Friday, August 29, 2008

When Grandpa Steals the Baby

It's been a week to the day since my father-in-law, somewhat inadvertently, kidnapped the baby.

One part of me doesn't blame him for what appears to have been an act of over eagerness. Left to their own devices, my in-laws would be happy to sit for Spot every day, and let us visit him for an hour or so.

This is an immeasurable help to me, to Spot's mom, and of course to Spot himself, who clearly adores his maternal Grandparents. If he has a chance of really learning Chinese and being bilingual, it's because he hears it during his morning visits to their apartment; he enthusiastically consumes the volumes of tofu they send home with him several times a week; and one of his joys is to ride with Grandma on her wheelchair voyages, perched on her ample lap at a precarious angle that seems precarious only to me.

For all these and other reasons, I'm grateful to them. Which is why I was shocked when, waking up from a brief nap in the park where we had met, I saw Spot whisked away on the Grandma trolley, pushed by an unusually fleet-footed septuagenarian.

I looked over at Spot's stroller, strangely empty, and then considered myself: unshaven, damp, increasingly middle-aged, and alone in a baby park with no kid. Not a good feeling. Last time I checked, Grandpa and Spot were doing laps around the jungle gym. Ten minutes later, they've taken off.

Thus began the angry smoldering, less about the act itself than about the principle -- which I had never really thought about before then -- that if anyone wants to take the baby, they have to ask me first. It's just one of those lines in the sand. I'm the primary caregiver. You can't just take the baby. Even if I know you, even if I'm related to you, even if you're his Grandpa. Even if I was napping on a bench like a negligent bum and you didn't want to disturb me.

So I collect the empty stroller, and all the little bags of treats that I feed to Spot like a dolphin trainer at Sea World, and set off in pursuit of the 70 year old man pushing the 200 pound invalid grandmother with the baby on top.

Following the shortest path across the park, for the lack of a sidewalk, Grandpa directs the family parade into the street, along a row of diagonally parked cars and into oncoming traffic. For once Grandpa seems to be walking faster than me, I can't catch up with him, giant SUV's are swerving into the opposite lane to avoid the happy chariot, and from the back I can tell that Spot is having the time of his life, waving the two giant cottonwood leaves he had collected in the park, one in each hand, literally the size of plates, as if he were a flagman diverting rush-hour traffic.

I finally catch them in the lobby of their senior building, where traffic was slowed by severe wheelchair congestion around the elevator bank. Grandpa gets into the first available elevator. I nudge my empty stroller up to the door as it shuts in my face.

My moral adaptation to the role of at-home dad thus announced itself to me. This was an infraction of the rules. More importantly, it was an affront to the dignity of my labor of at-home dadness, a sense of dignity that seems to have taken shape on its own and only now come to the surface.

But that's only half the story. It quickly became apparent that if I was angry enough, I could make it much more difficult for my in-laws to see Spot. For one of the few times in my life, I knowingly enjoyed a form of power that was concrete and undeniable, something that a single, simple act of will could initiate that would have an equally concrete and undeniable effect on other people. There was nothing "soft" about it.

I'm not sure how I feel about that. Power is an ambivalent thing, like magic, like mana. It turns out that I didn't need to exercise my sanction at all; Grandpa sent a polite little apology Sunday night, and the weekday baby-exchange was able to proceed as usual the following morning.

But I was suddenly quite conscious that I have power: something that someone else wants, that I can take away. The possibility of that sanction is a deterrent, like having a nuclear warhead. You don't have to use it, but having one will definitely change how everyone else in the room behaves.

I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

On Palin's Selection

I like to keep things focused on parenting here at Daddy Dialectic, though obviously gender and politics remain perennial topics.

And many times during the past year, I have had to restrain myself mightily from using the blog to vent about the Clinton-Obama match-up or how the Republicans have tried to use gender against the Dems--namely, by trying to have it both ways. When Clinton was the frontrunner, Republican leaders openly used misogyny as a weapon against her. But now that Obama has won out, they are deliberately exploiting gender as a wedge among Democratic constituencies.

This has reached a head with the selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate, which has provoked enough disgust in me so that I am just going to give up and use this forum, modest though it is, to vent.

During the past eight years--and before--we've seen plenty of examples of Republican tactical ruthlessness. No decision is too venal or destructive if it helps them stay in power. It's all short-term thinking; today's Republicans can't seem to see beyond the next election. Politics aside, that might be the best reason to vote for Obama come November. Say what you want about him, he's not a short-term thinker.

I don't know anything about Palin. I had never even heard of her before the Washington Post news alert popped into my inbox this morning; I read newspapers, but I don't have a personal connection to the great state of Alaska and I don't spend a lot of time memorizing the names of the governors of all fifty states. Perhaps she really is the most qualified person the Republicans could find to fill the no. 2 slot; and ultimately, no matter why she was chosen, it is another step toward a more egalitarian future.

