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.


Nancy said...

I love this essay. The "Great Man" who somehow finds it easier to focus on other people's children rather than his own is big concern of mine. I suspect modern Freudians might have something to say about what is going on there with both the mothers and the fathers in that situation.

I was just on a phone call yesterday with 2 of my Gen-X male law school classmates who are in close races for US Senate seats, and I brought up this very issue in the context of how during the Obama campaign much was said about finding a way to recognize and value paternal investment in child development & child care. The working women and dads of this kind who voted for Obama are perhaps now not showing up in the polls and perhaps need to be reengaged?

Unfortunately both these guys bucked this question to their wives, neither of whom have jobs other than supporting their husband's campaigns and who are definitely primary parents in their homes, and it didn't seem to resonate with them the way it does with me. Somehow Obama seemed to get it even if he hasn't really lived it. Aargh.

Mary said...

In our case, it's that Dad is hugely introverted, and I'm not. It's not about our roles or our body parts. If we were both women, it'd be the same. I don't ask him to do things that I'm fine doing if they involve lots of socialization with lots of people.

Beta Dad said...

Wonderful post. I have nothing to add about the specific topic, having not yet had the opportunity to try and weasel my way out of a school function.

I'm glad to hear that there are more men showing up for these things. I'm sure it's dad bloggers, and DD specifically, responsible for the change. I'm only about half joking.

As I'm sure you've noticed, there's been a lot of chatter lately about whether dadbloggers suck, and why they haven't changed the world yet. One of the charges of suckiness is that they're not attracting male readers. It occurred to me that even if it's mostly women who are reading them, dadblogs could be having an impact on male behavior; i.e., women who read stuff by sensitive feminists like us develop higher expectations for their men. It's nice to think that anyway.

Angela V-C said...

Great post. In my neighborhood, I encounter lots of dads at the playground and there were a number of dads at our daycare pizza in the park recently (apparently we're all too lazy for a potluck!) But there are all those missing dads, or the ones that come but at the end of the potluck every time. And all of those wistful looks I get when talking about my kids three day schedule and how, no, it doesn't mean that I'm home two days a week, it means that I'm home one and my wife is home the other. I can almost see the wheels turning as they think, "Damn, why couldn't I have been a lesbian..."

And I do think that dad bloggers can change the world! Every post written by a dad blogger publicly contradicts the idea that moms are the only real/important parents.

chicago pop said...

Beta Dad: men don't read parenting blogs? Why should they? They do nothing to improve your golf swing.

Mary: I agree that a lot of the division of labor in a household will break across personality differences, like who has what skills or is more or less outgoing. But I also suspect that precisely the qualities of "introverted/extroverted" are gender conditioned. Which is to say, I have a feeling if we lined up 100 random men, they might claim to be more introverted than their wives, at least with regard to the kind of socializing that goes along with being a parent.

Nancy: I think I recognize you as the articulate "anonymous" commentator from a few posts back. Unless someone else has Gen-X friends running for office. Keep lobbing the tough questions to those guys -- or at least get them to introduce parental leave legislation when they get elected!

Bek said...

This is a very refreshing post! I am a working mother who is in constant battle with my workplace to be a 'present' mother. It's hard but oh so worth it.
I hope that just as Dad bloggers might be slowly changing the world working, present mum's might be raising the bar for the dad's you speak of. said...

Perhaps it the issue that potlucks generally suck that is the problem.

chicago pop said...

Angela: I love this -- "And I do think that dad bloggers can change the world! Every post written by a dad blogger publicly contradicts the idea that moms are the only real/important parents." Hopeful, beautiful, accurate.

bekkles: I didn't have a term to describe her until I read your comment, but I can fairly call my wife a "present mom." Present not just for our son, but for her ailing mom -- but that's another post, coming up.

rtb: I'm assuming you are making an exception for your own cooking, of course. By now I'd have thought you'd have raised the potluck bar. said...

To continue ... Having stated to the obvious and hit the wrong key, I'll say it again, potlucks suck. They made sense for the farming communities of Idaho in 1910, they don't make sense in any part of urban America. Take up a collection and hire a caterer, or order pizza. Who are you trying to kid? Most people don't cook for themselves, so why would I expect them to cook for me? As with most Americans of a certain age, I associate PotLucks with the my Mom working with the PTA, and the fact I was bored out of my mind. Where is the upside of this? Potlucks are also very very American. It is an idea that does *not* exist anywhere else. Many first or second generation immigrants find potlucks to be “cheesy”. My Chinese mother-in-law finds potlucks to be down right rude. If you’re in a pre-school where everyone knows and understands potlucks you’re living in an old line middle class world that I don’t.

Since we have established that Potluck = boredom or rudeness, where are the suggestions on how to make this potluck, get together, whatever it was, thing interesting? By the way you never said why there was a potluck. A fund raiser? Get to know the other parents -- community building? Religious school celebrating a holiday? Jewish holidays are around now -- what? All are ways to sell your event. If you don't have a way to sell your get together -- why are you so annoyed that men didn't find it interesting enough to go to. Your sole tool here is guilt, and my mom does it better then you do.

