Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fatherhood and the Anxiety of Freeway Interchanges

Certain places in the city disorient me. They are passages where multiple layers of traffic converge in space, passing over trestles, across bridges, up and down ramps, at grade and at elevation, in different directions and at different velocities.

I experience a moment of anxiety at the wheel of my car, focus on the lane lines on the road, and in a few seconds I am through the vortex and in the clear. No particular bravery is required to do this; hundreds of thousands of people do every day. It's the system that does most of the work, I just hold the wheel. The elements hold together, and its contents circulate safely through their channels.

My son's pre-school is nothing like the web of ramps and tunnels that I navigate every few weeks. It's a quiet, calm place, where everyone comes together in one harmonious room and stays there. We arrive at the same time and depart together. But on the first fall day, sitting around the snack table with its bowl of animal crackers and all the toddlers silently chewing their over-full mouths, I feel the same flash of anxiety, as if I were entering the expressway chute, merging into freight traffic with locomotives rolling above me.

What could possibly connect the two situations? None of the kids that Spot played with last spring are here. Older than him, they've gone on to the half-day program. The new set of kids is younger. But this is only temporary. In three months Spot will join the older kids for the half-day program. It will be familiar to him but new to me, because for the first time in three years, I'll be taking him somewhere each morning and leaving him there. These are small, gradual changes, like the turning of the seasons.

But they remind me of bigger changes, the ones my wife and I talk about after Spot is asleep, chronicled across time zones in phone conversations that go later than we'd like. Grandma is in a state of lingering emergency. Mother-in-law is struggling against a terminal condition. The prospect of one day fathering my son without a father of my own rouses me from whatever sleep I managed to win earlier in the evening. And when not observing our son, who is channeling the cosmos as it gathers inward for a burst of youthful transcendence, I study my own face, an ancient piece of furniture, tracing the spread of cracks in the varnish that seals the wood.

A family is a group of people traveling at different velocities, some of them accelerating and some of them slowing down, some departing for a while to other time zones, but all of them usually circling back. For stretches of time, our family has been a uniform frame of reference, something against which I gauged the movement of other things. Yet lately is feels more like the expressway chute, a frame of reference that appears to be decomposing, pulled in the directions of all the different people passing away from and beyond it.

Spot is often in the backseat when I go through the chute, strapped in and protected by a steel cage as the trains go over and the barges float under us. With Spot in the backseat it's the rest of the world that is moving, not my own. It's a favor he grants me, letting me share the optimism that a small force of attraction can counter life's scattering impulsions. Thanks to our smallest and most needy family member, no one of us can go very far. I don't care where the semis and boxcars and minivans wind up. For now, even in the chute, I have my privileged and uniform place of rest.

In the outer lanes, it's true, I see the pieces breaking off, veering down ramps and disappearing through tunnels that may not circle back. I can only keep my hands on the wheel, focus on the lane lines ahead of me, and get into the clear. No bravery is required to do this; it just means picking up my son in a few moments, rolling his soccer ball out the door, and stepping into the September sunshine.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Does parenthood make men more conservative and women more liberal?

A new study says that parenthood pushes men and women in opposite political directions:

"Parenthood seems to heighten the political 'gender gap,' with women becoming more liberal and men more conservative when it comes to government spending on social welfare issues," says Dr. Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at NC State and co-author of the study. Greene and Dr. Laurel Elder of Hartwick College used data on the 2008 presidential election from the American National Election Studies to evaluate the voting behavior of men and women who have children at home. Parents who have grown children were not part of the study.

"Basically, women with children in the home were more liberal on social welfare attitudes, and attitudes about the Iraq War, than women without children at home," Greene says, "which is a very different understanding of the politics of mothers than captured by the 'Security Mom' label popular in much media coverage. But men with kids are more conservative on social welfare issues than men without kids." Men with kids did not differ from men without kids in their attitudes towards Iraq.

You can read the press release here and the whole thing here.