But let's not beat around the bush: The Republicans picked Palin to bag disgruntled Clinton supporters. Specifically, the dumb ones. The ones who share with the Republicans an inability to think beyond the next election.

These folks do exist; polls have identified them and New York Times reporters have quoted them saying that they'd rather vote for a man with a transparently, virulently sexist public image than another man who has a near-perfect record on reproductive freedom and other issues of concern to feminists.

But I don't think that's a very large group. In fact, I think this is a very small and incoherent group, and, actually, I think Palin's selection is an expression of craven, panting desperation on the part of the Republicans. Most women, and a supermajority of feminists, are smart: They'll see through this tactic and vote for the candidate who will best serve their interests and represent their values.

If anything is going to win this election for Republicans--and it could happen, they could still win--it's race, not gender. And let there by no doubt: As the election grinds on, the Republicans will use race as a weapon, in overt and covert ways. It's going to be scary and disgusting, and it will influence a lot of people. Specifically, the stupid ones. The ones who would rather destroy our multicultural future than see it come to pass.

We can't do anything about those people, both the McCain "feminists" and the racists, not in the short run. They will be a factor in the election and the Republicans are going to exploit their fears and insecurities to the hilt. All we can do is make sure that every single thinking person we know goes to the polls in November. Reach out to friends and family and talk with them about the election, and give them a call on election day. We can't afford another Iraq, another Katrina, another financial disaster. We can't afford even one more day of inaction on global warming. Our kids need a future, not a wasteland.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Home Alone

I've always sort of liked the blog Mom 101, written by a breadwinning mom supporting a stay-at-home dad and two kids. Today she has a nice post about what it's like for her to stay home while the rest of the family goes off on vacation:

I'm heartbroken to think that Nate and the girls are leaving for nearly two weeks without me. That I have to stay behind and do the responsible thing and work, now that work has finally gotten busy again.

Friends have advised me, "Well you just shouldn't let him." Or scolded, "I can't believe you're allowing it." But then I think of all the working dads who stay behind while their wives tote the kids to the grandparents for a week. That's just what you do when you're the family's primary earner and it's the right thing to do.

The only thing is, I'm not a dad. I'm a mom.

Now, I know that some readers might be inclined to get bent out of shape by the implication that working dads don't get as upset by separation as working moms. But after having spent enormous heaping amounts of time thinking about the parallels between moms and dads and trying to understand what they have in common, lately I've started grappling with how they diverge from each other. And so right now I'm just listening to moms like 101.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

An afternoon in the library

1. I walk up to the book and pull it from the shelf. Moved by a strong intuition, I do something that I've never done before: I flip to the index looking for my name. There it is. I flip to page 248 and there I am, being quoted about robots. It seems like a message in a bottle, dropped into the water by a younger self who thought robots were more important than babies.

2. I walk upstairs and on the mezzanine all the chairs are filled by homeless people, each one surrounded by debris dragged in off the streets. One man snores softly to himself, the rest just sit, staring into space. In the past, I've always shrugged when foreigners asked me why there were so many homeless people in America: I don't know, I'd say. Now I think I know the answer: It's our isolation. It's not that they don't have jobs or homes; those are just symptoms. In fact, they are there on the mezzanine because they have no where else to go.

3. Crossing through the part of the library reserved as a study space for teenagers, I see two boys peering at a computer screen. As I get closer, I see they are leering at a photograph of a black woman in a thong and one of them whispers, "Cool." I imagine my son as one of those boys. I want to sit down and talk to them, somehow save them from the labyrinthine coldness of the screens, but instead I walk more quickly away.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"God calls you a bum..."

Something I found via Here Goes Everything:

Stay-at-home dads are going to hell! Hot damn!

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

And the winner is...

Back in June, I invited Daddy Dialectic readers to help me think of a new title for my book. Many of the suggestions were good, or at least fun, but none of them ultimately made the short list.

This past week we (meaning, me and Beacon Press) finally settled on a new title: The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Fathers, Breadwinning Mothers, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the Twenty-First-Century Family.

What is the daddy shift? It's the gradual movement away from a definition of fatherhood as pure breadwinning to one that encompasses capacities for both breadwinning and caregiving. You'll be able to read all about it on Father's Day 2009.

Monday, August 18, 2008

everyday parenting

As a way to announce the imminent arrival of rad dad 11, I present to you the intro to rad dad 10...get ready...

I have to share something. I feel like such a fake, a phony. Like I'm the last person who should be writing for a zine like rad dad. Let me explain. About a month before Mother's Day, Ariel Gore, editor and founder of Hip Mama, emailed me and asked if I'd be willing to read at their Mother's Day Extravaganza. I was honored; of course, I would. This is what I had been hoping for all along: recognition for rad dad in the radical parenting community and a chance to gain exposure for the zine and for all the amazing writers and stories I have had the chance to work with.

