Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Homeschooling? For my kids?

Last month I concluded my post on why my kids don’t go to preschool by writing,

“I have five brief years to spend with Pip and Polly before I have to release them into the wilds of institutionalized education. That time is precious to me. I don’t want to waste it on preschool.”

Several of the commentators on this post subsequently pointed out that this idea of a fast approaching limit to my time with Pip and Polly overlooked an obvious possibility. By undertaking their formal education at home, i.e. homeschooling, I could push back that limit and gain more of the time with them that I consider so precious.

After reading these comments, I opened up the comment window to write a reply. “Yes, I know,” I started. Then as I further parsed my thoughts, I realized that I had more to say about this than was reasonable for a comment posting. I closed the comment window and started jotting down some notes instead. The process of articulating my reasons for assuming that I would send my kids off “into the wilds of institutionalized education” had created a cascade of thoughts that merited their own posting.


There are at least three significant reasons why I have always assumed that my children will not be homeschooled. The first is that when Pip was born I viewed the moved to stay home with him as a hiatus. I was taking leave of my own individually defined life for a while in favor of a hybrid collectivity wherein the interests of my children would take full precedence over my own. This sublimation of myself had a definite endpoint: the entrance of out last child into kindergarten. Once all the kids were handed off to the formal education system, I figured I would get back to my life and reclaim something of an identity apart from my children.

The second reason I have always assumed my children would become denizens of institutionalized education is a financial one. When Pip was born, the decision for one of us to become a full-time parent had a financial component. The cost of quality childcare is very high. As neither Ava nor I were headed towards a huge salary in the near term, we concluded that any second line of income would, after taxes, essentially go directly from our pockets to the childcare provider. In our minds, this made the decision to stay home and avoid the cost of childcare a financially acceptable choice.

Once both kids reach kindergarten age, the financial logic changes. If the kids can go to school for free, then other long-term financial questions come to the fore. For example, how do we save enough money to send the kids to college and subsequently retire in the way that we want to? This seems almost impossible for us to do with only one income. Of equal concern is what happens if Ava loses her job or is no longer able to work for some reason? Accidents happen and we no longer live in an economic environment where one can take their job for granted. A second income stream gives us a buffer if some unexpected were ever to happen.

The third reason my kids’ going to school is seemingly a fait accompli is that this is the pattern of life that I know. I grew up in a small town in southern Virginia. My mother was a public school teacher and just about everyone I knew there went through elementary, middle, and high school together. Even the nearest private school was a half-hour drive away so I rarely had contact with anyone who did not attend public school, much less anyone who did not attend school at all. It is difficult for me to imagine that the upper middle class, white, Methodists and Presbyterians who constituted my family’s social community ever discussed or seriously considered homeschooling their children.

Plus, the school system, with its regular events, performances, and athletic competitions, was a central organizing force for much of the town. To homeschool one’s kids and essentially reject the school system was to reject the community itself. It didn’t matter how uneven the educational quality was, such radicalism was not a comfortable proposition.


In many respects all three of these reasons are really symptoms of a general middle class ethos that continues to be a part of my cultural identity. I was not raised to become a full-time father. My role models, both male and female, were upwardly mobile people who went to work each day as businesspeople, teachers, lawyers, doctors, and engineers. They did much of their parenting outside of regular work hours and on the weekends. Even after the birth of Pip, I expected to eventually do the same.

I feel like this expectation was true for most of my peers as well. We came of age in an era where most kids from middle class families anticipated building their lives according to an established checklist: finish high school, finish college, get a job, start a family. The implications of this list, with ‘starting a career’ coming temporally before ‘starting a family,’ certainly were not clear to me when I started down that track, and I think – as evidenced by such things as the “opt out phenomenon” – many others have found it to be a less than perfect ideal as well. All the same, the dictates and assumptions embedded in this list about how one chooses to manage life and work and family are an engrained part of the default knowledge I hold about my world.


In The Agony and The Ecstasy, his novelization of the life of the Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti, Irving Stone describes the work of a sculptor in terms that for me captures something essential about how these questions fit into my ongoing experience as a full-time father. Picturing Michelangelo in his workshop, Stone imagines him approaching a rough hewn block of marble with an idea, an image in his head of what he wants the block to become. Stone then describes him picking up his tools and carefully chipping away at the rock, exploring what it can do and discovering what it is incapable of. With each bit of stone that falls away into dust, Michelangelo must subtly adjust the image in his head to fit what he has learned. In the process, his work becomes a conversation, a series of questions and answers in which the block of marble is an equal, and sometimes the dominant, contributor.

The moment I become a full-time father, I shaved off a piece of the marble that is my life in such a way that the sculpture I am carving no longer cohered with the image that exists in my head. With that chip, some of the fundamental assumptions I held about who I was and who I was going to be became suddenly not quite true. This has left me somewhat in limbo, scraping away at the block and trying to get a handle on what is there, what is possible, exactly where the image I carry of myself meets the evolving trend of choices I make, and how those two entities can become conversant again. It is a frightening and exhilarating position in which to be.

The question of homeschooling brings this sense of limbo between artist and art, identity and practice, right to the fore. Given the sensibility that I laid out in my November post, it seems like I should engage wholeheartedly with the idea of homeschooling. I should test it out and see what it would mean for me and my family. But I’m not there and I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. It’s a direction and course of life that leads me radically away from what I ever envisioned my final sculpture would be. Before I can even get around to the technical questions of how or why, I have to address this issue of identity. Am I a person who would homeschool his children? I don’t know. I guess I am just going to have to keep chipping to find out.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Death of Naptime: Competing Models

A month or so ago, Junior's naptime died.

It has been replaced by daddy's naptime. I don't call it "daddy's naptime," and it only lasts thirty minutes on the outside, but it is still a nap, it is me who is taking it, so this represents a sort of revolution. For Junior, the new regime is called "quiet time." It may one day provide Junior with his first retrospective inkling of his father's gradual descent into dotage. What quiet time means, from Junior's point of view, is that there is a temporal zone in the early afternoon when, for the sake of daddy's nap, or for the sake of daddy's sanity, life deliberately slows down, and pandemonium is prohibited. Things that make noise are discouraged, excessive motion is frowned upon, and an atmosphere of meditative silence, if not overall sleepiness, is cultivated.

There are days when Junior, perhaps nostalgic for the fading Golden Age of his toddler-dom, does indeed crash as he used to, which is to say with bravado and wherever he happens to find himself. But more often, he complies with the new regime and its exhortations to quietness rather than somnolence. He draws in his coloring books, erects fantastic structures with blocks and train tracks, or arranges all the objects of his life into mysterious Joseph Cornell-type compartments. It is during quiet time that Junior assembles his collection of tiny plastic beads, which no one remembers acquiring and which have since been eaten by the dog, into the shovel of his plastic bulldozer, or the tilting container of his toy boxcar.

I will find that our horde of buckeyes, harvested last September and stored in a dedicated bowl of natural curiosities, has now been dispersed among the bookshelves of our home, positioned to the left in each case, perhaps a marker indicating how one should scan the titles on each shelf from left to right, or perhaps placed there according to some inscrutable principle of feng shui. Coming upon Junior during his quiet time activity is like stumbling upon a lone prairie dog, a sentinel: he pops up as from out of a hole, his long torso still and fully extended, sniffing the air for my intentions and scanning my body for the slightest movement. Is quiet time over? What is the afternoon fate of our domestic ecosystem? If I continue on my way with wooden face and no eye contact, he drops back into his burrow and returns to his Joseph Cornell projects. If I show the slightest sign of empathy or affection, then the spell of quiet time is irremediably broken, and our noisy, kinetic life resumes.

Modeling the Nap Function
x = time, y = need for nap
A = Daddy, B= Junior
q area = daddy's productivity
r area = daddy's dotage
s = nap equilibrium

What I haven't yet explained is why the death of Junior's naptime coincided so neatly with the birth of my own. Neutral observers might reasonably infer the presence of some kind of causal relationship, and indeed, they would probably be right. But a causal relationship of what kind? There are two competing models used to explain the data plotted on the graph above. Fortunately, I am confident in dismissing the most obvious explanation, that of the Dotage Theory. The Dotage Theory posits an inverse relationship between Junior's mounting stamina and my own declining energy level. It is a conceptually simple, intuitively appealing, and straightforward explanation for daddy and junior's changing nap needs.

Plotted on Cartesian coordinates we see -- in greatly simplified outline, of course -- how daddy's need for a nap presents the concave up-sweeping parabola A. Over time, daddy's nap need is increasing, though it is not clear how this curve may taper off or plateau. Conversely, Junior's decreasing nap need plots the concave down-sweeping parabola B. At t = 0 (the year 2007) the point in time when these curves were farthest apart, the area q (or daddy's productivity) was at its greatest extent; it has steadily decreased since then, passing through a point of nap parity s, and has now entered a stage described by area r, which may be understood as an overall daddy productivity deficit.

