, but they're not put off by his enthusiasm for standing his ground, pointing up, and crying "Bah!"

It's an instant peer group, complete with one potential love-interest, and to me it's like a free ticket to the zoo. I've realized why this works: Spot gets to interact with a lot of toddlers, without me having to interact with their parents. Or, to put it differently, the ratio of toddler-to-parent interaction is relatively high, which is good.

At this point, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that one of the most pleasant discoveries of early fatherhood has been how much I love small children. Or that one of the most surprising discoveries is how little I care about their parents.

At first I viewed the playground scene the way I used to view the bar scene in the glory days of my bachelorhood. Lonely and want a date? Go to the bar and scam for chicks! New parent and want friends? Go to the playground! At-home-dad and feeling the social weight of your statistical rarity? Go hunt down a stroller dad at the playground!

"Hi, I'm Brad," the conversation would go. "I see you have a child and are caring for him during the working day. So am I. Let's talk about stocks."

Well, I've had about as much luck and pleasure scamming for parent-friends at the playground as I did scamming for chicks at bars. I quickly discovered that approaching the playground as a pick-up scene for at-home parents was a non-starter, unless, as with the bar scene, you come as a group. But then how do you meet anyone, and what's really the point?

I spent enough time worrying about that stuff in my 20s. I don't have to worry about any of it at my favorite playground. As I monitor Spot obsessively marching back and forth across his favorite crack in the concrete, or discover a piece of plastic detritus and marvel as if he had found the largest diamond in the world, I wonder if we've timed our visit so that we'll see the toddler herd today, and if I will get to watch them swerve around Spot the way freeway traffic elegantly swerves around a refrigerator fallen into the middle lane.

If they come, then I get to watch the next stage of Briolla's unfolding romance with Spot, and race around the jungle gym with the rest of the herd.

If they don't come, then we can happily march up and down the steps, or go back to the favorite crack, and I can occasionally look at the wind in the trees, which I like to do while they still have leaves.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Year by year

Last week, my son turned four. It was a happy day.

A big anniversary often provokes a period of thoughtful reflection, and this one was no exception. And so here's how I'd summarize parenthood, year by year...tongue in cheek:

Year One: HOLY SHIT!

Year Two: Tough shit.

Year Three: I'm starting to like this shit.

Year Four: Congratulations, kid, now you can take your own shit.

Techno Dad

I liked this: "10 Signs that Parenting is More Equal than it Used to be."

And I thought this was interesting:

Achieving a work-family balance doesn’t seem as foreign to fathers these days as it once did. Technology advances are giving fathers the freedom to focus on their family life while maintaining their workplace responsibilities…or so it seems.

A recent survey by human resources consulting firm Adecco USA found that 81% of fathers were somewhat likely to send work-related emails late at night. The evolution of technology has allowed fathers to take a more prominent role in the family. Email and devices like blackberries have made it easier for fathers to get their work done at home after the kids have gone to bed.

However, some might argue that all of these technological advancements have caused work to overflow into family life. Countless phone calls, emails, and text messages on blackberries and I-phones can cause unwanted disruptions during family time. In a recent Monster survey, 75% of dads said they believed bringing work home interferes with a parent’s relationship with their children. However, that may be the price some working fathers are willing to pay in order to have the flexibility to cater to family demands.

Speaking as someone who is indeed "somewhat likely to send work-related emails late at night" (or write blog entries!) and who brings work home, I think we're simply seeing a trade-off. My work hasn't diminished, but, as this entry suggests, I have gained the ability to do things like go to my son's doctor's appointments, read to his preschool class, and come home early when necessary.

My feeling is that this arrangement results in a net gain for my son. When I was growing up, there was no email, and yet my father always brought the stresses and preoccupations of work home with him. Email didn't create work-home imbalance. At the same time, however, my father was pretty much gone during the weekday; I have no memories of him going to my dentist's appointments or participating much in school activities. (I don't blame him for this; he was doing what had to be done.)

So if technology creates flexibility for parents (not just dads, but working moms as well--curious that the blog entry should focus on dads), that's probably a good thing overall.

I'd be curious to hear other views on this topic, from both moms and dads.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wife Swap!

This sounds amusing:


This week on "Beckman-Heskett/Childs," a theologically liberal high powered corporate executive mother with a stay-at-home husband swaps lives with a born again Christian mom who believes women are created to be men's help-mates, on "Wife Swap."

