Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Nick Clegg is right

It's a new media trend: Since 80 percent of people laid off in the recession have been guys, pundits and journalists are asking themselves if this will cause men to do more at home. More women as breadwinners and more men at home is "a thought to file under 'let's try to find a silver lining,' " writes Lisa Belkin at the New York Times. Slate's Emily Bazelon takes a dimmer view, imagining "a family with a husband rattling around the house, unemployed and unsettled about it, while his wife keeps working but brings home a paycheck that's less than half the income the two of them used to make together."

Over in the United Kingdom--which is experiencing the same kind of downturn as we are here--Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg triggered a firestorm of criticism for suggesting that men losing jobs should "re-invent" themselves as stay-at-home dads, and "that unemployment could have a 'liberating effect' on outdated views about what was men's work." He's been accused of emasculating British industrial workers.

Perhaps Clegg, a politician, might be criticized for having a politically tin ear, but he's absolutely correct: economic downturns can open up new possibilities for men, and this recession is likely to have a huge effect on gender relations.

During the Great Depression, unemployment would utterly destroy men, because their entire identities were based on their jobs and their ability to support families. At the same time, however, widespread unemployment had the ironic effect of allowing more caring and cooperative conceptions of fatherhood to gain a hearing. According to a study by historian Ralph LaRossa and colleagues, more books and magazine articles in the Great Depression promoted the idea of the "New Father" than at any other time before or since. "Measuring virality and manliness in ways that were independent of whether one had a job [served] to counterbalance the emasculating effects of the Depression," writes LaRossa.

And as more men were tossed out of work, more women found jobs. The number of married women working outside the home almost tripled from 1900 to the middle of the Depression; women zoomed from being less than 3 percent of clerical workers at the end of the 19th century to being more than half in the Depression. Incomes rose accordingly.

Women's employment and incomes continued to grow throughout the 40s and, yes, even the 50s--and expanded straight through the 70s and 80s, when men's economic prospects started to dim. It's no accident that the hero of the 1982 film Mr. Mom--which marked the film debut of the stay-at-home dad--was a laid-off autoworker named Jack. Had Mr. Mom been made in the 1930s, it would have been a tear-jerking melodrama: Jack would have sunk into alcoholism and domestic violence while his wife endured the humiliation of employment.

But a lot had changed in America in the decades between the Great Depression and Mr. Mom. Ultimately, Jack masters househusbandry while his wife becomes a successful ad executive. When their identities as breadwinners are destroyed by economic instability, argues Mr. Mom, men must do exactly what Nick Clegg suggests, and reinvent themselves as caregivers. Moreover, the film suggests that men ought to support their wives' career aspirations, a startling departure from the past.

In the face of today's financial disasters, women are economically stronger than ever and men's identities are much more diverse. Since 1965, according to several empirical studies, men's time with children has tripled. Since 1995, it has doubled. So has the number of stay-at-home dads. Researchers are finding that even low-income and chronically unemployed men are finding meaning and satisfaction in taking care of kids--whereas in the past, they would consciously reject those roles. As motherhood has shifted to include careers, the definition of fatherhood has shifted from pure breadwinning to one that encompasses both breadwinning and caregiving.

A bad economy is bad for mothers, fathers, and children--and, indeed, everyone. None of us can wave a magic wand and bring our jobs and a healthy economy back; for many of us, life is about to become very hard. But the history of the American family teaches us that we can grow stronger in the places where we have been broken. The key, research reveals, is for mothers and fathers to cultivate loving relationships with each other, and to prize time with children. That can be hard to do when you don't know how you're going to pay the mortgage, and yet we are even worse off when we lose each other as well as the house. No one gets paid for sniping at his or her spouse.

When journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (author of the remarkable memoir The Beautiful Struggle) was laid off from Time magazine in 2007, he became a stay-at-home dad. "You know, getting laid off is always a difficult thing, but it gave me back time with my son," Ta-Nehisi told me in an interview for my forthcoming book, The Daddy Shift. "That's absolutely huge. I guess not making much money would trouble me, if I felt I wasn't a very good father. If you are a man who thinks that what you bring to a relationship is economic power and that's it, then I guess that would trouble you."

America can learn from Ta-Nehisi. Couples that can support each other and focus on care survive recessions; couples that don't--who allow stress and despair to take over their family lives--break apart. I would argue that the role reversals American families are experiencing can be a source of strength, and an evolutionary adaptation to a global economy that is intrinsically unstable and technology-based. When the right values are in place, families can survive economic downturns intact, and sometimes even thrive.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Do Men Get Pregnant, Too?