Nothing could stop me. I was now officially super rad dad editor.

And then my son's counselor called. He wasn't going to pass high school, she said, unless we did an intervention, unless we corrected his behavior. Now. Immediately. Tomas, she demanded, you gotta do something.

It seems I hadn't done enough. I had been harboring that fear all along. Had I let him down? Had I hid behind a veneer of trusting his "choices" when in reality I was just in denial, just at a loss for what to do? And instead of sitting with those questions, contemplating ways to approach him, I did the worst possible thing after hearing his counselor's pleas; I got hella angry with my son. Not a good approach, about as successful as parenting by denial. When I confronted him about his progress report, which for every class including PE was listed as F, he looked me straight in the eye and said: Don't worry dad; I got it under control. Like a cartoon, I looked down at the progress report: F, F, F, F, F and back up to him, down, back, down, back over and over again. Who was this kid?

Basically he's been a normal teenager. Yes, we've gone through some difficult teen years, the not coming home, the walking in after school drunk, the hoarding of every glass and bath towel in his room as if he were the only one who needed to drink or shower. But through these years, I've also seen glimpses of what he will become: the way kids look up to him and the way he gives them such respect, the times he connects with his sisters when he doesn't know we are listening in the next room, the way he plays with our pet chickens.

So how do I explain the situation he was in? Can a rad dad raise a high school failure? Not a dropout, mind you, but someone who failed his classes when many of his teachers bent over backwards for him. He was given opportunity after opportunity, second chance after second chance.

But it gets worse; as we get closer to my departure for what I'm thinking is my big coming out party, my day in the sun, his monthly court date arrives for his probation hearing. Oh, did I fail to mention also that he has been on probation for the past two years? Each time I take him to court, which, of course, is peopled with nothing but kids of color and blatantly class targeted, I can't help but get livid at my son as the Judge reads off: his attendance (I didn't know you could miss over 100 days in a semester), his straight Fs, his unfinished hours of community service, his failed drug tests. It just never ends, and I feel so angry that he hasn't dealt with it. Because one day the Judge is gonna do something, I warn him.

Well, just as I'm about to leave, that's what happens. My son is sentenced to Juvenile Hall for the weekend. My weekend. I just couldn't, and still can't, get over the irony; the universe must be trying to tell me something.

You can talk all you want about how you would like to parent, what you think is valuable, what the implications of your parental choices might be, but all that theory, all that shit, flies out the window when you're faced with the power and pain of parenting in the moment. You are on your own when they're hurt. When they're dealing with their disappointment in the world. Or in you. When they step further and further away from you. Moments like these aren't talked about in books or zines; there are no answers found by doing readings in front of other people or participating in Mother's Day Extravaganzas. In fact, all that stuff just seems silly. Instead, what you discover in those moments is your capacity to love unconditionally, to forgive and forget, to be gentle, to put things in perspective. But it's not easy; it's ugly and hard, and it hurts.

I finally decided to skip the event because too much was happening, but my partner convinced and reassured me that I should still go, that it would be alright, that staying was not gonna change what had happened. So come Friday morning before I'm supposed to fly to Portland and my son is supposed to check in to the Alameda County Juvenile facility (after school, of course), we meet up in my living room. I hug my boy goodbye. I tell him I love him, I trust him, I have faith in him even if the world doesn't seem to, even if he doesn't believe in himself, even unfortunately when I too often act like I don't.

I do. This is hard, I say. But you can do this. You can.

He nods his head, says thanks, and saunters off to school like it ain't no thang.

That weekend was a profound awakening in many ways for me (and for him, I believe); hearing his mother describe how they took him away, how she watched him being searched before they shut the doors behind him and also hearing inspiring stories of creating a free school in Portland, gathering with a ton of parents to share a little bit of rad dad with them, sharing my feelings of failure with old and new friends in the middle of the afternoon, considering how to expand rad dad into a larger format, more inclusive magazine, and finally flying home to hear stories of my babies' mama spending Mother's Day contentedly gardening with our daughters and eventually leaving to bring our son home from Juvie.

Parenting is so much more than something we should celebrate on a day or with an event, so much more than feeling good at times or bad. Or like a phony. Or like a failure. It's an adventure, it's unknowable, fluid, never static, ever evolving. It's work. And, it's what matters most. Happy parenting to everyone out there, holdin' it down and keeping it real.

I believe in you. I do.

This is hard at times. But we can do this. We can.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Kindie Rock III

The Mighty Sippy Cups:

The Sippy Cups are San Francisco's house band for the post-kid hipster set. They cover old Velvet Underground and Ramones tunes (e.g., "I wanna be sedated" redone as "I wanna be elated"). Most of their messy, exuberant shows are held in Mission district bars. See all those kids in front? Where are their parents? They're at the bar, doing shots. It's a punk-rock win-win.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Kindie Rock

The first time Liko heard Frances England's first CD, Fascinating Creatures, he stopped dead in his tracks. As the hypnotic first song, "Sometimes," ended, Liko asked, "Who is this?"