Each week from across the country, two families with very different values are chosen to take part in a two-week long challenge. The wives from these two families exchange husbands, children and lives (but not bedrooms) to discover just what it's like to live another woman's life. It's a mind-blowing experiment that often ends up changing their lives forever.

Kim Beckman-Heskett (42) of Colorado is one of only three female vice presidents in her company. She works while her husband, Randall, stays at home and takes care of all of the chores, cooking and cleaning. A former preacher, Randall is now a self-professed modern Renaissance man, artist, poet and mystic who speaks 12 languages and possesses masters and PhD degrees in religion and theology. He is still a man of faith, but is skeptical of others he calls "bible thumpers" after 30 years of preaching and witnessing religious fundamentalism. Both Kim and Randall are devout Christians, but strongly disagree with literal interpretations of the Bible. They have a liberal approach to their faith, and Randall often incorporates humor in his beliefs and prayer. Kim doesn't believe that women should stay at home, "barefoot and pregnant," and encourages daughter Allison (12) and stepdaughter Hannah (12) to follow in her footsteps. The girls aren't required to do chores and are exposed to dating.

Kim travels to Rhode Island, where the Childs are born-again Christians who interpret the bible literally and use it as a guide for life. In the Childs' family constitution, God comes first, husband Christopher comes second. The family have to serve God at all times with a cheerful heart, and they follow the words of scripture to the letter. Lee-Ann is a stay-at-home mom who home schools her children, Laurie (18), Chrissy (18), Coburn (16), Columbia (12), Daisy (10) and Cambria (2). Christopher is an ultra traditionalist father who is head of his household and calls himself the "gatekeeper," setting the rules, enforcing discipline and expecting cheerful obedience. The children all must do a five-minute power clean before Christopher gets home from work. Mom is molding Coburn to be the man of the house so he can provide for a wife and family. As for the girls, she's training them to be stay-at-home moms who will live out God's calling in marriage and motherhood. Dating is not allowed for any of the children. Instead they pray daily for God to send them a spouse when the time is right. Lee-Ann is happy to be her husband's "help-mate," and says that women are the weaker link. The children feel it's ok to be at home as they feel safe, sheltered from the corrupting influences of the outside world.

Haven't seen the episode (don't own a TV!), but from what I've gleaned from the blogosphere, each family came away with strong feelings of disgust for the other. This reminded me of another second-hand description of Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days, which had a Christian fundamentalist mom join a household of gay fathers for a month. That's the happy trio above.

My friend Jodi (a fan of 30 Days, which, similar to Wife Swap, specializes in putting social opposites together) says that participants normally come away with newfound respect and compassion for people different from themselves. Not so with the Christian fundamentalist, according to Jodi: She left the gay dad family with her prejudice intact.

"Part of what’s so fascinating about this episode is how this woman, who is clearly neither stupid nor insane, can hold two sets of absolutely contradictory views: that foster care is terrible for kids and that Dennis and Tom are fantastic parents, but that all gay couples, including Dennis and Tom, should not be allowed to adopt, forcing more kids into foster care," writes the entertainment site AfterElton.

I know from a great deal of empirical research that evangelical families are much more flexible on the ground about gender roles that we might expect, with many stay-at-home dads among them--nothing gives me more hope that gender egalitarianism is the wave of the future.

But "evangelical" is an umbrella term that covers a lot of different traditions and variations. There is definitely a hardcore of believers who will never accept non-traditional gender roles or the gay and lesbian families in their midst, no matter how much contact they have with each other or what evidence suggests the parents are doing a good job.

Has anyone seen these episodes? Care to comment?

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Astonishing Science of Father Involvement

My esteemed colleague at the Greater Good Science Center, executive director Christine Carter, posted two very nice summaries of research into fatherhood over at her "happy kids" parenting blog, Half-Full.

The first asks: Are Dads as Essential as Moms? The answer is, Of course!
* Research shows that the love and care of fathers is equally important for the health and well-being of children as mother-love. Really.

* Children are WAY better off when their relationship with their father is sensitive, secure, and supportive as well as close, nurturing, and warm.

* One of the biggest problems with divorce is that when a father moves out, the father-child relationship frequently falters. If he stays in the game, his kids will cope far better with the divorce.

The second asks the question: How can we get dads to be more involved? Christine's answer: a mother's support, a good co-parenting relationship, and reasonable work hours.

Most of this will not be surprising to Daddy Dialectic readers. (Some, I know, will take issue with Christine's mom-centric way of framing father involvement; feel free to zip over there and leave a comment.)

