Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Are Men in Crisis?

I just returned from the annual Chicago conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, which consisted of a series of briefings and discussions about cutting-edge research into the family. Highlights:
• Clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft started off talking about her work with “gender variant children”—boys and girls who, from a very early age, decide to embrace identities as the opposite gender—and their families. Many parents, Ehrensaft said, struggle to get their boys to be boys and girls to be girls, with especially intense pressure on boys. The problem, she argued, is that there is a clear link between the mental health of the child and support of parents for the identity the child embraces. Ehrensaft tries to help parents form what she calls a "transcendent" family, which doesn't attempt to impose rigid gender roles.

• Sociologist Barbara Risman and colleagues spent a year studying gender identity in a racially diverse Chicago middle school. Findings: Girls felt really free to play sports and didn't feel they had to play dumb to get a boyfriend. This is a big change from the past. However, they focused obsessively on the body—painting nails, dieting, etc.—and were often hyper-sexualized.

• Risman's findings about boys: Boys police each other's masculinity and sexuality ferociously. Part of this involved objectifying girls' bodies, even though they were not interested in actual sex (i.e., these boys were still very much children)—this is a form of play, albeit of a negative kind. So girls could do boy things, but boys couldn't do girl things, according to Risman's study. She used the example of a boy in the school named Marcus, who was not gender variant but was good at gymnastics and decided to be a cheerleader. As a result, he was teased, bullied, and so forth. The middle schoolers, both girls and boys, generally sanctioned the bullying. (Note that Risman’s conclusions echo those of another study run by University of Puget Sound sociologist C.J. Pascoe, reported in her 2007 book, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.)

• On the other hand, psychologist Braden Berkey reported that he's seeing vastly more confident and mentally healthy lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth. So what, the audience asked, is going on with middle school boys? Ehrensaft proposed a partial answer: Middle school is a very particular developmental stage characterized by extreme rigidity. Gender nonconformity in girls has accrued a fair amount of cultural support, she suggested, thanks in large part to the feminist movement; boys, it seems, are still on their own and are reacting to ambiguity with inflexibility. Of course, the boys (and girls) are not reacting this way on their own; they reflect the responses of parents, teachers, and the culture at large.

• According to a new study by economist Bob Drago, coupled mothers still do twice as much childcare and are half as likely to work; at the same time, coupled mothers make almost three times more money than single moms. White women are twice as likely to have access to paid maternity leave than black and Latina women; meanwhile, only one in ten American fathers has access to any paternity leave, paid or unpaid. Drago tried to figure out what would happen if paid paternity leave were offered to men in traditional families, based on survey responses and analysis. Answer: It would make a dramatic difference for moms in terms of work and care balance.

• Black marriages, reported University of Kansas sociologist Shirley Hill, tend to be more stressful and more likely to result in divorce; black couples are also least likely to embrace traditional gender roles. At the same time, however, African Americans are more likely than other groups to say they favor marriage and traditional gender roles. The answer to this paradox, according to Hill, is that black women have had more economic resources than black men (which is not the case in other American families) and are picky and hardheaded about whom they marry—often looking for men who can be providers, when only a minority have historically been able to perform that role. Thus the black historical experience is at odds with black-community ideology, according to Hill; this can contribute to stress, which in turns hurts marriages.

• I ran a panel on “gender convergence”—that is, the phenomenon of men and women growing increasingly similar in terms of how they behave and what they want out of life. The discussion turned controversial when the first panelist, sociologist Reeve Vanneman, suggested that the forty-year trend of gender convergence is now over. He noted a substantial decline in media coverage of feminist activism; a spike in men’s earnings relative to women; a slight decline in mothers’ labor-force participation; and increasingly conservative cultural shifts, as documented by surveys. Most of the other panelists, and many audience members, disputed Vanneman’s interpretation of the numbers: For decades, the pace of change was staggeringly fast, with more and more women going to work; while it has leveled off during the past ten to fifteen years, the evidence shows that the behavior of men and women continues to converge. Vanneman saw the leveling off as a cessation; most researchers at the conference saw it as a slowing down, and in some areas of male behavior, the pace has actually picked up. University of Oxford researcher Oriel Sullivan, for example, noted increasingly high levels of male caregiving and housecleaning in the U.K. and the U.S.