I contend that the Dotage Theory, though perhaps valid when extended into the later decades of adult life, does not adequately capture the complexity of the system in which I find myself. My new naptime habit, I argue, is a result of the displacement of a portion of my daily sleep requirement from evening to afternoon. According to this more sophisticated Sleep Displacement Theory, my total sleep need has remained constant; what has changed is the scheduling of that portion of the day during which I harvest a certain portion of sleep, together with undisturbed Me Time.

In this view, the reason daddy now needs these afternoon naps is that he is staying up later. Now that Junior no longer naps as long as he once did -- for one, two, or even three hours in the afternoon -- late evenings are the only time daddy can carve out some solitude, find a little peace of mind, or a moment in which to read a book. Glorious, egotistical, voluptuous satisfaction of daddy's greatest middle-aged desire: not to have sex, but to read a book. And so it is: next morn, like an adolescent lover, I am groggy and grumpy, punching in at my job and giving it my caffeine-fueled best for the next 8 hours, until I can return to whatever it was I had been reading before I fell asleep the previous night.

But, long before a verdict is returned from the tribunes of science, and usually at around 2PM, despite all self-stimulating efforts to the contrary, I am hit by a collapsing wall of fatigue. I can see it coming from far off, an oncoming wave moving in from the horizon. It is usually clear that there is no escape, that there is no safe or higher ground. I simply have to ride it out, which I do. On the couch.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Preschool: A Second Look

Back in September, I posted an entry wondering if the seeming ubiquity of preschool attendance for three-to-five year olds around our neighborhood made it an unavoidable necessity for my own children to go to preschool (The link is here). My biggest concern in that post was how my children would learn to interact socially with their peers if they were with me while everyone else was at preschool. In many respects I was not actually trying to answer this question in my post. My intent was more to highlight, and vent my frustration at, one of those moments in parenting when the choices others make significantly constrict or complicate my own range of options.

In the two months since publishing those thoughts, I have returned several times to the question of whether I will ultimately have to send Polly and Pip to preschool. In the process I realized that I wanted another crack at the topic. I wanted to write something that would clarify my thoughts from the first entry and bring them to a definite conclusion. I wanted to write something that would end with a period instead of a question mark. And so, here we go again:

There is something potent about the notion of going to ‘school’. I’ve never had anyone suggest that I should send Pip or Polly to daycare for a couple of mornings a week. In fact, it was not until Pip passed thirty months – the age at which many preschools start accepting children – that anyone brought up the idea of turning him over for a while to someone else, even under the logic of giving myself a break or creating some more one-on-one time with Polly. But once the idea was in the air, it was hard to get rid of. There was some kind of unarticulated power at work, a sense that having mastered walking, talking, and eating, Pip’s next natural milestone would be going to preschool. Being conscientious parents, Ava and I dutifully sought out and found a quality preschool that we could afford and enrolled Pip in the two-day program.

As I described in the first post, Pip’s year in preschool was okay but not great. It ultimately left us wondering what he really got out of it. Preschool was supposed to introduce Pip to a whole series of things that would over three years culminate in his being “ready for kindergarten.” But in looking at some of the kindergarten readiness check lists available on the web (like here and here), I found that Pip can already cross off just about every item listed. He recognizes almost all of the letters in the alphabet. He can count to twenty. He knows how to use scissors and glue safely. He can write his name with help. In the past two months he has also demonstrated a willingness and capacity to play with other kids. Two more years of preschool are not going to make him significantly more ready for kindergarten.

And Polly at eighteen months is not very far behind Pip. She follows him everywhere and mimics him relentlessly. In the process she has learned – and, I expect, will continue to learn - much of whatever he is into. For example, she is already grasping some of the things Pip and I are working on at home. She can count to four, recognize some letters, and identify a couple of shapes. She is also becoming more capable with writing instruments like crayons and markers. And she is quite skilled at managing interactions with people of all ages. Preschool can’t hold a candle to the education gained from having an older sibling.

The one item on the readiness lists that Polly and Pip will not be able to check off before they enter kindergarten is the possession of an intimate familiarity with the dynamics of a formal classroom setting. This is not a small thing. As a commentator on one of my later posts suggested (see here), ‘school’ is a completely different world from ‘home.’ The rules are different. The routines are different. The organization of space is different. The personal relationships are different. Managing this difference is not just a matter of learning how to deal with more people. It also means understanding how to function within an additional array of power and authority centered around the classroom teacher and, further along, the administration of the school writ large.

There is an intuitive logic to this question of familiarity which says the sooner a child gets familiar with this alien world and the sooner she can start functioning within it, the more opportunities she will have to gain whatever benefits are possible. The implication of this logic is that, on average, children who attend preschool should have some continuing developmental advances over those who do not. But does it really work this way? Are the cognitive and social development of children essentially a process of linear accumulation? Does it matter whether Pip and Polly get institutionalized as three-year-olds instead of five-year-olds?

I took a look at some of the scholarly research on preschool outcomes to see if I could find any solid answers to these questions. The results of this search were interesting though not particularly definitive.

First of all, most of the preschool research I found focuses on low income populations and whether preschool attendance by these populations can reduce a frequently observed “achievement gap” between children from lower and higher income families. While most find that preschool programs do create some positive impact in this regard, these findings are not that applicable to Polly or Pip as they are members of a hyper-educated, professional class family with an income that falls somewhere within the middle bracket.

Secondly, much of this research is conducted in the context of policy discussions regarding whether the public provision of preschool should be pursued through universal or targeted programs. For parents like Ava and I who are trying to determine how many thousands of dollars we should be willing to pay for our children to go to a good preschool, these discussions offer little guidance.

In the few papers I did find which held some relevance for our context, the results were circumspect about the overall value of preschool. On the positive side, there seems to be a consensus that middle class populations do derive some advances in cognitive development from preschool (see this report for more). However, these gains are small. One report estimated that the difference between children who attended preschool and those who did not amounted to the ability to answer one more question correctly on the test instrument. This same study also found that this effect fades over time. On the negative side, another paper concluded that any cognitive gains come paired with a negative trend in measures of social development, though exactly how social development was measured is not clear to me.

Given the ambivalence and the relative lack of evidence regarding what preschool does for kids like Pip and Polly, I feel justified in deciding that actually attending preschool is a largely neutral proposition. So, what benefits might be gained from keeping them at home with me? In my original post I tried to answer this question in a comparative way, claiming that my kids will do more and learn more with me than they would at preschool. While I still believe that to be true, it is a very subjective measure and one that obscures a simpler and more self-centered reason for my ambivalence about preschool: I don’t want to give up my kids yet.

Not only do I love Polly and Pip, but I really like them. They are smart, funny, and impossibly sweet. For example, Polly blows kisses to every animal she sees – in books, in stores, in people’s houses. She has also, in her imitations of Pip, taken to crawling around the house on all fours and pretending to be different animals, woofing when she is a dog and growling when she is a bear. For his part, Pip is currently in a stage where the sophistication of his thoughts and the language he uses to articulate them is rapidly increasing. Just yesterday he told me, while talking about our upcoming Thanksgiving trip to his grandparents, that “My heart hurts because we have to wait so long before going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.”

As a full-time father, I have the rare opportunity to be immersed in all of this and to be on hand for almost everything that happens to them. While this positionality comes with its ups and downs, the cumulative effect of my experiences with them has been one of great joy. By sending Polly and Pip to preschool I would be giving up some of this, and that is not an idea I relish. More importantly, sending them to preschool effectively outsources all the fun stuff about being a parent while requiring me to spend much of my time playing the less enjoyable roles of nag and chaperone. If the roles were reversed and I got to play with my kids, read books to them, or do art projects with them while someone else cooked, cleaned, and made sure they got out of the door on time, then I would sign up for that immediately. But that’s not how preschool works and so for me, sending my kids to one doesn’t make sense.

I have five brief years to spend with Pip and Polly before I have to release them into the wilds of institutionalized education. That time is precious to me. I don’t want to waste it on preschool.

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Monday, November 01, 2010


The following essay is excerpted from the book, Truckin' with Sam: A Father and Son, The Mick and The Dyl, Rocking and Rolling, On the Road (SUNY Press, May 2010), by Lee Gutkind With Sam Gutkind. Lee Gutkind is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Arizona State University and founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Sam Gutkind is a student at Carnegie Mellon University.

The mosquitoes attacked the moment we started up the trail, an army lying in wait to ambush and destroy us. I was glad I had heeded Kathy’s warning to take plenty of bug dope, which I sprayed generously all over us. Sam, my 12-year-old son, made an “I’m being tortured, leave me alone face” and kept turning away as I sprayed his cheeks and forehead. “This smells terrible,” he complained.

“That’s what we hope the mosquitoes are saying to themselves,” Kathy said, punching the air like a shadow boxer. “‘I can’t stand the smell—I give up. I’ll leave these poor people alone and bother somebody else.’”

Of the three of us, the least prepared was Kathy, the Alaskan, who went on this hike with leaky boots. While Sam and I stomped through the snow in our waterproof, insulated Gore-Tex hikers, Kathy sloshed through puddles, swearing at her boots and vowing to destroy them the moment she returned home. Exit Glacier, in the Kenai Mountains, was named because it served as the “exit” for the first recorded crossing of the Harding Ice Fields, which was where we were headed, at the summit.