Research has revealed lots of other factors that drive father involvement: a father's relationships with his own parents (did he have an involved father?) and in-laws (are they supportive of him?); timing of entry into the parental role (what pressures is he facing, especially at work?); and informal support systems such as playgroups and friendships (do other dads, as well as moms, put social pressure on him to be involved, through example or comments?); and the sex of the child. Fathers tend to be more involved with boys, which suggests to me that families with girls might try to amplify the other variables in play--for example, by setting aside special daddy-daughter time.

There's another factor that I don't think gets mentioned often enough: early involvement with infant care. When a child is born, testosterone falls dramatically in men. In fact, studies by biologist Katherine Wynne-Edwards and others show that pregnancy, childbirth, and fatherhood trigger a range of little hormonal shifts in the male body—but only if the father is in contact with the baby and the baby’s mother, a crucial point.

New fathers don’t just lose testosterone, they also gain prolactin, the hormone associated with lactation, as well as cortisol, the stress hormone that also spikes in mothers after childbirth and helps them pay attention to the baby’s needs.

In many, many ways, male and female bodies converge as the two become parents; for some men, the process is so intense that they will end up involuntarily mimicking signs of childbirth, a phenomenon called couvade. The convergence starts to end for the male only if he is separated from his family.

Interestingly, the hormonal shifts don’t diminish with second children; instead, they increase. Our bodies learn fatherhood, and fatherhood appears to be very much like learning to ride a bike.

It’s not just our hormones that change, but the very structure of our brains.

To understand the impact of fatherhood on the brain, a team of Princeton University researchers compared the brains of daddy marmoset monkeys (pictured at your left!) to their childfree fellows. Why marmosets? Because their males are the stay-at-home dads of the animal kingdom, who carry babies 70 percent of the time and give them to mothers only for nursing.

The researchers discovered that the fathers developed better neural connections in the prefrontal cortex—which is thicker in females. In other words, marmoset dads’ brains become more like females’, and it makes them smarter. The same group of researchers found that fatherhood generates new cells and connections in the hippocampus in mice, the emotion-processing center that is also somewhat bigger in the average human female.

You can’t apply this directly to humans, of course: marmosets are a different kind of primate and mice have tails and whiskers. And yet given the state of our knowledge, I think it's hard to argue with the notion that early paternal involvement will positively affect later involvement--not guarantee it, mind you, but infant care will certainly help. Babies and fathers imprint on each other, biologically and emotionally, just as babies do with moms. It forms a bond that can last a lifetime, if cultivated.

Many recent studies also show that such early father involvement is very good for children: For example, a report published in 2007 by the Equal Opportunities Commission in the United Kingdom, based on research tracking 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001, found emotional and behavioral problems were “more common by the time youngsters reached the age of three if their fathers had not taken time off work when they were born, or had not used flexible working to have a more positive role in their upbringing.”

This research might help couples to make good personal decisions, but there is a political dimension as well: Only a very tiny number of American companies offer paternity leave.

Public and workplace policy is the final, and possibly biggest, factor that predicts paternal involvement--one that never gets mentioned in this context. Men are not all the same all over the globe: Their involvement differs from country to country.

The main things that seem to drive the difference? According to studies by Jennifer Hook and others, the first is the national level of women's employment: the more mothers employed and the more money they make, the more housework and childcare fathers do. The second factor driving national father involvement is the amount of paternal leave available. There is, in fact, a chicken-and-egg relationship between the two.

In 1974, for example, Sweden introduced paternity leave to the world, which catalyzed long-term changes in Swedish patterns of work and care.

In Sweden today, fathers are entitled to 10 days of paid leave after a child is born. Eighty percent of them take it, often combining it with vacation time. Parents get a total of 480 days off after they have a child, with 60 days reserved for mothers and 60 for fathers. The rest can be divided according to the wishes of the parents. Three hundred and ninety of those days are paid at 80 percent of the parents’ incomes, with the remaining 90 days paid at a set rate. In 2006, 20 percent of fathers took their share of extended leave.

That might not seem like a lot, but it compares very favorably to the minuscule number of American fathers who take advantage of the pathetic amount of leave available to them. And after Swedish parents go back to work, high-quality daycare is available to all parents, regardless of ability to pay.

The reforms had a sweeping impact on the culture of fatherhood in Sweden. When Swedish researcher Anna-Lena Almqvist interviewed 20 French and 35 Swedish couples in an effort to understand why fathers did or did not take advantage of parental leave and how that related to their self-images as men, she found that Swedish fathers expressed a more “child-oriented masculinity,” and actively negotiated with wives for more time with children.