"It's Liam's mommy, Frances. Remember her?"


"What do you think of her songs?"

"They're good," he said, and plopped down on the floor. He sat through the entire CD, listening intently.

Weeks later, I put on the CD and as "Sometimes" started to play, he cried out, "That's my favorite song!"

Weeks after that, I brought Frances's new CD, Family Tree, along on a vacation with another family.

As little kids swarmed around the living room of our vacation house, I put on Family Tree. The commotion stopped and they all stood still, listening.

"Who is this?" asked Jody.

"Our friend Frances. It's her new CD."

"Wow, this is really good."

"I think so."

"It sounds like grown-up music," said her husband Alex. "This reminds me of Sarah McLachlan. Or maybe Nora Jones?"

"I always think of Ricki Lee Jones and Lisa Loeb and Aimee Mann," I said. "But not as dark."

In fact, the opposite of dark: Mellow, happy, content.

And a few weeks after that, we were playing with our friends Molly and her little boy Linus. I played Family Tree and Molly asked who we were hearing. I told her and mentioned that it was a kid's CD.

"This is tot music?" asked Molly incredulously. "No way."

Fascinating Creatures and Family Tree aren't the only children's CDs we own that also appeal to adults: Justin Roberts rocks, and so do the Sippy Cups. It appears to be something of a for kids and parents alike, with songs that speak to children's mindsets while remaining creatively interesting and thematically complex.

But even among kiddie-indie (kindie?) rock peers, Frances's music really stands out. These are not so much kid's songs as songs that address family themes: new siblings, playing in the dirt, getting older, all that stuff. Her best songs evoke childlike feelings in adults, while children listening to her music might find their kid's eye view of the world expanding.

Here's a video of "Tricycle," from her first CD (one of her more kid-oriented songs):

You can listen to Fascinating Creatures and buy it here; you can do the same for Family Tree here.

[Originally posted to my Mothering magazine blog.]

Thursday, August 07, 2008

10 questions on profeminist fatherhood

Yesterday I posted a list of questions about feminism and fatherhood that were adapted from "10 questions on feminist motherhood," posed by Australian feminist mommy blogger Blue Milk. I promised that I would try to answer them. Here it goes:

1. How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become profeminist? Was it before or after you became a father?

On its most personal level, feminism is a reminder to me to do my utmost to treat the women in my life with respect, something I admit often falls to the wayside in the heat of an argument—more on that, below.

On a more abstract level, I think feminism reminds me of how my individual decisions have political and social dimensions—and how political events and social trends shape my individual decisions. 

In short, the personal is political!

When did I come to think that feminism was a good idea?

I have always felt like an outsider when in the company of guys, though I’m more or less straight and no one has ever described me as “feminine.” I just felt like every other guy had learned a secret handshake that I never did.

As a result, I have always felt instinctively sympathetic to other outsiders, including girls who weren’t girly enough. This laid the emotional and social foundation that made me open to learning more about feminism when I got to college.

In my sophomore year, a male friend asked me to get involved with a “Men for Choice” group he was starting, which evolved into a guy’s auxiliary for our campus NOW chapter. As the years went by, my activism deepened and branched out into other issues, but pro-choice activism was definitely the gateway.

During college, I also read my way through the feminist canon, starting with The Second Sex and concluding with a great deal of feminist literary theory which now makes me yawn with boredom. These ideas played a decisive role in shaping the way I see the world.

2. What has surprised you most about fatherhood?

My answers to this question and the next one are long. Stick with me, or just skim to the end. Frankly, I prefer that you skim.

After college, I put my profeminism on cruise control. I was in a stable, monogamous relationship and in my work with various progressive nonprofits, I usually had solid, respectful relationships with female co-workers. I watched guy co-workers get into trouble for sexist remarks or actions (inadvertent and otherwise), but that never happened to me and my policy was to duck and cover if it turned into a major issue.

Every once in a while, a female co-worker would even go out of her way to tell me how refreshingly non-sexist I was—“When Jeremy talks to me, he never looks at my breasts,” said one person, whose breasts I did, in fact, secretly glance at once or twice.

These pats on the head were always reassuring and contributed to a decade-long mood of complacency about gender issues. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I played it safe, and I just never faced any personal challenges to my profeminism. As a result, I don’t think I grew very much when it came to my views on women, men, and gender politics. I figured it was enough for me to avoid acting like an obvious jerk.

Then I became a dad. And I was shocked by the degree to which my now-habitual commitment to feminist values was put to the test. In fact, habits went out the window; everything took conscious effort, as if I’d had an intellectual and emotional stroke and needed to learn how to walk and talk all over again.