The terrain leveled off as we climbed, but the snow got deeper, burying our boots, At first, we were able to follow a trail of tiny orange flags marked by a Park Service ranger, but the flags soon disappeared, and we had to bushwhack our own way, our general direction guided by the far-off distant summit, a sparkling mass of glittering white, caked with ice blue. There were many trails—just lines of footprints, really—but none that seemed most suitable to follow. After slipping, sliding, and falling in and out of other hikers’ mistakes, we realized that braving our way through new snow would work best. But it was slow going. Three steps forward meant two steps sliding backward. The trick was to keep your legs moving, continue to scramble upward, often on all fours, in order to maintain a slow and steady forward progress.

Something happens to me when I get into situations like this, a combination of panic and sheer persistence, jelling, building, converging, and exploding. A time to be tested: against the elements, against other people, and against myself. My heart beats faster and I click into a special awareness and focus on the task ahead, an intense tunnel vision that allows me to block out any extraneous details and hone in on my overall objective, as in the case of the rising plain of snow confronting us.

“Fall down nine times and get up ten,” is the phrase I continue to press upon Sam.

“Never give up,” I say, pushing the concept further by paraphrasing Winston Churchill, “Never give in, never give up. Never. Never. Never. Ever.” This is something that I, an old-new dad, in my early sixties, read in elementary school and never forgot.

As I move forward in this manner, I become increasingly crazed. I am not self-destructive. I don’t jump out of airplanes or windsurf, but I hunger for situations offering an edge, and then I try to see what it takes—what inner resources I will have to muster forth—to meet the challenge and beat it. I knew that Kathy was minding Sam for the moment, so I could permit this explosion of expression.

Then I began running. In my hiking boots, my daypack bouncing on my back, it was like plunging through the obstacle course at U. S. Coast Guard boot camp all over again, forty years later.

Suddenly, I was young, strong, driven. The distance between Sam and Kathy and I began to lengthen. After a while, I lost sight of them. I knew that Kathy was slowing down and tiring and I realized that my responsibility, Sam, was behind me. But I couldn’t help myself. I felt jet-propelled.

Finally, I forced myself to slow down. I was feeling guilty for leaving behind my friend and host, not to mention my son, but I was also glowing inside with an aura of triumph. I could still beat most people, I thought. I could still marshal my amazing ability to concentrate with all of my physical resources and demonstrate my superiority and my grit over anybody, almost. But then came the sound and movement, which I first sensed and then heard: distinct footsteps behind me. I turned. Sam.

The realization that Sam had caught up with me—me at my strongest, my most powerful and supercharged best—was startling. For years I had been the person pushing Sam and setting the pace for him—but I could see now that he really didn’t need me as much anymore and would soon not need me at all. Like any son, he was catching up with his father. Bypassing me was inevitable.

This is what we work to achieve as fathers—and in certain ways dread, when we are so incredibly successful.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


At 3.75, there is a certain way of running on the cratered surface of playground wood chips, with arms bent at the elbows like the upper limbs of a marsupial, tucked in and irrelevant. There is the forward motion -- toddling -- generated by legs swinging without hips to smooth them out, the torso upright and isolated from the movements of the lower half, so unlike the athletic movements of a 6 year old. At 3.75 persist the red apple spots on the cheeks of a boy that are the envy of passing women.

At 3.75, we are bent over, he more comfortably than I, examining what flora can survive the Park District's weekly motorized guillotine: thick blades of something resembling lawn grass, and the flowers of a common clover plant; bottle caps burrowing their way to archaeological posterity, and the locust seedpods that he collects into bundles because they rattle like plastic toys. At 3.75, I show him freshly shucked buckeyes, and he is not moved. Not much later I circle round a tree, harvesting cicada shells, which he drops from his hand as soon as I place them there.

When my son turns 3.75, as his father turns 41.5, our individual chronometers briefly stop, marking an absolute moment in time with two particular values. At that moment, in an empty playground between Lake Shore Drive on one side and a late-season pickup game on the other, we are visited by the daddy dialectic.

The dialectic is better known for its role in cosmic things, revealing its staging of history's greatest events in small and offhand ways, as when Alfred Hitchcock appears in a film of his own direction. For those who happen to be listening, perhaps writing a thesis in philosophy a few floors above, the morning echo of hooves through the streets of a German town, trailing behind the horse that carries Napoleon, announces that the world has changed forever.

The daddy dialectic produces revolutions of a smaller scale. When it visits us several weeks after the cicadas fall silent, it is not the insects but my son who has molted. I can see his transparent shell. It is in the baby swing, with the little rubber baskets for four-legged children. "Daddy, those swings are for babies," he tells me from the big-kids swing a few yards away. Then, realizing that he is now a creature with a past, no longer living in a uniform, timeless present: "I used to be a baby. Do you remember when I was a baby? Were you a baby, too, daddy?"

Yes, you used to be a baby, it was just yesterday and I remember it well. And of course, I used to be a baby too. But I don't remember that.

And so departed the daddy dialectic into the autumn afternoon. In my hands it deposited the worldly recollections of my son's first 3.75 years of life, like the molted cicada shells I had handed to him in August. I hold these moltings as if I had lived in them myself. But to him, they are the only signs of a first experience that will always be alien, reflected back to him by the others and objects he touched but does not remember: family albums, cell cam pics posted to Facebook, preschool artwork, stories we make a point to tell him or the ones we manage, haphazardly, to remember. What is clear and distinct to me in the run of those 3.75 years will be the hazy, enchanted, mythological prelude to his later life.

Of course I, who am interested enough in his childhood that for three years I have written about it on this blog, remember virtually none of my own. Sometimes, in the hallway at preschool, or on ever rarer occasions when I am alone in a cafe, I hear mothers trading stories about the wild animals trapped in their slings, the untrained or tranquilized primates that challenge and bewilder them, as if they had never been such very small children themselves. To hear and join in their chatter, the experience of an other's earliest youth unfolds as fresh and as rough as accounts of the first voyages of discovery, when continents and oceans were opened to Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama.

But the freshness of early childhood and voyages of discovery are only possible after a tremendous forgetting. What Columbus found had been there for some time, and others had come across it well before him. In laughing with and being charmed by small children, I am laughing with and being charmed by what I imagine I used to be, seizing on their image in order to resurrect vestiges of the toddler's neural architecture preserved within the later formations of my cerebrum. I hold in trust the memories of my son's first years, and he restores me to a semblance of my earliest self.

At 3.75, the days of October string out before us like a gallery of paper lanterns twirling slowly on a sagging rope. They filter dry light through draperies of cellulose, to enclose the world in glowing boxes or orange, red, and gold. At the end of this collapsing gallery that arches above our sidewalk waits November and, not far beyond, birthday number 4. For the first time, he knows his birthday is approaching. And he knows that it will be followed by another one with yet another number, the way he now knows that fall is a season that is followed by winter, the way he used to be a baby, and now is not.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Here's to Having Kids!

One of my guilty pleasures is taking about 15-20 minutes each Friday to read Bill Simmons’ column on Written from the perspective of someone who is a passionate fan, a sports addict, and a recreational gambler, Simmons’ column jumbles together sports, cultural touchstones, mildly puerile comedy, and anecdotes from his personal life in a way that I generally find amusing.

This past summer, however, a couple of his comments rubbed me the wrong way.

Bill Simmons has two kids. While his editors want him to avoid talking about them, every once in a while he can’t help it. Over the summer, he wrote a couple of times about things his young son had gotten into – vomiting in the hallway, slinging dog poop around the house. He prefaced these stories with the line, “Here’s another reason not to have children.” Now I know he was trying to be funny, and in other columns he has talked about how much he likes his kids, but whenever I read that line I found myself getting annoyed.

By employing this kind of light-hearted complaining about kids in a column aimed at 15 to 40 year old men, Simmons is doing fathers a disservice. The line “here’s another reason not to have children” draws upon and perpetuates for his audience a larger discourse of fatherhood that positions ‘dear old dad’ as a largely disengaged parent for whom the kids are mostly a nuisance imposed upon him by his wife. This is the same ‘dad’ who in Hallmark’s humorous Father’s Day cards spends his non-work hours playing golf, mowing the yard, or taking a nap (sans kids). While this is certainly not the only discourse of fatherhood out there, the prevalence and widespread acceptance of this particular trope makes it more difficult for me to be taken seriously when I speak in genuine and caring ways about my children.

Since this summer, I’ve been trying to imagine a counterpoint to Simmons’ “reasons not to have kids.” The statement I had in mind is not about why my kids are great per se, but more about why I like having kids in general. Articulating this general thought has been trickier than I first expected.