“By international standards, Swedish fathers take on a good deal of the day-to-day care of their children,” writes Swedish feminist Karin Alfredsson. “Mothers still stay home longer with newborn children, but the responsibility for caring for sick children—while receiving benefits from the state—is more evenly divided between mothers and fathers. It is almost as common for fathers as it is for mothers to pick up and leave the children at pre-school and school.”

This pattern holds in other countries with similar policies.

The upshot: We know from the Northern European (and Canadian) experience that men will take more advantage of parental leave if policy, workplaces, and culture support them. In America--unlike in Sweden and elsewhere--the culture is changing in advance of workplaces and public policy, and a new generation of fathers is more willing to take advantage of leave and rebel against their workplace cultures, even at the expense of their careers.

When the American University Program on Work-Life Law studied 67 trade union arbitrations in which workers claimed to have been punished for meeting family responsibilities, they discovered that two-thirds of the cases involved men taking care of children, elders, or sick spouses.

USA Today reports in 2007 that more and more men are fighting for the right to take care of their children:
For years, women who say their employers have discriminated against them because of their care-giving roles have filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC has not released precise figures, but it reports that it now is seeing a shift: filings by fathers. For example, the EEOC says, some employers have wrongly denied male employees’ requests for leave for child care purposes while granting similar requests to female employees.

As a result, more and more companies, large and small, are offering family-leave benefits to men. “A few years ago, I would have told you that paternity leave wasn’t that beneficial in terms of recruiting and retaining,” Burke Stinson, a spokesperson for AT&T, tells HR magazine. “But today, I would say these 20-something men are far less burdened by the macho stereotypes and the stereotypes about the incompetent dad than their predecessors. They are more plugged in to the enrichment of their children and more comfortable taking time off to be fathers.”

It’s an observation echoed by Howard Schultz, Chairman of the Starbucks corporation, in 2007: “Men are willing to talk about these things in ways that were inconceivable less than ten years ago.”

Men are evolving, but society, business, and government still drag their collective feet. This breeds unhappiness as well as lawsuits--but perhaps one day we will have the policies that will help us to be the fathers we need and want to be.

[This entry was originally posted to the Greater Good blog, though it is drawn from a chapter from my book, now scheduled for release around Father's Day 2009.]

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends

The sidewalk in our neighborhood, unusual for the galaxy of Chicago pavement, ends a block and a half up the street.

At the last house, across from a vast tree-ringed field, the sidewalk stops. If you're small like Spot, you'll notice that the regular series of cracks that mark the progress of your daily walk come to an end, and an unruly universe of chlorophyll, litter, and uneven ground opens ahead of you.

Instead of the cracks, so useful for games of 2-square, we come upon a transition of cosmic proportions. Behind us, smooth concrete pavement skirting a row of tidy homes. Ahead, beyond the edge of the last concrete paver, the wilderness: dirt, weeds, the riotous undergrowth of mid-summer, low-hanging mulberries, the snow of cottonwood in July, and a grassy path along the ancient lake shore where the trains go by.

There are no moon-birds where this sidewalk ends, and no peppermint wind, but there is a community garden, some garbage, an old tree-house, an occasional homeless person, and a 93-year old German gardener named Gerta.

Or maybe that's not right: Gerta may indeed be a moon-bird. If nothing else, she is certainly a very rare creature, a sort of ivory-billed woodpecker swooping out of the European past. On our last few walks, Spot and I have learned that, as she put it, there are two things that keep Gerta alive: summer gardening, and, in the winter, season tickets to the symphony.

We've invited her over for dinner, but she won't come. She used to attend free concerts at the University a few blocks away, but got tired of asking for rides. If she goes anywhere now, she walks to her garden along the tracks, or takes the bus downtown to Symphony Hall. We usually find her where the sidewalk ends.

After a number of conversations about dill and chives, drainage and fragrant mosses, I attempted myself to turn some earth.

"Where were you born?"


"When did you leave Germany?"


So she was there. She had seen it all. At least, everything anyone would have needed to see, and more than anyone would have wanted to, before getting out. Which she did, leaving behind a brother in the SS, another in the infantry, and a mother in the Party. It was ten years, she told me, before she went back, sat down with her family at the kitchen table and told them that everything that had happened, they had brought upon themselves.

Spot sits in my arms, nibbling on his forefinger as he does when in a contemplative mood, and lets us talk, about crooked Chicago politics, Japanese beetles, and the butterfly season. We talk about the election of January, 1933, when Gerta was 17, and she remembers the day.