This is a strong study; they have a good data set, and like all good social scientists they control for variables like age and education. The results are consistent with other studies, and also easy to understand.

Response scales varied, but all ranged from a number indicating very liberal to one indicating very conservative. So, the "social welfare index" (which measured support for issues like government-sponsored, universal health care), the scale ranged from -1.37 (very liberal) to 2.07 (very conservative), based on responses to specific questions.

This is the area where the contrast between men and women was starkest. Women zoomed from -.01 childless to -.11 after having children in the social welfare index--which is statistically very significant. Meanwhile, men went from .04 childless to .14 after children. A ten point difference for both, but in opposite directions.

To which I say: Wow.

Why the difference? The researchers argue that it's women's experience with nurturing kids that pushes them a more liberal direction when it comes to weaving the social safety net. From the paper:

We argue that this long-standing liberal motherhood effect is grounded in the gendered experience of parenthood. The societal expectation as well as the reality that women play the primary role in nurturing their children and take primary responsibility for their health care, day care, and educational needs fosters an appreciation for well-funded, domestic government programs.

Moreover, with the vast majority of mothers working outside the home, mothers are required to rely on people or programs outside the nuclear family for at least part of their children’s care, which may also foster their appreciation for a supportive and generous social welfare state. The fact that the liberal effect of motherhood remains highly significant even in the regression model (Table 2) when potentially confounding variables are controlled, means that it is not simply Democratic or unmarried or poor mothers that are driving the liberal motherhood effect. Consistent with some feminist theories, there seems to be something about the experience of being a mother that leads to more liberal social welfare attitudes (Ruddick 1980, 1989; Sapiro 1983). It may be that the act of nurturing children fosters empathy and caring, thereby generating more liberal attitudes concerning the role of government in helping others.

Whereas fathers, they write, tend to "view an active social welfare state as an intrusion on their ability to provide for their families."

That sounds somewhat plausible to me--although it must be pointed out that throughout American history, many men have looked to government to support their roles as breadwinners, as with, for example, minimum wage laws. It might be more accurate to suggest that men's relatively privileged social position makes them more receptive to contemporary conservative messages, and more invested in the status quo.

Some folks, I think, will tend to see this as an essentialist argument: Women are more liberal and pacifistic because they're women, and men are just warlike jerks. But actually this research suggests politics are shaped more by social roles and day-to-day tasks than by biology. An obvious way to test this theory is to look at stay-at-home dads: Does taking care of kids push men in a more liberal direction?

I don't know of any peer-reviewed studies that have examined this question, but I explored it quite a bit in researching my book The Daddy Shift through interviews with families.

The result: It's certainly the case that many stay-at-home dads and breadwinning moms feel that taking care of kids does make dads more liberal--according to these couples, they're just more conscious of the importance of access to the commons, things like playgrounds and health care. "The world would be a better place if more fathers...took care of children," said one Kansas City mom. "I think a man becomes more aware of other social issues."

Many of these couples, it must be said, were at least somewhat liberal to begin with, which makes sense--liberal values allow for the possibility of a gender-role reversal. However, there are many conservative stay-at-home dads; do their attitudes evolve? To get a firm answer to this question, you'd need to track couples' political trajectory over many years, from pregnancy to the teenage years, and control for many variables.

If the answer turns out to be yes, this suggests that men as a group should become more liberal as they spend more time with kids. And if we want to push our society in a more liberal direction, policies that encourage male caregiving--starting with paid paternity leave--are a good place to begin. If the answer is no, we'll need to look elsewhere for an explanation about why men and fathers tend to be more conservative than women and mothers.

[Originally posted to my Mothering magazine blog.]

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Are you a writer?"

1. "Are you a writer?"

I'm at a reading by the novelist Nicholas Baker. The man who asks this question (apropos of nothing) is in his fifties, trim and gray, and he leans forward earnestly, as if he has seen in me the possibility of some revelation.

"Yes," I say. "Yes I am." I'm still surprised when I hear myself answer this question in the affirmative.