The reasons not to have/like kids are pretty easy to capture. They boil down to two logical categories:

1) Kids require you to do things you don’t want to do (e.g. clean up excrement, negotiate over petty things like how many spoonfuls of vegetables to eat, forego sleep)

2) Having kids requires you to give up things you want to do (e.g. lazily reading the newspaper on Sunday morning, taking a spur of the moment trip, sleep again)

The likes are much harder to parse into simple groups. I find the times when I am most aware of how much I love my children come in unpredictable and irrational bursts. Sometimes it’s when they are wandering around drowsily after first waking up from a nap. Other times it’s when I watch them happily work on something together. I also really enjoy hearing them laugh uncontrollably and seeing the pride they feel when they are suddenly able to do something new.

In fashioning a reason to like having kids, it was tempting to group these moments under a label like ‘innocence’ or ‘purity’ or ‘simplicity’ and to pose them against the exhaustion, stress, cynicism, manipulation, and jealousy of adulthood. But this opposition is fanciful and unfair to both children and adults. My children are not naïve actors in the world. They have their demands. They have their desires. They have their strategies to pursue them. In this, they are not pure, innocent, or simple. Similarly, as an adult I don’t find my life to be defined in world-weary terms. Adulthood is so much more complicated and interesting than that.

I’ve found that a more honest assessment of what I really like about having kids has to do with the quality of newness with which their world is flooded. For my kids, so much of what they encounter in the world is new and unknown. This makes the smallest things become a cause for great excitement and investigation. For example, I gave Pip a pair of scissors yesterday, and he spent a solid two hours patiently cutting large pieces of scrap paper into tiny bits. Similarly, Polly spent much of this morning shining a flashlight into various rooms, against different walls, and inside a range of containers to see how the color of the reflected light changed from spot to spot. It’s fun to be taken in by this kind of fine-grained curiosity and experimentation. It reminds me of how intricately textured the world is and how satisfying such mundane things as the click of scissors in your hand can be.

This quality of newness also points towards what I think is the fundamental reason I enjoy having kids. A friend and I were talking recently about the current iteration of the do-it-yourself movement. He was describing to me how enjoyable he found it to create something from scratch that he could have just gone to a store and bought off the shelf. For him, this joy comes from a combination of two factors: 1) learning how something like butter or a radio actually comes to exist, and 2) feeling an inordinate pride at having made them with his tools. Somehow, the butter tastes sweeter and the radio sounds clearer when the labor of production comes directly from his own hands.

As my friend talked, I realized that the feelings he was describing were very close to how I feel about having children. First, I get to experience how a person is made. I have watched as my own children learned to crawl then stand then walk. I have listened as they moved from babbling to words to sentences. I have seen them develop particular interests and the infinite idiosyncrasies that sculpt a human into a person. I have even had the chance to tinker with these processes by introducing Pip and Polly to a whole variety of words, ideas, and activities.

And then, when things go well, I get that intense feeling of pride. Everything Pip and Polly accomplish was achieved better or quicker or smarter than anyone else’s child could have done. It’s a bit silly, but after investing such large amounts of time and energy in something or someone it’s hard not to become overly emotional about their successes (and failures). I understand now why professional athletes cry at the end of championship games.

And so, here is my counterpoint to Bill Simmons and his reasons not to have kids: Raising children is the most intense and personal DIY project you can ever imagine. Each child is different, and you have to figure out a tremendous amount of stuff to make your parenting work. But, in the process, you can develop a relationship with this person unlike any other. You can also come to understand much more clearly why people are who they are and how they come to do the things that they do.

And if all goes well, there is no feeling sweeter than parental pride (whether it’s deserved or not).

Interested in stories about our family or just some thoughts about being a parent in this day and age?

Take a look at my blog at

There's a new post every Thursday.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Counting Dads at Preschool Potluck

Guess what happened at our fall preschool potluck? Lots of dads showed up. Hooray!

I don’t know what was going on. Had they all read that recent Newsweek cover story about how men need to step up to the parenting plate to survive the rigors of the 21st century? The one rehearsing those awful statistics about how even unemployed men do less housework than their wives, and including a choice and characteristically hopeful quip from the founder of this blog?

Or is it that Daddy Dialectic has succeeded in guilting all those late 20- and early 30-something dads into giving up whatever the hell it is they are so devoted to doing on Monday evenings, once every three months, at 7 o'clock in the evening? Reorganizing their tool box? Lowering a new racing engine into the chassis of their pro stock car? Founding a charter school? Or maybe flying back from Africa where they have performed free surgery on thousands of needy children? Perhaps these worthy projects were all put on hold for this one modest event in late September, because suddenly, strewn among the current generation of neighborhood toddlers, there were dads everywhere. And for the future of this generation of preschoolers, I don’t think that is a bad trade-off.

I should give some specifics as to the sample size and metric upon which I base these remarks: having attended a number of preschool potlucks, I now feel like I have a good sense of which dads can be expected to attend these events, which dads would probably rather not -- but can be prevailed upon approximately once every 9 months to do so -- and those who will just never show, because they need to … well, do whatever the hell it is they need to do.

A number of the latter have nonetheless found the time to encumber their wives with at least two children, a toddler in one arm and a suckling infant in the other, a situation that is usually best witnessed around 7:45PM in January, at the conclusion of the winter potluck, when it’s past the kids’ bedtime, frickin’ freezing outside, and mom has to belt the kids into the back seat. As far as I’m concerned, the Chicago Police should be stationed outside the building door, issuing violations for “Being Too Much of a Male Douchebag for the Conditions ,” or, “Failing to Yield Your Wage Slave Ubermensch Identity” in order to help out with a quarterly ritual of some significance. Fines would range between $100 to $150.

The question naturally arises, what exactly is it that prevents dad from going to the preschool potluck? That is indeed the mystery. Might it be answered by that classic alibi, work? The one reason rooted in real, inescapable, hard-core, survival-of-the-fittest economic imperatives (such a string of conventionally masculine adjectives!) The realities of a globalized, Great Recession world that make it virtually impossible to break out of the centuries-old division of gender labor that decrees: And man shall work, so that woman shall attend potluck dinners.

Pondering this, I envision the deals doubtlessly being struck around kitchen tables across the land: “Look, honey, I bust my ass at this job that I can’t stand (and at least I still have one) to make sure that you and the kids have a roof over your head. So in return, it’s your job to take the kids to the potluck, while I, well, while I whatever.” And the wife nodding her head in agreement, or just nodding her head, and thinking to herself, “So… (even though I have a law degree) we’ve decided that I’m going to stay home, so … and you really are doing important stuff and earn more money, so… OK, I’ll be the one who takes the kids to the potluck tonight, and then again … Every. Single. Time.”

Fair enough. Or is it? Obviously, it doesn’t apply to those unemployed men who aren’t helping around the house. But what of those who are working? I do in fact know some super-achieving males, those who make over the infamous $250,000 threshold doing such things as cutting-edge medical research, and therefore are usually in a clinic or somewhere in China or South Africa advancing the field in ways that will probably benefit all of humanity, or at least the minority with health insurance. You could argue that guys like this deserve a pass. Go, Great Men, go save the world. I’ll take the kids.

Yet aside from this conspicuous minority of Great Men who might – might -- deserve a pass, the interesting thing is that this alibi is not deployed by my wife, whose earning power stands to my own as does the Pentagon’s latest fighter jet to a paper kite. She can run with the best of them and does run, back and forth to the train station every morning and night. In fact, of the moms who never fail to attend these modest potlucks, I can think of a half dozen of them who work at least part time and a few that, like my wife, are full-timers. Somehow, they are always there. They would be ashamed not to be.

And here is where the double-standard comes in: working moms are more insistent about cutting out to be there for the events in their kids’ lives, but they get dinged for it, and make less than their male counterparts. Their employers mistakenly anticipate lower productivity from their female workers, let them cut out, and pay them less. Their husbands don’t get off so easily. They think – assuming they want to cut out from work, which is evidently still an open question – “I might be able to do this once or twice, but much more than that and it will hurt my career.”

The dad who checks out of the meeting for an early flight, so he can get back in time for his daughter’s softball game, might be fawned over by the women in the meeting room, but one too many such departures and his boss might pull him aside for some words about his future.

Which brings me back to the $250,000, heroic medical researcher. Maybe I shouldn’t give him a pass, even if in reality he happens to be a neighbor to whom I have entrusted the care of a very sensitive portion of my insides. Why not? Because until guys like him conspicuously demonstrate that they will not automatically trade family time for career advancement, until they insist that the well-being of their own children is just as important as the well-being of future generations to whom their scientific labors are dedicated, it will be harder for Joe Spreadsheet to make the case that he has to cut out in time to get to the softball game. And easier for Joe Douchebag to get out of a potluck just because he wants to.

In which case, I say, write that last guy a ticket.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A social dilemma: What if we’re the only ones who don’t send their kids to preschool?

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, we went to the playground. The sun was out. The air was warm. And the place was empty. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and Pip, Polly, and I were the only people there. This was a surprise to us. On the previous Tuesday there had been a number of kids running around, whipping down the slides, twisting on the swings, and creating the general commotion that is the specialty of children. Now, the playground was a ghost town. It was so quiet I could hear the swings creaking as they were pushed by the morning’s gentle breeze.