After the gender convergence panel, University of California, Berkeley psychologist Philip Cowan told me that “everything everybody on the panel said was true.” It seems we live in a time when many things are happening simultaneously and many of the trends seem to contradict each other.

Later, psychologist Joshua Coleman suggested that the baton of the gender revolution, carried by women for so many decades, is now passing to men—in other words, men will be changing more rapidly than women. (This is actually one of the arguments of my book The Daddy Shift, though I don’t put it in those terms.)

That change is complicated. At the close of the conference, I chatted with Chicago Pop (who blogs here at Daddy Dialectic), Marc Vachon of Equally Shared Parenting, and a former stay-at-home dad turned grad student. Our talk gradually turned toward our children, how much happiness they gave us, and what challenges we faced as fathers.

Sounds dull and perhaps a bit trite, doesn’t it? But the conversation gave me pleasure, and I still recall it with a small warm feeling. I don’t believe we are unusual; I think plenty of other guys quietly prize time with children and see their wives as true partners, even if they are not the types to make pretty speeches about it all.

The next morning I was in a cafĂ© at the Chicago airport. A group of homeland security officers sat at the table next to me, and I was struck by the homophobic, misogynist tenor of their conversation--disliked male co-workers were “fags”; females were “bitches.” These are the men who are supposed to be keeping us safe, but their emotional maturity matched the level of the middle-school boys Barbara Risman interviewed. Most of them, I’m sure, were fathers, but there was no place at that table for a language of care. Of course, each of those men has a life away from that table. There is more to each of these individuals than what I saw.

And indeed, my contrast might strike you as smug—a more educated guy looking down on a group of working-class guys—but that gulf is precisely what I want to highlight: To an unprecedented degree, today the ice sheet of “masculinity” is breaking up and the pieces are drifting further and further apart. While I present those two conversations in Chicago as binary poles, most men live somewhere along the spectrum. Most men, I believe, would not want to join either conversation: They would simultaneously sneer at the one group of “sensitive” dads and at the other group of homophobic misogynists. And, interestingly, today those men don’t have to join one or the other: They can sit down at their own table and they will find companions.

I reckon that will be the condition of men for quite a long time--that is, a state of fragmentation, contradiction, alienation, and confusion. The apparent consensus by the end of the CCF conference was that masculinity is in what one speaker called an “invisible crisis,” in which men are confused about where to draw the lines of intimacy and respect, as well as of violence. This invisible crisis will likely be the topic of next year’s Council on Contemporary Families conference.

For a summary of new and surprising findings that came out of this year's conference, see CCF’s new report, "Unconventional Wisdom."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Moon Up There

One January morning, in temperatures that now seem as unbelievable, ridiculous, and as distant in time as the reign of the dinosaurs or the divine right of kings, I took the dogs for their first walk of the day. Wearing gear designed for polar exploration, I was comfortable enough to enjoy the modest consolations of winter mornings: the peculiar sound of very cold snow compacting under my feet, like the crushing of Styrofoam; steam rising from the storm drains; the silence of cities at dawn.

But these are all adult flavors of experience, and I wouldn't rush home to tell my son about them. When I saw the moon on the western horizon, however, this had to be communicated. In fact, if I managed to get the sled team inside before the earth advanced a few more degrees in its rotation, I might even be able to show him. Right at the breakfast table, out the kitchen window, like an extra page that had been magically inserted at very end of Goodnight Moon.

While we were faster than the earth's rotation, we weren't as fast as the clouds that quickly descended from the north. By the time Spot and I were seated and looking out the window, the western horizon and the morning moon above it were gone.

"Spot, the moon is out there. Right now it's just hiding behind the clouds." We ate. "Moon up there," Spot said, turning he head and looking out the window, at the fog.

"Not yet; it's behind the clouds, but it's coming. It's there." And sure enough, within moments the clouds had passed, and like a vindicated Galileo before his telescope I pointed out the window at the frosty white globe in the growing light.

"Moon up there!"

In the weeks that passed, we rarely saw the morning moon again. It was either absent on the clear mornings or, for all we knew, hiding behind the clouds on overcast ones. But the moon had obviously not disappeared from the universe, it had not exploded or for some other reason been deleted from his private planetarium. Spot seemed to know this with certainty, and almost every morning would sit with his yogurt or oatmeal in front of him and gesture out the window.