"Oh!" His eyebrows rise with admiration. "What do you write about?"

"Parenthood, mostly."

I can see the admiration drain out. "Oh," he says.

I hasten to add, "But I write about other things as well."

Too late. He turns away, hand going to his cheek, waiting for Nicholas Baker to appear.

2. "Are you a writer?"

The barista sweeping the floor isn't asking me. She's asking the long-haired bohemian with a serious mien who sits across from me.

He smiles. "No," he says. "I work in a record store."

"I thought you were a writer," she says, leaning on the broom. "You look like a writer!"

They both laugh.

"I'm a writer," I say.

They both look at me cautiously.

"Really?" I can see that the barista doesn't believe me, even though I'm sitting at the table with a pen in hand and a stack of manuscripts. "What do you write about?"

"Fatherhood, most of the time. Books. Science. Politics."

"Oh," she says, her interest visually waning. "Well, you don't look like a writer."

"What do I look like?"

She thinks for a moment, eyes skyward, and then goes back to sweeping the floor.

"You look like a schoolteacher," she says.

3. "Are you a writer?"

I'm on an airplane, and it's the steward who asks me, a clean-cut, blonde, middle-aged Midwesterner.

"Yes, I am."

"Ho boy!" he says. "I've got some great stories. You should write about one of them! This one time blah me and my father blah blah blah blah blah blah biggest fish I ever caught blah blah blah..."

I look past him, towards the emergency exit. Can I make it...?

[Originally posted to my Mothering magazine blog.]

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Parenting Has Everything to Do With You

On Open Letter to My Fellow Zinesters!

Thanks to Kate Haas and China Martens for their help and inspiration!

As he sauntered past my table I knew what he was gonna say; I could see it in his eyes.

‘It must be strange to be like the only zine on parenting. I mean how many parents still make zines, right?’

I get a version of this statement every time I tell someone I do a zine. I generally shake my head and say, ‘well, there’s actually a huge history of parenting zines….’

And almost immediately their eyes glaze over, as if I’m explaining the mechanics of pumping and preserving breast milk, and when they see I’m done, they say something like, ‘well, that’s cool, but I guess it’s not for me; what does a zine on fathering have to do with me?’

Ok, here’s my official response for the record on both these rhetorical questions.

Allow me to respond to the last question first: why you should read a zine on parenting even if you are not a parent. Let me ask you this: what does a zine on punk life in the East Bay have to do with you, what does a comic zine with foxes and bunnies as characters have to do with you, or a zine on being a fisherwoman in the Pacific Northwest have to do with you. Most likely nothing. But what they do have to offer you is this: good storytelling, filled with poignant moments displaying our humanness, our tenderness, our commitment, our love. That is why zines are so amazing.

At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, I have to say the best parenting zines are as much about parenting as they are about trying to live an authentic life, about trying to love honestly and consciously, about working to create a better world. And that has everything to do with you.

So hell yes, pick one up.

And for the initial question, I figured I’d research the genealogy of parenting zines, which I tried to do, but soon realized that it seemed impossible to find a starting point: the reality of parents asking questions, sharing strategies, and soothing fears has been around in one shape or another for a long time. Plus parenting issues tend to morph into various other areas of people’s lives, so is a zine on alternative living a zine on parenting? Well, yes. Is a zine on dropping out of school a zine on parenting? Actually, yes. On navigating non-monogamous relationships, on living in another country, on pirates and the history of arrr matey? Yes, yes, and (surprisingly) yes. I have, in fact, seen many of these very zines.

So how’s this for a history: we’ve been around for a long time.

Looking back historically, however, we can clearly see that an important moment for all zines was the early to mid nineties, a period that that saw the birth of Hip Mama and The Future Generation. These two and other zines inspired and continue to inspire parents and non-parents to take up the pen and stapler to this day.
Then, in the early 2000s, there was another explosion of new zines. Even today, despite the continued growth of blog and website accessibility, I believe zines have yet to reach their peak. In fact, the audience for zines is now greater than ever. As a friend of mine said, ‘back in the nineties they were an oddity, today they’re a genre.’