We stayed for about an hour. During that time, only one other kid appeared – a toddler who was probably 18 months old. At first my kids enjoyed having the place to themselves. They ran up the slides. They hopped from empty swing to empty swing. They scurried up the little climbing wall over and over. But soon the absence of other kids to watch and to play with left them bored and ready to leave.

Where was everyone? The answer came to me on the walk home: preschool. With the passing of Labor Day, all the area preschools are now in session. The kids we had seen the week before (and the week before that) are now scattered about the region’s various churches and private preschools. And they won’t return again until sometime in the month of May.

This phenomenon has raised an uncomfortable question for me: Am I going to have to send my kids to preschool to give them the chance to play with other kids? I hope not. We’ve done preschool. Ava and I sent Pip to one last year, and the experience was mediocre for us all. This was not the fault of the preschool. The program was well regarded, and the teachers did everything they said they would do. Pip made art projects. He went to Spanish class. He did music class. He learned some sign language. He got playtime everyday. We went with him on field trips to a local farm in the fall and to a exhibit of live butterflies in the spring. His experience was everything the ‘preschool industrial complex’ (Ava’s term) promises preschool can be.

But we never really were happy with it.

Our unhappiness stemmed largely from two areas. First, it felt like the activities were tailored heavily towards producing ‘things’ for parental consumption. On a daily basis, we were swamped by a deluge of paintings, drawings, collages, paper cutouts, etc. The importance given to all of this ‘stuff’ by the teachers did not align well with our own attempts at living a relatively simple life.

Second, Pip never really seemed comfortable. While he always said he liked preschool, whenever we did something with him there, he never appeared happy and relaxed. In fact, the indelible image for me from Pip’s year in preschool is of him standing on stage at the end of the year concert and nervously pulling the cuffs of his shorts up around his hips while he was supposed to be singing along with the music. His uncertainty in that moment was emblematic of what I saw from him throughout the year.

The main reason we sent Pip to preschool was for him to gain some “socialization.” As a two-year old, he was significantly more comfortable talking with adults than with kids. We hoped that by having the opportunity to independently interact on a regular basis with a group of kids his own age, he would at least get comfortable in a crowd and maybe even make some friends. In this respect, Pip’s preschool time was largely successful. He is much more outgoing now with other kids than he was a year ago. In particular, he is much more willing now to talk to new kids on the playground and engage in the kind of back and forth that is necessary for learning about new people.

That willingness made me hopeful that we could skip preschool this year. Over the summer our family moved to a new city and the potential for non-preschool socialization opportunities seemed high. We now have the great fortune of living in a neighborhood that is crawling with kids of all ages. There are strollers in abundance and tire swings hanging from multiple trees. During our first couple of weeks, Pip had begun to make a couple of friends at the playground nearby. He was talkative and playful and seemed to be figuring out how one goes about making friends.

Then Labor Day arrived, and now I’m facing a dilemma. In a new place where we don’t go to church or have an established network of family and friends with young children, if we want our kids to interact regularly with others their own age, do we have any choice but to send Pip (and eventually Polly) to preschool?

Obviously, I don’t really want to. In addition to my ambivalence about Pip’s earlier preschool experience, the following question comes to mind: what good comes from my being a full-time father if we are just going to send the kids to preschool every morning? I can do all the cognitive stuff better and more efficiently at home. The kids will get more direct attention, read more books, learn more letters and numbers, get exposed to more novel ideas, and have longer periods for playtime with me than at preschool. As a result of all of this, they’ll probably start reading and writing on their own sooner, too.

But what I can’t replicate at home is a social environment where Pip or Polly has to negotiate things with six other kids. How important is that in the long run? Will it put them at a significant disadvantage once they go to kindergarten or are these social development moments ones that they can catch up with pretty quickly? I don’t know. These are questions I’m still working out.

In the meantime, I’m trying a couple other avenues to get them playing with other kids. The most promising is an internet meet-up group for playdates that on the surface looks to be well-organized and highly active. Unfortunately, like the good preschools near us, there is a waiting list to get in. So, while I wait in line there and elsewhere, Pip, Polly and I’ll keep prowling the playground, hoping for that chance meeting with some other preschool holdouts.

Monday, August 30, 2010

What Kids Want from Technology

For my fellow geek dads (and moms): Check out this very original study of what children want from technology. At first glance, the questions and the answers they provoke seem, well, child-like: Of course, the kids want the world, they want the whole world, and they want today and tomorrow:

Love that song!

But the Latitude study reveals some deeper things going on, which are nicely summarized in this video:

There's a couple interesting things here. One is that children's science-fiction dreams are very much shaped by how they're experiencing technology right now, and the video does a nice job of connecting what they imagine to real technological trends like augmented reality and RFID tags. Innovation starts in imagination and children live in a world augmented by stories and images in their heads; it's a strange but true fact that a great deal of recent technological innovation has started in childhood science-fiction dreams.

On a much less idealistic level, it's also true that wants and needs drive innovation; children are imagining things that someone will try to manufacture and sell to them, as both fantasy and reality.

But consider, for a moment, how so many of these desires rely on being connected to other people. The kids want cool stuff, but they're also imagining opportunities for creativity and community. Veruca Salt and Charlie Bucket co-exist within all of us, a selfish devil and a community-minded angel, which is the root of the appeal of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story. It's really up to us adults, parents and non-parents alike, to create a world in which kids are encouraged to find and amplify the non-materialistic, communitarian possibilities presented by a connected world like the one you're a part of on this blog. In other words, we should all strive to be Grandpa Joe, not Veruca Salt's bad egg of a dad! Honk honk!

I'm curious: Any stories to share about your kids and technology? Any thoughts inspired by this video? Leave them in a comment!

Revised from a post on

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why I don’t want to be called a ‘stay-at-home dad’

My family has just moved from Cincinnati, Ohio to Lexington, Kentucky. Along with figuring out how to move all of our stuff from point A to point B, there have emerged a variety of pesky other tasks to be completed that have stretched out the moving process by an extra couple of weeks. One of these tasks has been a full reworking of our basic insurance policies.

During just about every application process the agent on the phone has asked what I do. Now, my wife is the breadwinner for our family and it’s my responsibility to care for our two kids – three-year-old Pip and 18-month-old Polly. So, generally, when people ask me this question my reply has been “I’m a stay-at-home dad.” But this time, I wanted to try something different.

I’ve never really liked the phrase ‘stay-at-home dad.’ This is in part because in the parenting forums my wife and I frequent at-home parents are known by acronyms: SAHM for moms and SAHD for dads. When one reads this out loud - as we do from time to time – a mom is “sam” and a dad is “sad.” While this is obviously an unintended slight, and not a subtle commentary on the worth of a father who is the primary caregiver in a family, it still rubs me the wrong way.

Another reason for my discomfiture with the term ‘stay-at-home dad’ is that whenever I use it in one of these over-the-phone conversations the first reaction I get from the person on the other side is often a reassuring statement of some sort meant to show me that they think what I’m doing is okay. Women frequently tell me how they didn’t work when their kids were young and how great it is to have a parent taking care of the kids instead of a day care worker. Men usually say how they could never do what I am doing.

Both statements are nice and innocuous in and of themselves but I can’t help but feel that they would not find it necessary to reassure me if I told them I was a doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. Those positions are acceptable because they are ‘work.’ The ‘stay-at-home dad’ floats in a more squishy and nebulous categorization that I have come to feel undervalues and even denigrates the labor involved in taking care of children.

My sensitivity to the label ‘stay-at-home dad’ was recently heightened after reading a chapter on the professionalization of motherhood in a book entitled Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples. Co-written by an anthropologist and an economist, both from Macalester College, Glass Ceilings is an academic look at the ‘opt-out’ phenomenon occurring among certain highly educated and professionally successful women. It examines why some of these women choose to leave their jobs, how they spend their time as mothers, and what some of the longer term economic repercussions of these choices are.

A key point in the authors’ argument about professionalization was how little ‘at home moms’ were actually at home. The authors found that the mothers they interviewed were extremely active, usually as managers and programmers for both their own kids and entities such as public and private schools that serve much larger communal populations.

This point correlated well with my experiences and got me thinking about the ‘professional’ nature of my own caregiving. Taking care of our children is not something I do because I can’t do anything else. Guiding their physical, emotional, intellectual, and social development is the job I happily choose to do. I could be working in a ‘real’ job, but then I would have to pay some other professionals – daycare workers, teachers, nurses, coaches, cooks - to do all the work I am doing now.

With all this labor and responsibility, there should be a better descriptor for me than ‘stay-at-home dad.’ I tried out a couple of different combinations and the best one I came up with was ‘full-time father.’ This phrase feels better to me for a couple of reasons.

First, it employs a common term from the world of paid labor – 'full-time' – and thus carries with it associations of ‘work’ instead of the supposed leisure of the ‘home.’

Second, beginning the phrase with ‘full-time’ sets up the listener with the expectation of a job or career. Following this with ‘father’ presents them with a bit of a curveball, one that perhaps can jostle some of the latent Mr. Mom images that seem to trail along with the idea of a ‘stay-at-home dad.’