And so here is the product of my collaboration with Texas-based DadLabs--I supplied the idea and the framework; they made it manly and amusing (e.g., "your balls are falling off"):

Yes, I know I look and sound like a dork. I prefer to hide behind words: This research is reported in my book, The Daddy Shift, due out June 2009.

Thanks to my pal Axel for providing his living room and equipment!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Open 24 Hours

OK, immature as it is, I'm really enjoying DadLabs, which is a good thing, because I collaborated with them to create a segment on the hormonal changes men experience when they become fathers, out soon. Stay tuned.

Does concerted cultivation produce selfish children?

Last month, I posted an essay about Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers: The Story of Success that provoked a lively discussion. Gladwell argues that early cultivation (such as actively managing a child's education and providing her with a range of experiences and learning opportunities) is crucial to later success in life. It also helps quite a lot, he argues, to help children learn to speak up for themselves and confidently interact with adults.

While Gladwell is guilty of a certain amount of reductionism and success-worship, his argument, in my view, is ultimately a hopeful and egalitarian one: success is the product of environment more than anything else, and we can help all children to succeed by equalizing their opportunities in life. We can do this by providing early childhood education and well-funded public school systems, as well as universal health care, among other programs.

However, some readers seemed to feel that active cultivation of a child's education and talent "ultimately produces selfish, self-absorbed adults who are out of touch with most of humanity," as one commentator put it.

In the minds of these readers, "concerted cultivation" is the equivalent of the dreaded "helicopter parenting," wherein privileged moms and dads over-schedule their kids and push them to succeed at the expense of empathy and social intelligence.

But that doesn't follow at all, and I actually think this belief misses something important about why inequality continues to grow in America.

It may very well be the case the middle- and upper-class children are more prone to be "selfish" and "self-absorbed"--although, honestly, I've seen those qualities, as well as others like kindness and understanding, pop up among members of virtually every social class. My instinct is that belief in the inhumanity of educated or affluent people is the product of resentment or self-hatred, not observation.

But we're not really talking here about affluence. We're talking about access to opportunity (which in our culture comes with affluence). The fact remains that early education and attention to a child's well-being leads to many good outcomes in life, and also for society. Some of these are material--more income and wealth--but some are not, including increased likelihood that they will get married and stay married, and stay out of jail. These are empirical facts. And it's a fact that when children's health and educational needs aren't met, inequality grows, and bad things happen. Really bad things: rising crime rates and incarceration, declining innovation, and shorter lives, to name a few.

What happens when societies make comprehensive commitments to the health and education of children--in other words, when concerted cultivation becomes public policy? Take a look at this graph:

The huge difference in child poverty rates between the United States and almost everywhere else in the developed world, especially Northern European countries, is not accidental. It's the product of decades of diverging social policies, as well as different philosophies of education. In the twenty-first century, it's better to be educated than not, cosmopolitan instead of provincial. It's better to read books instead of watching TV, and to learn more than one language, and to be active instead of passive. It's better when governments rely on science instead of superstition to make policy, and it's better for them to be secular instead of religious. This is not an issue of rich vs. poor, a binary that excludes most people. Instead it pits social development against neglect and underdevelopment.

I'm not a relativist. I think embracing these values, as individuals and a society, will give my son a better life, and a better life to all children. That some people might think I'm a snob for saying that education is good and ignorance is bad just illustrates how frighteningly neurotic some parts of America have become.

And I think that adopting these policies will actually decrease the hyperventilating anxiety I described in my original post, which causes, for example, some parents (of all social classes, not just the most privileged) to hold their kids back a year so that they can beat out other kids in academics and athletics, which becomes a kind of vicious cycle as others try to keep up. Creating a situation of functionality and equality will reduce the craziness we see in places like San Francisco, where parents fear (with cause) that their kids' life chances will diminish if they end up in the wrong school--because, quite simply, a majority of schools will be right.

To put it a different way, let's stop blaming parents (and teachers) for struggling to make the best of the system. Instead, let's change the system. And part of that entails pushing the tax structure in a more progressive direction and the social structure so that kids of all social classes have the same opportunities.

Liberal and conservative alike, we Americans too often forget that our children are the poorest in the developed world. Liberals and progressives blame conservative social policies, but as the comments at Daddy Dialectic reveal, there's enough blame to go around. (One commentator suggested--tongue in cheek?--Maoist concentration camps as a solution to privileged obliviousness. But, Daisy, trust me on this: concentration camps do not increase the amount of empathy in the world.) While we've wasted time worrying about strawmen--like, for example, "helicopter parents"--and deriding education, we've neglected our school system to the point where many districts are on the brink of disaster, and some are disasters. More than just time, we are wasting talent and lives, and there's no excuse for it.