Personally, I love all zines, love the hands on quality, the notes I write in them when I give mine away, the quirky and individual touches that each zinester does to her zine. And no amount of changing the font or margin colors on a blog can replicate that personal quality.

There is no denying though that the internet has provided a cheap, easy way for many parents (and writers in general) to connect and share stories. And so, many people wonder what the future holds for zines. I, too, have been thinking about this issue and the future of my own zine, rad dad. And in doing so, I discovered an interesting point that reminds me how vital zines still are.

Zines are consciously exclusionary. Hold on; let me explain because when I hear this I immediately become nervous and suspicious because (let me gernalize for a second) zines historically have been “white,” mirroring the communities in which they initially caught on: punk and soon after, radical leftist circles. Of course, there were people of color active in those communities, and there were zines by people of color during that time period. And zine culture has slowly become more and more diverse.

But my point in all this is that exclusivity can also be an asset, an attempt to stay connected to ideals and to others in similar circumstances. Zines speak to an intended community. Perhaps even strive to create that community. People have to work to find them, have to pay money or trade their own zine for them, perhaps even write an actual letter.

However, it is important to remember that this exclusivity places more responsibility on us as writers to be self-reflective about our goals, to ask tough questions about whom we are writing to and who has access.

And if what we discover is acceptable to us.

I can’t stress this fact enough. For example, I want my zine to be everywhere, to be in people’s hands, on the buses, in bathrooms, at places of work, and not relegated to when someone has the time (and privilege) to peruse the internet at their leisure. I also don’t really want my zine displayed in some upscale baby boutique.

Sometimes the exclusivity of zines can be a defense mechanism. There are so many parents out there that if even five percent were interested in rad dad, I am afraid to imagine what that kind of attention would do to the stated mission of rad dad: to be a space for diverse voices, men and women of color, trans parents, anarchist parents, all those trying to parent in conscientious ways. How might that attention change my choices as editor to please more readers or affect my decisions about whom I publish?
I guess for me, I’ll stick to folding and stapling, to answering letters and writing them; I’ll relish the pleasure of asking a fellow writer to trade my zine for his. It’s like a secret.

A handshake.

A wink.

So I’m ready for the next shocked reaction when a person sees my forty year old butt sitting behind a table trying to sell zines. ‘Here,’ I’ll say, ‘read this and let me know what you think. I wrote it just for you.’

Here is a brief list of zines both past and present to check out.

Current mama and papa zines:
• Welfare Warriors/Welfare Mothers Voice Newspaper (1986) by, for, and about mothers in poverty.
• The Future Generation (1989) the longest-running subculture parenting zine written by single mama China Martens.
• Hip Mama (1993) the mother of mothering zines.
• Miranda (1998) Portland mama zine.
• La Dama (1998), still going on after eleven years
• East Village Inky (1999) immensely popular hand written and drawn zine. Everyone loves monkey.
• Hermana Resist (2002) by Noemi Martinez, but now it’s online only, with the promise of one last issue!
• Joybringer (2003) zine on staying politically engaged, creating communities that are multigenerational, and having fun all while parenting.
• Mamaphiles,(2003, 05, 07) a huge compilation zine (three issues so far) by over two dozen mama (and a few papa) zinesters with a fourth issue coming out soon.

Random and totally subjective list of cool mama and papa zines that have flown the coop:
• Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single, 1998 early graphic novel (thought it was a zine but not sure now). Please read this.
• Zuzu and the Baby Catcher, local Portland zine ended in 00s.
• Placenta (early 2000s) the punk rock and vegan parenting zine, only saw the first issue but loved it.
• Baby Bloc, the Activist Family Handbook 2003 -2006. I loved the politics and the illustrations.
• Mama Sez No War 2003 about mamas’ actions to protest the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq. Part of Vikki law’s prodigious body of work; check out her new book Resistance behind Bars, which grew out of a zine.
• Pirate Papa (2004) one kick ass issue.