I’m not even sure where to start in talking about this—I just wrote an entire book that was partially on this topic and I find it hard to boil it all down into a short answer to a question. It’s also hard to talk about because it’s so very intimate, and involves my wife’s choices as well as my own—something I’m reluctant to discuss in public. For this reason, the reader will have to accept a certain degree of vagueness.

I’ll put it this way: As soon as we became parents, I think the power in our relationship started to inexorably tilt in my direction, as perhaps it always did. Even when I took time off of paid work to serve as my son’s primary caregiver, the tilt continued. It didn’t seem, and still doesn’t seem, to matter what I want or decide—I just keep growing more powerful in the relationship.

What do I mean by power? In this context, we might say it’s the ability to do and say what we want and need to do or say. From this perspective, we’ve both lost power: Parenthood constrains our choices in countless ways, which I don’t think I need to explain to other parents.

But there is no question, absolutely none, that my wife has lost more power than I have. This won’t surprise moms who are reading this, but it certainly surprised me.

The biggest reason for this, I would say, is that I have simply not been as absorbed by the physical and emotional demands of caregiving, even when I was primary caregiver; and at this writing, I am the one who is making most of the money and feels most driven to advance in my so-called career.

Though I have faced setbacks, right at this moment I have achieved, or will soon achieve, many of my well-defined personal and professional goals, thus giving me a sense of efficacy and thus power. At the same time, my wife has struggled more to figure what she wants out of life and how to get it. (Here’s something I’ve learned: Having goals is a form of power; having a plan to pursue them is a form of power; accomplishing goals adds to your personal power. If these are just illusions, there’s power in them.)

This might change in the long run, of course. In fact, I’m counting on it. I’ve experienced setbacks in the past and I will surely experience more of them, and my wife, I hope, will surge ahead. The trick, as with all partnerships, is to avoid experiencing setbacks at the same time! Right now, however, I’m worried: I see a discrepancy growing between us in the context of parenthood, and I fear that it might turn into a lifelong pattern. In earlier stages of our lives, a situation like this wasn’t as weighty; hardly noticeable, in fact. Today, it feels very perilous. And that surprises me.

Mind you, I have been vastly more involved with care than many other fathers and I have explicitly designed my work situation to be flexible. And yet it is still the case—this is the important thing, the most important thing that needs to be said—that parenthood has fueled my own power and diminished my wife’s--or, to put it a different way, constrained her ability to make choices.

3. How have your profeminist values changed over time? What is the impact of fatherhood on your profeminism?

Think about the implications: If a guy like me—who has every good intention and a history of profeminist activism, and who even served a stint as a stay-at-home dad—is failing at the task for forging a perfectly egalitarian family, then what does that tell us about the prospects of wider social change?

Some people reading this probably think they have this one all figured out. They’ll say I was na├»ve for ever even imagining that equality in one family was possible—what we need, they’ll argue, is nothing less than the overthrow of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Only after the revolution can our piddling interpersonal relationships be lastingly altered.

You might not know people who believe this, but I do. Before becoming a father, I was one of those people.

And so I never thought utopia in one family was possible; I was really just trying to muddle through, as I still am. Here’s the thing: Most of the people I’m talking about aren’t parents—and the ones who are, are not what I would call dedicated parents. In fact, too often left-wing activists and leaders neglect their family responsibilities, especially the guys.

Am I judging them? Sure, a bit—the fathers, anyway—but mainly as a warning to myself and others. They’re workaholics in the service of social change, as I once was, and I suspect that they will regret the things they missed just as much as their corporate counterparts.

As a result, the problems parents face are all very abstract to them. They don’t see, they can’t, how vital and immediate it is for heterosexual couples to establishing a domestic division of labor that makes both parties happy. They have no idea—I had no idea, before becoming a parent—how difficult and urgent it is for fathers and mothers to figure this one out.

It’s all very well to talk about universal health care and parental leave and so on—but who will take the baby to the doctor? What do you say when a breastfeeding mother just wants to stay home and take care of her baby? Do you condemn her, as some have done, for being insufficiently feminist? Or do you say society and the economy made her do it, thereby denying the importance of her perception of what she needs and what the baby needs?

And what about the fathers? Are their feelings and needs irrelevant? What happens when a father yearns to stay home with his child, but can’t, because his wife wants to be the one to do that and he has to earn the money? Or what if he does stay home, and spends his days feeling like a fish out of water? No social movement can help him; feminism can tell him that he’s doing the right thing—God knows, nothing else in our culture will—but that won't matter much to the average stay-at-home dad. He mainly needs a supportive community as well as role models. 

Here’s something I think progressive feminist folks need to understand in a deep way: Parents aren’t soldiers. We don’t take marching orders. And none of us is a general. You can’t tell your partner what she should want out of life, even, perhaps especially, when her decisions make you more powerful in the relationship. You can’t control the way the world thinks of you, and you don’t get to say what social and economic conditions you’ll face as a parent. This breeds feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, anger.