Lastly, ‘full-time father’ gets me out of the SAHD acronym and gives me a nice alliterative phrase that sounds like it could show up as an occupation choice on one of the forms from the US census.

Which brings me back to the insurance agents. I spoke to six of them last week. Two didn’t ask about my occupation. Four did. Each time I was asked I replied as casually as I could, “I’m a full-time father.” The first time this phrase felt good and solid, though a touch unfamiliar, as it rolled off my tongue. Each successive time I passed it off with a bit more confidence.

The overall effect wasn’t substantially different – two of the agents talked about their children and one said that he could never do what I do (the fourth just kept plowing through his form) – but I don’t expect this change in title to be a magic elixir. It may be that the only real difference emerging right now from my use of the term ‘full-time father’ is an increase in the level of comfort I have with my own identification. And, for the time being, that’s enough to keep me using it. At least until someone else comes up with something better.

Interested in stories about our family or just some thoughts about being a parent in this day and age?

Take a look at my blog at

There's a new post every Thursday.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What a Stay at Home Dad Wants Moms to Know, in Fourteen Points

Moms and Dads Socializing at A Local Playground

Prelude to The Fourteen Points (skip to bottom to get straight to it)

Whenever I look back over my ongoing run as a primary caregiver and ask myself what have been the greatest challenges I've faced, two things immediately leap to mind. The first is that I am not a morning person, whereas my son is a morning person. Eighty-percent of the anguish of my life -- and perhaps his -- resides in this contradiction.

As for the second greatest challenge, it can be summed up in one word: moms.

This post is about a stay-at-home-dad's experience dealing with moms, a topic that I've treated before and to which I now return with the following list of Fourteen Points That I Think It Would Be Helpful for Moms to Know About Dads Like Me. This, in the hope that I can contribute to a reduction in the unmistakable awkwardness with which every group of moms typically receives a specimen of the modern parenting bestiary, the Cyclops of the playgroup set, the Quasimodo of preschool pick-up: the stay-at-home-dad.

I put this list together because, to be frank, the difficulty of dealing with moms -- with stay-at-home moms in particular -- has come as the greatest surprise of my 3.5 year stint as my son's primary caregiver. As far as the moms in my neighborhood go my life has, during this time, become segregated like the orthodox synagogues to which I have never belonged, with men and women praying to the same god on either side of a dividing curtain. A sort of breast-feeding, stroller-pushing version of the Shriners, Elks, or Freemasons has absorbed all but the most independent of them into ritually pure conclaves which stand out as the most homogeneous social groups I have ever encountered.

The magnitude of my surprise stems from the contrast with what went before. Whatever gender balance may have obtained in my place of work or in my social life, however many female friends and confidants I may have had, as soon as the women around me are assigned responsibility for the survival and upkeep of one or several munchkins, somehow a collective step is taken through a Way-Back Machine to the American 1950's, or closer in time but further in familiarity, to the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran, with veils and de jure segregation in public.

Unsuspecting Parents Step into the Gender Way-Back Machine

So easily does a new gender segregation seem to dissolve the happy gender mixing I once knew -- in graduate school, in corporate and non-profit places of employment, and in the halls of academe; so quickly do the moms who chose to stay at home shift comfortably into the ancient routines and traditions of gender segregated motherhood; so quickly is the network of venerable ladies' institutions known as "book clubs" re-purposed, refitted, and rejiggered into bright and shiny new "playgroups" -- that I have occasionally wondered if the women with whom I seem to share little but physical space on a playground might be more comfortable donning a veil, hijab, or chador, thus removing any ambiguity about their Social Preferences While Parenting.

This regime of "separate but equal," as I mentioned above, stands in bracing contrast to my life-before-parenting. I've always had lots of female friends. In my freshman year of college, I immediately became best friends with a woman living across the quad. We shared coffee, gossip, and travels in Paris and Madrid, all without ever crossing the Rubicon of intimacy. She was one of several such female friends, some of them regular dance partners whose boyfriends didn't like to dance, some of them coworkers united under the yoke of the same eccentric boss, some of them academic companions with a shared set of intellectual pleasures and pursuits. I still have these friends. But, with the transition to parenthood, the rate of female-friend accumulation has hit a concrete wall and fallen onto the floor like a dead fish.

Sweet baby Jesus, ladies --what gives? Why the wall? We can all clamor for the de jure institutional structures of parenting equality, but they are undermined if what we practice is de facto gender segregation. At some point, social attitudes contribute to the drag produced by social institutions on the progress towards equality. Until those attitudes change -- until the book-club-turned-playgroup comfortably admits its first Male Member, a separate but equal sphere of women's domesticity will be preserved into the 21st century.

So ladies, I give you a Stay at Home Dad's Fourteen Points and say "Tear down that wall!"

I've got some damn good recipes to share with you, when you do.

The Fourteen Points

#1. I don't want to sleep with you. So can we please just chill about that.

#2. I've noticed that you rarely invite me to your functions or friend me on Facebook. Please see #1, which I hope will clear things up a bit.

#3. Your kids will probably like me because I actually enjoy playing with them. So if you're friendly, I'll watch them so you can go take a coffee break with your SAHM-pack and talk about mom-stuff, like how you want to lose those extra 15 pounds.

#4. Although even if you do lose those extra 15 pounds, I still won't want to sleep with you. Nothing personal. So again, let's please just chill about that.

#5. I can be just as catty as you. (Eye-roll, then See #3-4)

#6. I am not a pedophile. I mean, really.

#7. I am actually a very good cook, and enjoy the conceptual overlap with chemical engineering, or how the strategic application of heat denatures molecular bonds.

#8. Every time your kid sees a SAHD with a stroller in the park, packing his kid's lunch, handling visits to the doctor, picking him up from preschool, or hanging with their own mom on a playdate, she's that much less likely to grow up believing that these things must always be women's work.

#9. If I never see your husband doing any of the above-listed things on weekends, days-off, or after work, I start to think you've got a bum deal and maybe think they really are women's work.

#10. If I never see your husband at after-school potlucks or fundraisers or Sunday afternoon birthday circuits, I start to think he may just be a loser.

  • #10a. Unless he works for Goldman Sachs and really is out making millions -- but then why don't you have a nanny?
#11. I don't necessarily form male friendships on the basis of my role as a stay-at-home-dad, though I don't reject them for this reason, either.

#12. Setting up a date with me on behalf of your stay-at-home-husband probably won't work. Just invite me to the next preschooler birthday blowout and see if maybe we hit it off.

#13. I am capable of talking about episiotomies, natural birth, VBAC's, IVF, male and female infertility, breast feeding, doulas, food allergies, sleep training, disposable versus cloth diapering, developmental stages and delay, what you should pay babysitters and nannies, sippie cups, vaccinations, and how lazy your husband is.

#14. I also really enjoy, and maybe even prefer, talking about things that have little to do with parenting.

Portrait of a SAHD I Know

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Can Same-Sex Marriage Save Straight Marriage from Itself?

Last week, I published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle about the Proposition 8 ruling. It's nice and short and topical, and I hope you'll go check it out and send it to friends and family who might benefit from reading it. However, that op-ed is derived from a much longer essay, which will appear in the anthology Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood, forthcoming in September 2011. I'm publishing that longer piece here, slightly updated, just because I can:

* * *

I was never a great friend of marriage. When I was growing up in a series of east coast and Midwestern suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the institution of marriage seemed more like a gory roadside smash-up than the loving union of one man and one woman. And as I spent junior high school witnessing the disintegration of my family and of many of the families around me, I was also discovering that boys were boys and girls were girls, and boys who acted like girls were faggots.

You see, when I was a kid in Saginaw, Michigan, I made a horrible mistake: I chose to play the flute in my school band. I was the only boy to do so. And at first, I was just awful. There were twelve chairs, and for the first half of the first year, I was dead last. The girl flutists ignored me. The all-male drum section made it their habit to inflict on me the full range of junior-high-school torments, from tripping me up in gym class to writing “faggot” on my locker in magic marker to straight-up beat-downs. But I persisted in blowing the flute, that silvery phallus.

Do I sound like a rebel? A gender nonconformist? Don’t be too impressed. I just never got the memo. Eric Roeder would call my friend Jim Petee a “fag” and Jim would say, “I’m not a fag! Your’re a fag!” Then Eric would give Jim a push into the locker, and that would be that. But when Eric Roeder called me a fag, I would just shrug. What’s a fag? I wondered. I had no idea. I was just a kid, and so was Eric Roeder; I don’t think he really knew what a fag was either. I still got pushed into the locker, but, unlike Jim, I just didn’t see the problem with the whole “fag” thing.