One time zines or special issues:
• Earth First printed a “Birth First” insert in their newspaper; it was interesting yet a little freaky that it was trying to justify the choice to have kids.
• Maximum Rock-n-Roll (2000) puts out “Punks with Kids” special issue. Jessica Mills contributed to that issue and starts her own column in MRR that September: My Mother Wears Combat Boots. After 3 years of writing monthly columns, Jessica (editor of Yard Wide Yarns zine) puts out kick ass book called My Mother Wears Combat Boots.
• My Baby Rides the Short Bus, a collection of essays by parents of kids with special needs.
• As Soon As You’re Born They Make You Feel Small (1985) (from a review) A very important (and fun!) pamphlet that seeks to cover the largely ignored territory of kids’ liberation. This would be a good read for parents, kids, or anyone who works with kids and recognizes their potential for integrity, intelligence, and individuality.
• Phases of the Moon, it’s the account by two young, poor, on-the-road punk rock kids, of the year they accidentally conceived a child and made the decision to place her for adoption. A really interesting, thoughtful read (thanks Kate of Miranda zine).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lack of Health Insurance Linked to 45,000 Deaths a Year

From the New York Times today:

As the White House and Congress continue debating how best to provide coverage to tens of millions of Americans currently without health insurance, a new study (PDF) is meant to offer a stark reminder of why lawmakers should continue to try. Researchers from Harvard Medical School say the lack of coverage can be tied to about 45,000 deaths a year in the United States — a toll that is greater than the number of people who die each year from kidney disease.

“If you extend coverage, you can save lives,” said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a professor of medicine at Harvard who is one of the study’s authors. The research is being published in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health and was posted online Thursday.

The Harvard study found that people without health insurance had a 40 percent higher risk of death than those with private health insurance — as a result of being unable to obtain necessary medical care. The risk appears to have increased since 1993, when a similar study found the risk of death was 25 percent greater for the uninsured.

The increase in risk, according to the study, is likely to be a result of at least two factors. One is the greater difficulty the uninsured have today in finding care, as public hospitals have closed or cut back on services. The other is improvements in medical care for insured people with treatable chronic conditions like high blood pressure.

“As health care for the insured gets better, the gap between the insured and uninsured widens,” Dr. Woolhandler said.

Plus: Health insurers designate both spousal abuse and Caesarean sections "pre-existing conditions"--and many won't be pay for maternity care because, of course, pregnancy is optional.

I'll say it again: Send a letter to Congress right now--and tell them we need health care reform.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Health Care Can't Wait

In May, I was told that I would be losing my beloved job at Greater Good magazine. There was no animosity; the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center simply ran out of money for my position.

In losing my job, the very first thing I worried about was health care coverage for my son. That first night, I could not sleep. Instead, I played nightmare scenarios in my head of Liko getting sick or injured, and us not being able to pay for the care he needed.

But that morning, I remembered something I had forgotten: Our city, San Francisco, offers a public health care option. My son would be covered, and so would my wife. I breathed easier--and focused on finding a new job (which I did, BTW--I'm now the editor of a website set to launch later this month, and, yes, the new job provides health care).

Good for us. But what about the millions of families who don't live in places like San Francisco or Massachusetts, that have no health care coverage? Many of them die. I'm not being melodramatic: People sicken and die because they don't have the money for health care. You know this is true. The only question that matters is, How can we help them?

I've listened to the arguments of people who oppose President Obama's efforts to reform the health care system. I really have. I've read the blogs and articles. I've listened to the speeches. I've looked at their evidence.

And you know what? All I see is a monstrous failure of the imagination. A lack of empathy. A rationalization of misery. A timidity. A stupidity. This isn't an argument. It's just amoral noise.

Around the world, the quality of health care improves when the government plays a role. Private charity doesn't cut it. The government needs to be there to provide health care to kids like my son.

Send a letter to Congress today--and tell them we need health care reform.