At the end of the day, your main task is to survive and support your family and raise happy children; how you respond to the things you can’t control reveals a great deal about your character, some of it good and some of it bad. You might discover (have you noticed my retreat to the safety of the second person?) a capacity for sacrifice and care that you never knew was there.

On the flip side, the dark one, you might also find yourself erupting with petty rage and misdirected resentment, eruptions that frighten you, your child, and your partner. In those scary moments, when our worst emotions take over and drive our ideals and aspirations over a cliff, it is easiest of all for both fathers and mothers to fall back on traditional patterns of dominance and submission.

What does that have to do with feminism? Everything, and nothing.

Pledging allegiance to feminist ideals doesn’t make you a good person or a good parent or a good partner, but it might remind you of the power you have—we always have power, if only over ourselves—and the need to restrain that power or share it with other people. It can also remind fathers of something that I think is crucial: There are alternatives; you do have choices, and your choices matter. You don’t have to be the man your father was; you don't have to be the idiots we see on TV; you can be a new kind of man, and you can help your sons become that kind of man.

4. What makes your fathering profeminist? How does your approach differ from an anti-feminist father’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

At the start, I saw participating in infant care as being the most important thing I could do to make my fathering profeminist, and maybe that was correct—it had the merit of being a pretty straightforward mission. I did my best.

And that’s a fundamentally different framework than the one an anti-feminist or non-feminist father brings to fatherhood—for the best of them, fatherhood involves an uncomplicated commitment to breadwinning above all else, which, whatever its shortcomings, is definitely an important role to fulfill; for the worst of them, fatherhood becomes another opportunity to dominate women and expand their egos.

On this front, I don’t sell myself or profeminist fathers short: A commitment to care is crucial, and makes a real difference for mothers and children. A person who denigrates such efforts, on feminist or antifeminist grounds, is not helping families.

I also think a commitment to profeminist fathering leads in a very direct way to supporting profeminist public policies: antidiscrimination policies, subidized daycare and preschool, universal health care, paid parental leave, and so on. Enacting these policies will provide a nurturing context for our personal decisions and make profeminist fathering more likely to flourish. That's another difference between a consciously profeminist and a non-feminist father: There's a political dimension to your fathering that, I think, must be expressed through voting, activism, writing, and, ultimately, public policy.

5. When have you felt compromised as a profeminist father? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a profeminist father?

At this point, I’m compromised every freaking day; I fail every single day. This is not false modesty. The commitment to infant care was straightforward, though in retrospect I see those halcyon days as a simpler time. As the years have gone by, I’ve fallen further and further short of my ideals, and profeminist fathering has started to look increasingly complicated to me.

I confess that I feel really quite lost when it comes to applying profeminist values to my relationships with my wife and my son as they are right now. From that perspective, this is an awkward time for me to tackle these ten questions—I’m struggling toward the answers, but don’t yet have good ones, and it’s possible that I never will.

For example, I’m struggling to figure out ways to raise my son in non-sexist environment, to free him from gender roles (or at least teach him to play with those roles instead of locking into them), to see women and men as equal. Again, our efforts are crashing up against the larger culture, and I find myself fretting much more than I would like about the possibility that Liko will be too different from other kids.

For instance, he likes to wear dresses to birthday parties, and we let him. The other parents, even here in San Francisco, raise their eyebrows, and I wonder what they’re thinking, and if we’ll be invited to next year’s birthday party, and I wonder how that will affect Liko. And I feel ashamed and cowardly for wondering. I know I'm not the first, but that's cold comfort.

And then there’s my relationship with my wife—what does it mean to be a profeminist co-parent? What can I do to support her freedom and happiness? Again, in talking about this, I run up against the limits of our privacy. I can only admit here that I struggle with this on a daily basis, and, right now, we both lose more often than we win. This might be the natural condition of the profeminist father.

6. When has identifying as a profeminist father been difficult? Why?

I’ve gotten some shit from the outside world, but I can deal with that. The difficulties I face are internal, and stem primarily from feeling like a hypocrite, when the state of my family falls short of my ideals.

7. Parenthood involves sacrifice, and mothers must typically make more sacrifices than fathers. How do you reconcile that with being profeminist?

I can’t right now. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

8. If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your profeminist fatherhood? What is the impact of your commitment to feminism on your partner and your relationship?

You know, I have no idea how my wife feels about this and I don’t care to speculate in public. It has shaped our relationship in positive ways that I don’t think we always appreciate. Taking the long view, feminism has made it possible for our relationship to have more freedom and flexibility than couples in previous eras could have. In the short run, it has driven me to try to be as involved as possible in care and housework. I can describe my intentions; it’s not for me to say how successful I’ve been in meeting my own standards.

9. If you and your partner practice attachment parenting--such as bed sharing or positive discipline--what challenges, if any, does this pose for your commitment to feminism, and how have you tried to resolve them?