And yet an undeniable menace lurked inside the word. Being called a “fag” meant that you were weak, an easy target….in short, a girl. But the word’s true menace, I now realize, arose from its inchoate intimation of sex. Real sex. Fucking. It was more than an insult. “Jerk” was an insult. “Fag” was a cage that boys built around other boys, one that was intended to stand between the alleged fag and true manhood. A boy in the cage would never be permitted to experience the glories of fucking. Instead, he would be fucked. Like a girl. My mistake, my fatal blind spot, was that I didn’t see the cage being built. I just wanted to play the flute; I liked the way it sounded and looked. In my 6th-grade naiveté, I didn’t realize that it was a girl’s instrument and that boys of my age should not play with girly things.

When I finally started to see the bars that divided me from everyone else, I fought back in two ways. First, I started to furiously practice the flute, two to three hours a day. And so one fateful Monday I zoomed past all the girls from last chair to first, and I held that first chair for the rest of my time in the band.

At roughly the same time, I challenged one of the asshole drummers to a fight. I went down in a hail of fists, of course. The next time someone called me a faggot, I threw myself into him as well, arms flailing. I lost that fight, too. In fact, I lost every single battle I was in that year—perhaps twelve in all. Of course I lost: I was a skinny kid who weighed in at a lower class than my opponents.

But ultimately, I won the war. Eric Roeder called me over to his kettledrum one day, like Fonzie calling Potsie and Richie into the bathroom that served as his “office.”

“Jeremy,” he said. “Why are you always trying to fight me?”

“Because you hassle me all the time,” I said, perhaps a bit sullenly.

“So you’re just trying to stand up for yourself?” he said, surprised, as though the idea had just come to him that I might try to do this.

“Yeah,” I said, dumbfounded. “Of course.”

“OK,” he said. “Let’s not fight.” There was no handshake and we certainly never became friends; this is not an after-school special. But after that terse little interaction, the bullying evaporated.

It wasn’t just the boys who seemed to gain new respect for me; my fellow flutists finally noticed me, and started talking to me. Michelle Gase, on whom I had a huge crush, even invited me over to her house. I didn’t know what to do once I got there, but the journey of one thousand miles begins, my friends, with a single step.

Perhaps it goes without saying that I didn’t stop being a geek: the following year, when my friend Colleen communicated my romantic interest directly to Michelle, Michelle reportedly laughed out loud, an event from which I am still recovering. But I had found a comfortable niche in the junior-high-school (and later high-school) social ecology, and it was a niche in which I could thrive on my own terms.

Do you see the lesson I learned, the one that every American boy must learn? The formula is simple: a) dominate the girls and b) fight other boys. It’s never good for a boy to do a girly thing, but, if you must, you had better be better at it than any girl, and you had better be willing to punch any boy in the face who says that doing it makes you a girl. This formula worked for me, I am sorry to report. It’s worked for millions of American men of my generation. And even as we’re were being trained to fear the queer, we were at the same time watching heterosexuality, in the form of our parents’ marriages, disintegrate before our very eyes.

My own parents are now divorced, of course, as are virtually all the parents I knew growing up, as are the parents of the mother of my child. Thus it should not surprise anyone that marriage did not seem very desirable to us. Olli and I got together in 1994, lived and traveled together for years, moved to the Mission in San Francisco together in 2000. But in all those years, we never married. We didn’t consciously reject marriage, mind you. It just didn’t mean very much to us.

When Mayor Gavin Newsom—for whom I did not vote—legalized same-sex marriage in San Francisco in February 2004, I was entirely a bystander. Yet I was still moved by the spectacle of beaming gay and lesbian couples lining up in front of the San Francisco City Hall, sometimes hemmed in on all sides by unpleasant people with ugly signs. Walking by City Hall one afternoon on my way to the library, I saw two slim women dressed in white, sitting on the grass, their hands folded on each other’s laps, their foreheads touching. I assumed that they had just been married. For the rest of the day I felt strangely peaceful, perhaps even slightly stoned.

My son was born—after a 60-minute labor!—in July 2004. And in the months that followed, my resistance to marriage started to melt away. Yes, both Olli and I thought marriage would be convenient, now that we were parents. But in my eyes at least, it was also true that San Francisco’s season of same-sex weddings had raised the value of marriage. I remembered that couple in white, sitting in the grass; perhaps I hoped marriage would give me the peace it seemed to give them.

Of course, not everything changed; we still stubbornly rejected the trappings of a traditional wedding. We slunk off to City Hall, our baby son in arms, and “eloped,” to use a quaint old word. The judge was a trim, diminutive, mannish woman of late middle years, and her eyes held a reassuring twinkle that said to me, Hey, I’m not taking this too seriously either. I didn’t tell my parents; we hardly told anyone. A year later my mother visited and accidentally saw our marriage certificate hanging in the back of my closet. “What?!” she cried. “You got married and didn’t tell me?”

She was furious; I just shrugged. It was as though I was thirteen and she had discovered a Playboy magazine hidden in my closet.

Marriage didn’t much change anything in my life or the way I felt about myself and the world, but parenthood certainly had. By the fall of 2005, our old life had been wrapped up in a dirty diaper and tossed in the trash. There were no more evenings in the Make-Out Room shooting pool and drinking margaritas and dancing and then crawling over to the Latin American for shots and then perhaps to the Elbo Room to see bands with names like Double-Jointed Donkey Dick or Death Valley High.

Instead, I worked part-time and took care of my infant son Liko for most of the day while Olli was at her job. In sunny, desperate playgrounds I taught Liko to walk, his little fists clenched around my aching forefingers. Pushing a swing, I’d eye the mothers and they eyed me, or so I imagined. I was typically the only father. The moms seldom spoke to me and I was frankly afraid of them. I feared—it sounds ridiculous to admit—that if I initiated a real conversation, they’d think I was hitting on them. Deep in my bones, I felt that I didn’t belong on weekday playgrounds. Not just because I was a dad; I didn’t even feel like a parent, not then. I felt like a spy, an interloper, an anthropologist studying a lost tribe of stroller-pushing urban nomads.

By this time we lived on the border between Noe Valley and the Castro, a mad scientist’s laboratory of new family forms, whose representative on the city’s Board of Supervisors is a gay man who co-parents a biological child with his lesbian best friend. But at first I didn’t realize how many of the other parents on the playground were gay and lesbian; despite the fact I had had many queer friends, at this time I still assumed breeding was what straight people did. And I remember the first time I met Jackie and her smiley toddler Ezra; beckoned by her friendly smile, she was one of the first stay-at-home moms I decided to talk to. Later I saw Ezra with a woman named Jessica, and I thought she was his babysitter.

Wrong. Jessica was one mommy and Jackie was the other. Fortunately, I figured this out before my new friends discovered my ignorance. In time, I met many other families, both gay and straight, and we formed a new kind of child-centered community, one I never expected to have. After we became close, Jessica (the non-biological mother) told me that it drove her crazy when people assumed she was the nanny, which put her constantly in the position of having to explain her relationship to her own family. Embarrassed, I didn’t tell her about my early assumption, and I still haven’t told her.

When the California Supreme Court approved same-sex marriage on May 15, 2008, Jackie and Jessica just knew, as soon as they heard, that they would marry. At the wedding, Jackie wore black and she smiled in a way that seemed simultaneously bright and distant; Jessica, who had been stressed for weeks about the wedding, held her face very still, as if afraid that the wrong emotion would slip out. The ceremony was conducted by their close friends Laura and Peter, who is Ezra’s biological father and someone Jackie and Jessica consider to be a member of the family.

“I now pronounce you happily married,” said Peter, and the two women kissed.

For Jessica’s parents, their daughter’s marriage was an intensely meaningful event. “It was wonderful to see Jessica so dressed up and looking so beautiful,” said Jessica’s mother Elizabeth. “I was just so happy for them.” Every member of Jackie and Jessica’s circle of friends and family that I interviewed felt the same way: It made us happy to see our friends marry. That’s a commonplace feeling at weddings, but, of course, not everyone in America has the right to a legal marriage. Their wedding was extraordinary because it came to us all as a gift we never expected.

Not everyone accepted the gift. I know of several same-sex weddings depopulated by the neutron bomb of homophobia. When Angela and Mary (not their real names) wed, Angela's mother Shirley refused to attend on vaguely religious grounds. I’ve met Shirley many times: She’s a frail, sweet, slightly foggy old woman who seems to have had a hard life. The year before the wedding, she had to stay with Angela and Mary for months while recovering from a serious illness, a period that was a financial and emotional burden for Mary, who is the breadwinner of the family. As the months wore on, Shirley witnessed the daily accumulation of caring acts that forms a family; but despite depending on this family structure in her return to health, Shirley never accepted the relationship.

Shortly after the wedding, Angela, Mary, and their girl Suzie visited Shirley in the small town where Angela grew up.

“So, do we look like a married couple?” joked Mary when they arrived.

“No,” replied Shirley, her voice flat. “One of you would have to be a man.”

On November 4, 2008, Californians voted to amend the state’s constitution to define marriage as between “one man and one woman,” thus throwing the marriages of my friends into a legal limbo. I haven’t asked, but I assume that Shirley was one of the millions of Californians who voted to ban same-sex marriage. Most people of her generation, it later turned out, voted for Proposition 8; most people my age (and even more younger than me) voted against it. Most people in rural areas voted for it; most people in cities voted against.