(Incidentally, if you'd like to read a superb overview of what public policies have fueled America's rising rate of child poverty and Europe's falling rate, see Jody Heymann's 2006 book, Forgotten Families.)

Friday, February 06, 2009

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love TV

It was a bitterly cold winter afternoon. 4PM and already dark. I was tired, and dreading the 2 hour stretch that yawned before me, from the end of Spot's afternoon nap, to Spot's Mom coming home from work a little after six.

It is a bleak stretch of time, bleak in my mind like the glare of sodium vapor street lamps over a frozen, salt-crusted alley.

I looked down at my hand. It held the remote. I looked at the TV. It was dark. I thought about my options.

Option A: Don't Turn On the TV. I knew what was in store without it. Some time in the kitchen, sitting at the counter and moving the cereal boxes around; maybe I would do some dishes. Then some time on the couch, reading that week's favorite clutch of books five times; then maybe I'd do a few loads of laundry. Then perhaps back to the kitchen to supervise the unpacking of all the drawers and the arrangement of their contents on the dining room table; punctuated with occasional collapses onto the floor in a hysterical fit of tears.

For two years, we banned the TV, and I made no use of the baby sitter's best friend. Instead, I was the TV. I took Spot on walks when the weather was nice. We went to the park, to the art center, to the cafe. We stayed inside and read when it was cold, and we played with blocks and pegs and balls and boats. We wrestled, chowed down, and stacked a whole lot of stuff.

Sometimes, when I was just too tired or sick, I would simply lie down and sleep while Spot clambered over me. But I never turned on the TV.

Until the other day, after the two year moratorium expired, and I chose Option B: Turn On the TV. I raised the remote and hit the "on" button.

Without a word, summoned like a zombie to a shopping mall full of screaming people, Spot calmly crawled up onto the couch and sat under my arm, all agitation drained from his limbs, his eyes wide and his heart slowed. He sat in a perfect "L" position, legs straight out in front of him on the flabby sofa, hands at his sides, giant floppy fleece slippers outlined against the blue glow of the TV screen. Spot hadn't been beside me this still, this close, for this long since he was a newborn.

For no particular reason, on came The Manchurian Candidate, followed by an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are some violent scenes in The Manchurian Candidate -- a movie, coincidentally, about hypnosis -- and I was too slow with the remote to prevent Spot from seeing the scene where one dude takes a pistol and blows the head off another dude.

Whoops! That was bad!

But nothing happened. No crying, no physical jolt, no worried look up to Dad for reassurance. I don't think Spot can tell the difference between a man getting his head blown with off with a revolver and Barney getting hit in the head with a soccer ball. But Spot can tell you if there's a BALL involved.

Spot engages with television on an extremely concrete basis. Of the many levels of narrative meaning that criss cross and overlap in any movie or TV show, Spot is most interested in the level of the Household Noun.

Pay no attention to the photon torpedoes, to Wharf's head, to Riker's beer gut, or any of the funky aliens. What Spot will share his appreciation for are all the BALLS that come out of nowhere. There are also lots of STARS, maybe a MOON or two, some NIGHT, and the people wearing HATS which are sometimes hard to tell from their HEADS. There are also sometimes PURPLE PEOPLE.

There are also many things that don't appear in Star Trek, but Spot points these out too, because it is not their fault that these things have been excluded from Star Trek. Among them are PUPPIES, BARNS, and BEARS. Neither were POTTY, PEE-PEE, and BULB identifiable, and there seem to be no STAIRS on the Starship Enterprise.

So that was the end of our two-year moratorium on TV. Some gratuitous violence, some cheesy yet oddly uplifting syndicated sci-fi, and about two thirds of the way through it Spot turns over and starts pointing at the parts of my face. Glasses, nose, ears.

"Spot, Picard just ordered a saucer separation. Dude, you NEVER see this ... it's very rare. Chill out for a sec."

So Spot does me a favor and sticks around for the saucer separation, which oddly enough gives me chills, and then mom comes up the stairs like she does every night. Time's up! My household hobbit swings his slippered feet off the couch. Whatever Spot thought of what we were watching, clearly he thought it had gone on too long. It was time to show mom the various projects he had left in different stages of completion.

Sinking ever deeper into the flabby sofa cushion, I took a deep breath, and changed the channel.

[You can also read this on Dad's Book of Days]