One word: breastfeeding. Nothing has done more to inhibit my involvement with caring for my son. For years—literally, years—Liko couldn’t fall asleep without the breast and would grow more irritable the longer he was separated from it. We both had to struggle—and I struggled hard, believe me, and so did he—for us to develop a direct, day-in-day-out relationship that was not mediated by the breast. I’ll say that the struggle was worth it—over time we’ve developed a close relationship that exists on its own terms. Attachment parenting has been good for our family, but it took longer for Liko and me to find that attachment than it did for him and his mother.

10. Do you feel feminism has failed fathers and, if so, how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given fathers?

“Feminism” is, of course, not monolithic.

I would say that individual feminist thinkers and leaders have certainly failed fathers, in the sense that they have behaved as though fathers don’t matter or don’t exist or can only serve a purely oppressive role within the family. Another group of feminists has actually attacked the emergence of caregiving dads—I submit Linda Hirshman as an example.

But I would describe those two groups as a minority; I think a majority of feminists can foresee a positive role for fathers and, indeed, desperately want to see fatherhood redefined in a positive and progressive way. I don’t think feminism has offered a well-articulated vision of fatherhood, but that’s OK: It really falls to fathers to redefine fatherhood.

This is the great thing that feminism has given fathers: Its success has triggered culture-wide dialogs among men about what a good father should be and do. Feminists themselves are not always comfortable with these arguments, and certainly there has been much to criticize.

But, as an old Bolshevik once said, revolutions don’t happen in velvet boxes. They’re messy, contradictory, sometimes downright revolting—but usually also thrilling and necessary. Women have been rising for over a century, and only recently have men started to really change in response. From that perspective, it’s an exciting time.

This leads me to another thing (returning to the topic of the second question) that has surprised me about fatherhood and feminism: In a perverse way, fatherhood has strengthened my commitment to feminism. By revealing the limits of my good intentions and scope of action, fatherhood has pushed me to seek new answers to feminist questions I thought I had answered in my early twenties, on both personal and political levels.

Fatherhood has also reminded me, in a visceral way, of the inequalities that persist between men and women, and, in particular, the burdens carried by mothers. Those burdens and inequalities shape and poison our most intimate relationships whether we want them to or not.

Here again, feminism is useful for fathers and mothers: It gives us perspective, or it should.

It’s easy to be overcome by day-to-day difficulties and despair of the possibility of changing the balance of power between men and women. But if we lift our eyes and look at the sweep of the past through feminism’s eyes, we can see that the balance of power has changed, on this and many other fronts. History doesn’t stop just because we personally feel stuck. If we look at the lives of the people who came before us, we see that our actions in the present do matter, both our individual choices and the act of speaking out in public.

Finally, returning to question three, fatherhood has changed my relationship with feminism in one other way: If I speak out now, it is with a lot more sadness and less righteousness than I did when I was a college student. At this point, I’ve failed so many times that I can hardly denounce others for their imperfections.

But I still feel like we as fathers need to speak out, even if it’s just to friends or through blogs with a few hundred readers. The alternative is silence—but worse than that, meaninglessness. If I’m going to fail, the failure has to mean something. It has to be recorded (if only for myself), examined, put to use, leveraged, transmuted. Feminism gives us a way to do that, to transform our private pains into social change.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

What does a feminist father look like?

[Image from Evolution of Dad.]

Last year, Australian feminist mommy blogger Blue Milk posted "10 questions on feminist motherhood," which zipped around the blogosphere and became a kind of meme that a range of mom bloggers have tackled.

I wondered: Could profeminist fathers tackle these questions as well? If yes, would it be productive, for them and for everyone else? And I thought: Why not give it a try and see what happens?

Note that I say "profeminist," not "feminist." I think the feminist hat is hard for guys to wear, both because it doesn't usually seem to fit quite right and because other people--male and female, antifeminist and feminist--will tease them for wearing it. I speak from experience.

Despite such obstacles, many men support feminism and try to live in a way that's consistent with feminist values--something that becomes astonishingly difficult once they become fathers.

So here are Blue Milk's questions, adapted for profeminist fathers, which I post in hopes of stimulating some thinking and some conversation:
1. How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become profeminist? Was it before or after you became a father?
2. What has surprised you most about fatherhood?
3. How have your profeminist values changed over time? What is the impact of fatherhood on your profeminism?
4. What makes your fathering profeminist? How does your approach differ from an anti-feminist father’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?
5. When have you felt compromised as a profeminist father? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a profeminist father?
6. When has identifying as a profeminist father been difficult? Why?
7. Parenthood involves sacrifice, and mothers must typically make more sacrifices than fathers. How do you reconcile that with being profeminist?
8. If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your profeminist fatherhood? What is the impact of your commitment to feminism on your partner and your relationship?
9. If you and your partner practice attachment parenting--such as bed sharing or positive discipline--what challenges, if any, does this pose for your commitment to feminism, and how have you tried to resolve them?
10. Do you feel feminism has failed fathers and, if so, how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given fathers?