"Moon hiding cloud," even on the clear days.

Now he was telling me what was what, sharing with me what I had taught him. But what had I taught him? The mystery of his assertion sunk in as it was repeated virtually every morning.

Moon hiding cloud. Up there somewhere.

There was room enough in his boxy toddler thought, it occurred to me, for the wildest prophetic vision, and the most sober scientific observation, for the flaming poetry of Elijah as well as the reasoning of Galileo.

Elijah: what Spot is really expressing is not certainty, but expectation; not knowledge, but hope. The Messiah will return someday, and when obscurity is removed we will see the heavens as they really are. Indeed, he will return together with Elijah in a flaming chariot, to "turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers."

Or, Galileo: working the problem through between gulps of porridge, Spot has observed a certain regularity in the phenomena of the celestial spheres, and it is therefore a matter of the highest probability that, based on earlier and repeated direct observation, the appearance of the moon is likely -- though not certain -- to be reoccur most often at night, but occasionally in the morning, just in time for breakfast and shortly before Curious George.

So, still uncertain whether my son was a budding Prophet or a junior Galileo, I leashed up the dogs for the evening walk sometime in late February. As on other frigid nights, we see the steam from the manholes, hear the sharp crunch of cold snow, and now we see the doormen dozing in the doorways. Turning the last corner on the way home, back to my sleeping household, we see -- the dogs and I -- a full moon high in the winter sky.

Whatever Spot may think about the harmony of the celestial spheres, of Galileo, Aristotle, Copernicus, or Elijah, a sublunary truth became clear to me on the moonlit stretch of sidewalk: that now, when I saw the moon, I shared his excitement. I saw the moon through his eyes. Had he not been asleep, I would have told him, taken him to the window, and together looked up. After 40 years of imperfect existence on an irregular globe, this, it seems to me, is what I have been shooting for all along.

Yes, how about that. Moon up there.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Random News, Mostly about Me

1. Greater Good (the magazine where I work as senior editor) has been nominated for another Independent Press Award in the category of "Best Social/Cultural Coverage." The new issue of Greater Good tackles the question, Why do we make art? You can read most of the essays online.

2. There is now a Wikipedia page about me. The book release party for my book The Daddy Shift will happen on Saturday, June 6, 7 pm, at Cover to Cover books on Castro St. in San Francisco. On Sunday, June 14 at 5 pm, I'll read at an event for the 'zine Rad Dad. The reading will be held at Pegasus Books, 2349 Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley, CA.

3. In January 2010, WW Norton will be publishing The Compassionate Instinct, co-edited by me, Dacher Keltner, and Jason Marsh. In Spring 2010, Beacon Press will publish Are We Born Racist?, which I also co-edited.

4. Andrea Doucet, a Canadian sociologist who wrote an important academic book about stay-at-home dads, is now turning her attention to breadwinning moms. She's set up a new discussion forum for the moms, and I hope you (or your wife/partner) will join her.

5. I got mugged on April 4--my birthday!--and now I'm recovering from a concussion. Hence, the relatively long silence. Some thoughts on that later. And on that note, watch this video, "Warriors Against War":

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Decency in Iowa

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal refuses support Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley's effort to amend the state constitution to ban gay and lesbian marriage on April 6, 2009, the first day the Senate met after the unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court to allow same sex couples to marry:

One of my daughters was in the workplace one day, and her particular workplace at that moment in time, there were a whole bunch of conservative, older men. And those guys were talking about gay marriage. They were talking about discussions going on across the country.

Any my daughter Kate, after listening for about 20 minutes, said to them: You guys don't understand. You've already lost. My generation doesn't care.

I think I learned something from my daughter that day, when she said that. And I've talked with other people about it and that's what I see, Senator McKinley. I see a bunch of people that merely want to profess their love for each other, and want state law to recognize that.

Is that so wrong? I don't think thats so wrong. As a matter of fact, last Friday night, I hugged my wife. You know I've been married for 37 years. I hugged my wife. I felt like our love was just a little more meaningful last Friday night because thousands of other Iowa citizens could hug each other and have the state recognize their love for each other.

No, Senator McKinley, I will not co-sponsor a leadership bill with you.