These are some of the most interesting conversations of my daily stay-at-home-dadness, far more interesting than any chit chat at the playground. They all happen on the sidewalk, near the end of it. I'm beginning to realize that a lot of stuff happens on the sidewalk. Spot's first few steps, kids on bikes and push scooters, averted glances, altercations, and joyous reunions.

And Gerta. I'm glad Spot knows Gerta. It's a strange but pleasant feeling holding a baby and talking to this stooped, lucid, bronzed and 93 year-old German gardener, who crosses challenging traffic twice each day to tend to her flowers and greens, and can prove to Spot, or at least to me, that the world began much earlier than the day either of us were born.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

On the Love of Small Things

In the same year that Isaac Newton invented his own version of the differential calculus (1665), Robert Hooke published a a book illustrated with engravings of Very Small Things, including most famously the eye of a fly. The domain of the calculus was an abstract corroboration of the infinitely large and infinitely small worlds being disclosed by seventeenth century optics -- the telescope and the microscope.

Hooke wrote of the latter in his Micrographia: the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding ... By this the Earth it self, which lyes so near us, under our feet, shews quite a new thing to us, and in every little particle of its matter ... we were able before to reckon up in the whole Universe it self.

When Hooke and his colleagues at the English Royal Society beheld the symmetries, the regularities, and the fine and often beautiful forms of things invisible to the naked eye, it seemed clear that the structure of reality itself bore witness to the work of a divine creator, one who had left its hidden signature in plain sight, in the form of Very Small Things.

Questions of theology and immanence aside, there is a well established precedent from within modern science, long a most masculine pursuit, for the value and meaningfulness of the small. The later discoveries of the biological cell and the atomic particle may not have carried the same theological charge, but they continued nonetheless to expand the world of the Very Small as a realm for heroic action, and humbling contemplation.

These are some of the thoughts that occurred to me when Spot was himself Very Small. He is still small, in a way that is cute and adorable in a domesticated sense, but also in a way that is mind-boggling and edifying and escapes our ability to contain it within the modern culture of cuteness. We feed him and shelter him and keep him out of harm's way, and in the meantime a process well beyond anyone's control, asking no permission and seeking its own ends, adapts and learns and organizes itself into the form of our son.

Small is beautiful, in other words. But smallness is actually very big when you think about it, and the riddle of smallness, in the switching and clicking of DNA, is the most basic wisdom and knowledge of life itself.

For all these reasons, it is strange to me why some men should feel threatened by or uncomfortable with infants. The exoticism, foreignness, and pure neediness of the infant is often threatening to a man with a conventional understanding of manhood. After all, the world of the infant is the domain par excellence of the woman, the feminine, the domain where mothers are most assured.

Well-intentioned men have no compunction about passing off the care of infants to others. I've seen this over and over again among my friends and family. They prefer -- as both my own father and brother-in-law have admitted -- to wait until the infant has become a small person, perhaps a boy or a girl -- a miniature rather than an alien -- one with language who has likes and dislikes that can be engaged with on some level of familiarity. A creature who can reflect back something of themselves, requiring little work of translation.

The infant, rather than being a small simulacrum, is instead weak, vulnerable, and undeveloped, and can mirror these same qualities of weakness back to a man who fears them. "Men usually don't like babies when they're so small," several women assured me when Spot was 5 months old and still strapped to my chest. When the masculine ideal is independence and control, the infant makes demands which must be obeyed. There is no mistaking the resulting Master-Servant relation of the caretaker to the infant's needs. And the infant relies on a form of communication based on the body and undiluted emotion, a language that requires the work of translation.

All these things have made me uncomfortable at one point or another over the last 18 months. As Spot becomes more of a little boy and less of an infant, the issue becomes less acute, but the act of caring for small things is still an unsettled zone within the unsettled male identity. It doesn't have to be. I've drawn one example from the history of Western science to suggest that there are many ways to think about smallness that are not diminishing.

I'm sure there are many others. Somewhere between the roles of the craftsman, the tinkerer, and the shepherd, I'd like to think, are exemplars of the good that can come from long and close attention to Very Small Things.

Confessions of an Accidental Bed Sharer

Peggy O’Mara has another sharp editorial in the current issue of Mothering magazine, this time on New York’s public health campaign against what they call "co-sleeping"--though as Peggy points out, "co-sleeping" just means sleeping close to your babe, be it in bed or separate bassinet. New York state is really campaigning against bed sharing specifically.

