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.


Anonymous said...

Jeremy - I posted my answers before reading yours, for whatever reason. Your answer to question 6 about feeling comprimised reminded me of a time in when my son and his buddies liked to dress up in girls clothes daycare. It's discomforting for men to see that - I know I was uncomfortable.

But I consoled myself in the knowledge that it's simply play without any shame or self-awareness. And how many parents can remember the "naughty" explorations they had when they were toddlers. Did it mark them for life?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting such thoughtful answers. Your writing struck many chords with me as I struggle to deal with how much power I've given away or otherwise lost in being the mother I want to be. I think your idea about goals as power could be something I could apply to my situation. I keep reminding myself that forging new ground is rarely easy.

chicago pop said...

Awesome post. Most of my good friends are former revolutionaries. Just hope the warning bells you hint at are only growing pains.

I'd like to think that being the one at home w/the baby doesn't automatically translate into powerlessness. My wife makes all the money, but the negotiation of "soft power" between us is not correlated to cash in any simple way.

For example, I get to spend more time with the baby -- ahuge limitation of choice for my wife. In some ways being at home with the baby can free you from outside measures of accomplishment, and introduce new ones.

Angela V-C said...

Wow, this is a great post, and I really appreciate the candidness and thoughtfulness of your answers.

While I parent with another woman, not a man, I've become very interested in the way women and men approach parenting together and how the balance of power impacts our parenting (both in queer and straight relationships).

In particular, what you said about power and breastfeeding resonated, and the tension between your ideals and reality. Thanks!

chicago pop said...

I think it's worth asking if there are things other than gender that can create power asymmetries in any partnership -- which we then try to understand in terms of gender behavior, "natural" parenting roles, etc.

If one partner in a relationship -- gay, straight, anything -- knows what they want, but not the other, no matter how well intentioned the parties are it's a strain and makes real negotiation difficult.

This can then look like the reproduction of old fashioned gender roles, when it might be more about the personalities of two different people.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Angela: If you haven't stumbled across it already, you might check out this lesbian mom's responses to Blue Milk's original questions.

Chicago Pop: I strongly agree that home with baby doesn't automatically translate into powerlessness--and, as a corollary, I'd argue that paid work doesn't automatically translate into power. Power in couples (or in any dyad) is a mysterious thing, hard to measure, impossibly fluid, really subjective. Power between two individuals can shift in a glance.

We're really talking about two social groups defined by a very ancient power imbalance coming together under one roof and trying to raise children together. In a situation like that, it's hard to figure out where gender roles end and personality begins.

Stegetronium said...

Jeremy, what a thought provoking post. I am struck by the similarities between us, even though our situations are quite different. I also have found that parenting has challenged me politically in ways that I never expected. And I love that these questions of Blue Milk's are leading me to discover all sorts of new perspectives.

Ariane said...

"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."

I think this is really interesting. I have seen my (male) other half seriously feel a loss of power as he has lost very concrete goals and plans. It is hitting him very hard, and I don't have any idea how to help.

For myself, on the other hand, I have basically given up on ever wanting a career again. When the current phase of my life is over, I will have a job, but never again a career. This is a decision I have taken, not something inflicted on me by outside influences. And I feel real power in that. I have no specific goals, other than happy kids and a financial position that doesn't go backwards - or at least good approximations of those. It is the most powerful I have ever felt.

I suspect it has something to do with whether or not what you do is part of how you define yourself. I am also aware that it has a component of the blessings we enjoy - namely to live in a time and place in which we don't face starvation or homelessness, come what may.

I guess what amounts to power is both personal and cultural.

AMR said...

Mikhela's comment is funny, as while reading I couldn't help but be struck by how different I am from Jeremy (I think I know the handshake!). I've played the sports, own the pickup with the NASCAR stickers, drink the light beer and play poker with "the boys." And yet, somehow (and it wasn't my parents) I've also identified with those perceived as different by others and have in turn been drawn to respect them as I respect everyone else.

Thus, I care enough about how my children look at women, men, gays, straights, blacks, immigrants, etc., that I worry about whether I am properly equipping them with the confidence to respect all people in a world where being disrespectful is often all too cool. I've experienced scorn for defending the "different" -- it's not fun and takes strength to deal with (I reckon it has only been the last 3-4 years where I've truly felt confident enough to speak out when confronted with hatred or disrespect).

Your answers are truly thought-provoking, Jeremy. I know I fail at setting the proper example often. I need to worry less about what others think of me and my children and concentrate more on worrying about what is most important -- raising children that are kind to everyone.

elizabeth said...

jeremy- i loved your candid responses to blue milk's thoughtful questions. currently, i am finding out that i am something of a neo-feminist so your post came at an opportune time. i say "neo feminism" and mean the fourth wave of feminism because i am not seeking equality with men. i don't think equality is what i want. i want just to be a woman. and to not think too much in terms of comparing myself to men- because we are different. i do what enriches my life. i choose to do things, not necessarily taking into account equality with men but my own dignity as a woman. i love examining my role in the lives of my children. it always gives me a fresh look at the broader world around us. thank you for your post!

Unknown said...

Wow. That was just about perfect.

ilya said...

I would consider myself a pro-feminist father, although, under difficult circumstances-- are there any pro-feminist men's fourms that I could interact with other pro-feminist fathers? I'm kind of at a loss in that area, there is no one around me with those same beliefs and furthermore, my partner is anti-feminist. Perhaps that's the most difficult part- how do you raise a child with a woman who is anti-feminist, while, you, yourself, are feminist? She demands of me masculinity when I have no inclination towards it, demands of me an adherence towards strict gender roles as well as typified ways of acting and being. I find myself very confused, not sure what to do, perhaps too afraid to make the wrong move, but, I don't know. Just need somewhere where I can discuss these issues.