Later this week, I'll take a shot at answering these questions myself. If you do the same, be sure to leave a comment and let me know--at some point, I may try to compile the answers.

[Originally posted to my Mothering magazine blog.]

Friday, August 01, 2008

Learning about Race

Earlier this week I was sitting with four-year-old Liko watching teenagers play pick-up basketball in our neighborhood. This is a regular thing with us; Liko loves watching basketball.

"Daddy," he asked thoughtfully, "why do only black kids play basketball?"

My heart skipped a beat and my stomach clenched with anxiety. I looked around the court: In fact, there was one young red-headed white girl and one middle-aged white guy, which I pointed out to him, but otherwise, yes, all the other players were black kids. (For the record, I should note that I'm white and my son is a mix of Caucasian and Asian ethnicities.)

Liko has grown up in a city, riding public transportation and visiting all parts of the Bay Area, and he's accustomed to seeing people of many different races. But this was the first time he'd ever seemed to notice race and the first time he'd ever asked about it.

My split-second reaction was to panic. But I also instantly remembered an essay I had just helped edit for Greater Good magazine -- "Rubbing Off," by child psychologist Allison Briscoe-Smith, is part of our special issue on the science of prejudice.

In the issue, we explore new findings that show how our brains seem to be hardwired to notice and react negatively to racial difference--but we go beyond that to also explore strategies for overcoming prejudice.

Briscoe-Smith's essay explains how kids learn about race and how their parents can foster tolerance. It's a terrific article and my personal favorite in the issue: concrete, specific, and useful.

"Do kids even see or notice race?" asks Briscoe-Smith. "The answer is yes, they see and notice racial differences from a very young age, even in infancy." By the age of three, she writes, kids will start sorting themselves into racial groups.

But Briscoe-Smith urges parents to not see their children as instinctive racists: "For children under the age of seven, race—or, rather, physical traits like skin color, language, and hair texture—are just signs that someone is in some way different from themselves, similar to gender or weight. It's not unusual or unhealthy for kids to gravitate toward the familiar so early in life. Kids' views only become prejudiced when they start linking these physical traits to flaws in character or behavior. We adults are the ones who ascribe malice to simply noticing racial differences." She continues:

So in and of itself, recognizing racial difference is not a cause for alarm—quite the opposite, in fact. For years, studies have found that children who recognize these kinds of differences from an early age show a stronger general ability to identify subtle differences between categories like color, shape, and size—which, in turn, has been linked to higher performance on intelligence tests. Researcher Francis Aboud has found that children between the ages of four and seven who show this advanced ability to identify and categorize differences are actually less prejudiced. So parents, rest assured: When children notice and ask about racial differences, it's a normal and healthy stage of development.

Whew. Remembering that lessened my anxiety about tackling Liko's question.

But how to answer him? Briscoe-Smith notes that many well-intentioned parents opt for a policy of silence on the subject of race. "They assume that if they raise their children not to recognize racial differences, they'll prevent them from becoming racist," she writes.

Unfortunately, while parents are saying things like, "Look at the pretty boat!" in an effort to distract their children from the topic at hand, the kids are still noticing race and forming their own ideas on the subject--or getting their ideas from messages in the world around them.

"Instead of trying to ignore race, research suggests that parents should be more pro-active," writes Briscoe-Smith. She continues:

They can tell their kids it's OK to recognize and talk about racial differences while still communicating that it's wrong to hold racial prejudices. My own research with 67 racially- and ethnically-diverse families, all of which had children under the age of seven, indicates that talking and answering kids' questions about race may help them understand racial issues and become more tolerant. I found that the children of parents who talked more about race were better able to identify racism when they saw it, and were also more likely to have positive views about ethnic minorities. This was true for both the white families and the families of color in my study....

So parents, next time you're on a playground and you hear your child say something that seems racially confused or even offensive, don't be embarrassed. Don't scold or shush. And don't end the conversation with, "We don't say things like that." Instead, you might want to try, "Hmm, why don't we talk about that some more?"

The entire essay is well worth a read.

Liko looked at me and he expected an answer. I took a deep breath and said, "Well, it looks like a lot of black kids like playing basketball! Do you want to play basketball with them when you're older?"

"Yeah!" he said.

Then he said: "Can I have an ice cream?"

And that was that. (Though I really need to read an article on how to say, "no, you can't have ice cream right now," in a way that doesn't result in wheedling or weeping.) In the moment, I felt somehow inadequate, like I had missed some great opportunity to, I don't know, plant the seed that will result in him one day becoming a perfectly tolerant human being.

But in retrospect, I see that I was just being a stupid adult. He was asking a simple and reasonable question, one of about two hundred he asked me that same day. But it put me on alert: There will be more questions on race in the future, and they may be a lot tougher. I hope I'm up to the job.

[This was originally posted to my Mothering magazine blog.]