"Co-sleeping is risky," says the state of New York. "If an adult or child rolls over on a baby, the baby can be hurt or even suffocated. Sleeping with a child can be dangerous, especially if you drink, use drugs, are overweight, or sleep on a couch."

Sounds fearful, but will the fear help anyone? When Liko was born, I had never heard of the terms “cosleeping,” “bed sharing,” or “family bed,” and I certainly had no opinions about the subject. I assumed we would do what I imagined most parents do: move him into his own crib at around six weeks and into his own room at some reasonable point thereafter.

Ha ha ha! Fate makes monkeys of us all. It’s four years later, and Liko is still in bed with us. Am I happy with this situation? Not really. Given my druthers, he’d be sleeping in his own room by now.

What happened? Basically, I am one vote of three. On this issue, I was outvoted. Liko breastfed for three years, and, as Peggy points out in her editorial, sharing a bed is often much easier on the sleep of breastfeeding mother and child than the alternatives.

More to the point, I think Liko and my wife just wanted to sleep together, period. They didn’t have a problem with it. (It's worth noting that my wife is partially Chinese-American, a culture in which bed sharing and co-sleeping are commonplace. We have friends of Chinese origin who shared their parents' beds until four, five, even six years old.)

I realize that these two things — bed sharing and breastfeeding until three years of age — put us outside of the mainstream of American parenting practices. As the New York campaign illustrates, some people consider our parenting to be substandard and even dangerous.

And yet I confess, despite the fact that I’d prefer he now sleep on his own, that I don’t feel all that guilty or substandard. Sure, I’d like to regain certain freedoms related to sharing a bed with my wife alone, but the fact of the matter is that I love feeling him snuggle up to me at night and I love seeing his little face first thing in the morning.

We don't drink much or use drugs. We aren't overweight, though recently I've been pushing that one. We don't sleep on a couch. I certainly don’t think he’s been psychologically harmed by our sleeping and breastfeeding arrangements. Quite the opposite, actually.

Today Liko’s a bright, happy, sociable, healthy, and even-keeled little kid who has hit all the developmental milestones more or less on time. I’m not sure that our sleeping arrangement has brought him any “benefits,” but I can say that it is more consistent with his individual personality than sleeping apart would have been.

And so I’ve tried to accept our arrangement, though it does have drawbacks, most notably disruptions to my sleep and a lack of bedtime privacy. The family bed limited my freedom in other ways as well — for example, I don’t think I drank even one drop of alcohol while Liko was an infant, for fear of rolling over on him without knowing that I had done so. Now I’ll enjoy a glass of wine or a beer. On the rare occasions when I’ve actually gotten drunk (maybe 3 times in two years), I make sure to sober up before climbing into bed beside him, just as I would before driving a car, a process that can take hours. These are things I can live with. I don’t need to drink.

I know this issue provokes some strong feelings. I’ve heard people call co-sleeping a form of abuse — that's basically what New York is saying — and I’ve heard sleeping apart called a form of abuse. Certainly, Mothering magazine is not neutral in this battle; the editors are firmly (but sanely) pro-family bed during the breastfeeding years.

Personally, I think people on both sides need to chill the hell out, a sentiment I think a majority of parents would agree with. And honestly, the New York campaign offends me. The press release says that 89 infants have died in their parents' beds since 2006...but how many have died outside of them? And what were the circumstances of those deaths? Was it bed-sharing that killed the baby...or was it the fact that Daddy came home wasted out of his mind?

Since most cultures outside of the U.S. bed-share and since co-sleeping has been the norm throughout human history, perhaps it would be more appropriate for New York to target those parents prone to risky behavior...and help them to cut it out, now that they have kids. This would address a lot of real problems, as opposed to fake ones that are really motivated by prejudice.

You'd figure we'd know this by now: Families are different; the people in them have different personalities, needs, and cultural backgrounds. Human beings are tough, adaptable monkeys who are naturally selected and/or designed to thrive in a range of environments and circumstances. It’s our glory as a species (and possibly the downfall of our planet, but that’s another issue), though that doesn't prevent certain groups from constantly trying to remake other people in their own image.

This doesn't mean anything goes--there are many culturally sanctioned practices that have proved harmful or obsolete. The "Back to Sleep" public health campaign cut the number of crib deaths significantly, and campaigns against domestic violence and certain kinds of corporal punishment have been very effective. But I don't think sharing a bed with your child falls into that category, not by a long shot. The family bed should be a source of love, not fear.

[Originally posted to my Mothering magazine blog.]