“I was very disappointed when Prop 8 passed,” Jessica’s mother told me. “Jessica was depending on being able to live a legal married life with Jackie, and Prop 8 was so upsetting. But somehow I don’t think it’s over yet. I think it’s just going to take awhile for this culture to get used to the idea.”

She's right. Nationally, Prop 8 turned out to be only a setback: Within a year, Iowa, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire—largely rural and suburban states—all legalized same-sex marriage, joining Connecticut and Massachusetts. At this writing, Prop 8 is getting struck down or propped up every few months, as legal teams exchange blows in the courts.

But at this stage in the game, there is little doubt (at least in my mind) that marriage will ultimately open up to include people of the same sex, and that this evolutionary advance will affect every area of family law and every nook and cranny of community life. If gay men can now get married in Iowa, nothing can stop it. It’s like a strapping, corn-fed freight train, roaring wholesomely past the amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties on its way to the coastal American Sodoms. It’s Iowa that is delivering same-sex marriage to San Francisco and New York, not the other way around. The old American image of the family is being carried away; a new one is coming over the horizon, but we’re not there yet. The journey is changing us—all of us, Red and Blue alike—in ways that no one could anticipate.

As Exhibit A, I submit myself: Watching the battle for same-sex marriage unfold in San Francisco taught me, after a lifetime of ambivalence, that marriage might actually be worth defending. It might strike some folks as ironic that I needed a lesbian wedding to teach me that, but that’s the nature of institutional renewal: Just as the black voting rights struggles of the 1960s taught previously apathetic young whites the worth of voting and civic participation, so this new civil rights struggle has something to teach us all about the value of commitment and family.

Or at least, it had something to teach me. Look, I know lots of people reading this essay think marriage is oppressive patriarchal bullshit; others might think marriage is heterosexually sacred. I’m not actually trying to convince you of anything. Instead I’m trying to describe why the struggle for same-sex marriage has been meaningful for me and for so many people in my community. The changes go much deeper than marriage: Remember how I had assumed that Jessica was the nanny? Despite being as gay-friendly as straight people come, I still had a picture in my mind of a mother and a father. That picture is gone, friends, and it’s not coming back. This isn’t just happening in San Francisco. It’s happening all over the country.

I agree with conservatives who say that childhood is what is at stake in the same-sex marriage debates. But while they see gay and lesbian couples as the threat, to me the threat comes from bullies like Eric Roeder. My greatest fear as a father is that my son will face the same ferocious teasing and fighting I did. Worse than that, I fear that he will embrace the same solutions I did, and that he will stand back and watch other boys be teased and beaten up. That’s not the world I want him to live in; that’s not the person I want him to be. From that perspective, this change that we are all going through feels like a race against time. I want the world to be entirely different by the time my son turns twelve, though I know that’s impossible. I want him to be freer than I was; I want us all to be free.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Mommy Preference and Patriarchy

"The first crying of children is a prayer ... They begin by asking our aid; then end by compelling us to serve them. Thus from their very weakness, whence comes, at first, their feeling of dependence, springs afterwards the idea of empire, and of commanding others."
--Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or: Concerning Education

When my wife took a long vacation from work so we could all spend more time together, our family went through a strange regression. At the end of this transition, I had emerged as a slothful Patriarch, presiding over a career-woman-turned-harried housewife, who was herself now answering to every beck and call of an infantilized preschooler.

Our family had become, in other words, the opposite of what it had been before my wife took her sabbatical.

The transformation was driven by our son, who quickly revealed himself to be a rogue monkey with every intention of completely overturning the social hierarchy. It began when he demonstrated a strong preference for Mama during her first week or two at home. At first, this made perfect sense to me: Mama is a working woman and Spot doesn't get to spend as much time with her as with me. I was sympathetic, since I liked having her around, too.

But I had no idea that this shared desire, as expressed by my son, would launch our family unit into an unwitting sociological experiment, the sort of thing that might have been inflicted by scientists on hapless and undeserving primates in the 1950's, or by media execs on equally hapless but much more deserving humans on a reality TV show.

Falling to the bottom of the social ladder, though shocking, was not necessarily new to me. It had happened in catastrophic fashion at the beginning of 7th grade, and thereafter with smaller aftershocks in the years leading up to college. So although I wasn't emotionally devastated as I had been in 7th grade, I recognized what was happening. I was getting pushed to the bottom of the pack hierarchy. Lower than Grandpa, maybe even lower than my brother-in-law, and probably about on par with the dog. I was denied high-fives and daddy-hugs. I was bummed.

This was disturbing, of course. It was an injury to my self-love. Or so I thought, until I realized that in truth it heralded my liberation. For, as I was being spurned, my wife was being enslaved. She was shackled by Spot's preference for Mama. And for the first time in nearly four years, vistas of freedom opened up before me, of Rabbits running on Updike-like getaways, or of simpler, more local bouts of laziness. It was my one and only chance, in the artificial circumstances of my wife's sabbatical, to don the mantle of pater familias, Patriarch, Godfather, master of the kinship clan.

A few posts back, I described an earlier expression of this atavism. Little did I know then that it provided a foretaste of what was to come:

I descended the staircase one morning to be met by the same Oedipal glare that my father must have known well. In a bath of soft light before me I saw the heartwarming scene of a mother, dressed for work and feeding breakfast to her son, holding a boy in a puppy-covered sleeper with puppy ears flopping off the side of each foot. Yet this boy, shattering the Norman Rockwell charm of the scene, frowns when he sees me, and raises an accusatory, pointed finger into the air.

"Daddy, you go back upstairs!"

Although he had since learned to sheath the knife of this raw Oedipal hatred, he immediately took advantage of Mama's sabbatical to demand her services not just for breakfast, but for dinner as well. "I want Mama!" became not just a breakfast demand, but a cry uttered to ward off Daddy whenever he approached. But this preference soon turned into imperialism. Mama had to be the one to draw the bath and wash him. Mama had to help him with the potty. Mama had to brush his teeth. Mama had to carry all 37 pounds of him up two flights of stairs. Mama had to come sit with him on the couch for yet another episode of "Ni Hao, Kai-lan." Mama had to handle every case of crisis management.

Spot's relationship with his Mama has always had this potential to regress towards infantile dependency. This doesn't surprise me, since I had the same problem with women well into my 20's. But now it was evolving into sheer despotism, something I had never managed to achieve. I realized this when Spot began telling -- not asking -- Mama to pick up little things that had fallen off the couch and onto the floor. When Spot began saying things like, "Mama, I want YOU to pick up the block!" that was six inches away, we both knew it was time for her to go back to work. In the meantime, there was nothing for me to do but lie back on the couch, pop the button on my jeans, and flip on the game. Aside from being on-call as in-house Bad Cop, my time was now my own.

I thought I might finish all sorts of projects, paint a few rooms, and get started on the novel I've been meaning to write for 20 years. In reality, seeing the hours and days of my wife's sabbatical consumed in the service of a tyrant marooned me with guilt. I couldn't help her -- Spot wouldn't let me -- and I got nothing done for myself. Looking back, I can't say that Mama's sabbatical was relaxing, or that my temporary position as default patriarch was terribly satisfying. But we were all together more often than usual, and we wound up packing quite a lot of activity into that one summer month. Looking back on that time now gives me the pleasant feeling of having richly lived.

So what does it all mean? Short answer: All is flux. The lust for power resides within us all. Patriarchy is really not all that enjoyable if you like an emotionally engaged relationship with your child and have any respect for your partner.

Long answer: Emotions don't obey contracts, not even 50/50 co-parenting contracts, or more exotic reverse-traditional ones. They ebb and flow and shift around, collecting around one person for a while before melting away and collecting more closely around someone else. Spot's shift in preference was only as abrupt and extreme as the sudden change in our domestic routines. And by the end of Mama's sabbatical, his attachments had begun to even out again. He let me carry him, and we picked up some of our exclusive father-son routines again. My brief stint as Patriarch, as close to the real thing as a weekend re-enactment is to the Battle of Gettysburg, was nonetheless close enough to reassure me that such a role was not for me.

Spot clearly has a different relationship with both of us, tending ever so slightly towards dependency with Mama, and ever so slightly towards imitation and competition with Daddy. But there is plenty of dependency on Daddy, and some imitation of Mama, too. So I really can't say with any confidence that our particular arrangement has affected Spot's emotional preferences one way or another, or that he will "bond" with either of us because one of us happens to leave the house in the morning while the other does not.

It is with Spot's emotional attachments as it is with subatomic particles: the likelihood that they will be there over the long run is more certain than the existence of a singular, passionate attachment at any one point in time. A few months of breast-feeding in infancy, or one ten-day fishing trip in adolescence are probably not, in my opinion, enough to guarantee a bond one way or another over the course of a lifetime. The hours, days, and years of effort made to sustain the existence and happiness of someone else stand a far better chance of doing so.

This is something I remind myself during those stretches when I am not the "favored" parent, and -- when I'm not feeling like a favored spouse -- something that probably applies to marriage as well.