You’re also fighting yet another "ME" generation that is commitment-phobic. Check out the articles on 20 somethings and/or marriage on the NYTimes. Motivating someone to act for the other, even if it is their own kid, for no obvious good reason, is a losing game. A reason can always be found. But, once you have them you can build from there. Once some guys have made connections then it gets easier. Preschooler parents are all strangers to each other. You need a way to get them together. And, as I said, Potlucks suck. A catered event, where you will not have to find some pleasant social way to spit out some crapy food, sucks much less. Once people are fed you can start networking seriously. I have never had a problem arranging something if I had half way decent food, not crappy potluck food.

Always ask yourself what are you trying to do specifically? How will what you are doing going to meet that goal? If it didn’t work, what did you do wrong -- how can you fix it. If you couldn’t sell something, from a bottle of beer to an idea, it’s your fault, not the other guys.

I'd like to hear how you improved paternal attendance for what ever winter event is planed.

As for dad blogs, in general, they whine to much. Solve the problem, or move on. In fact, most mom blogs whine too. I don't really need to listen to someone else whine, my kids do that. I do it too. So like most men I don't really read many blogs at all. All dad blogs should consider that. What are you saying that is of interest to me?

Unknown said...

I agree. Dads should be involved, no matter what. It's sad when kids don't get to know their dad because they are not around, but it's even worse when they are around and still not involved. Step up to the plate guys, being a good dad is the most important job a man can ever have.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Watching this dialog unfold, I've been thinking about how different my experience with preschool potlucks has been. At the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, I could count on two thirds of the dads being there every time, even though many of them (like many of the moms) had quite intense professional careers. And while I didn't look forward to every single one (as I'm sure was the case with other parents) I genuinely enjoyed and valued the community they created. We also didn't always cook: I was more likely to pick up a roast chicken at Whole Foods on the way from work than I was to cook. But who cares? The important thing is that we got there and arrived with the right attitude.

Nancy said...

chicagopop- Yes, I sent a follow-up email to the wife of one of these Senate candidates (who is also a law school classmate and close friend) about the majority support for paternity leave in each category, Dems, Reps and Independents, outlined in the Newsweek article.

I have a sense that this paradigm shift in family structure to two-earner, two-parent from male-dominant is one of the things causing so much anxiety, anger, polarization and stagnation in the political economy (the fact we had a killer recession doesn't help either, of course).

I'd love to see politicians other than Obama show some leadership on this issue.

It's great that the Dad-Bloggers are being so open and authentic about this. Very compelling when it comes straight from a Dad. said...

Nancy - According to the CDC 60% of births in the US for women aged 20 -29 were out of wedlock. The male dominant single earner household has been a shrinking minority for 20 years. I don't personally know of any. What paradigm are you talking about?

Nancy said...

I believe one of the reasons for those unpartnered births is that many men still have expectations of being dominant in the relationship and don't have the emotional maturity and other types of skills needed for the equal partnership and engaged fathering that the DaddyDialectic Dads do.

They haven't seen equal partner fathering modeled, they didn't have the benefit of engaged fathers themselves, etc. It's not their fault, but it still does need to be fixed for kids to get the parents they need.

That's why I really like what the Dad-bloggers are doing in telling their stories authentically and getting it modeled and acknowledged more in the culture by other men, including men in leadership positions, that it is possible, socially acceptable, very helpful to children, a worthwhile investment in the marriage, etc. for these guys to do this.

There was a show on either VH1 or MTV, I think, this past year called "Dad Camp," which worked on helping young, unmarried fathers-to-be adjust. It was pretty interesting; some of the dads adapted pretty fast; others need more help with tough issues they had with their own fathers (abuse, neglect, etc.). Some even came through it and then became very enthusiastic about helping other men in that position.

That's not to say that some of these unpartnered mothers may have issues, but since we're talking about the male side of the equation that's what I'm responding with here . . . .

This paradigm shift has happened in only about 50 years, and it is reversing a tradition of male-dominant marriage, and lack of public acknowledgment of father bonding with children, that was in place for at least 2000 years so it is no small thing, as valid as a lot of us think it is.

Nancy said... - PS- I know of a number of male breadwinner homes, for example, the Senate candidates I mentioned above. Now Sarah Palin's home, on the other hand, I dunno? :)

I am from Gen-X (as are the Senate candidates and their wives) so this may look different to me than it does to younger people. said...

Nancy -- I appreciate your answer. On blogs like this comment always seems to have a sarcastic tone. And I am being most sincere. I have spent the last 20 minutes or so starting into space thinking about what you wrote. You have provided juicy tasty words for me, and all of us, to chew on.

I'm from the very tail end of the baby boomers, or the very beginning of Gen X, depending on the chart you look at. According to Wikipedia I'm in both. I cringe at the knowledge that I'm old enough to be father to some of the fathers here.

I find "unpartnered" to be a tortured word. Though I don't have a better one if we are to include homosexual couples. Think of all the awkward ugly words and phrases we can eliminate by allowing all Americans to legally marry.

After hours of thought -- and hours getting my daughter new jeans and sneakers. ($160 for sneakers!? -- NOT!). I've decided to say: ...

I have no use for the concept of "equal parenting". To me it is just people being nosy about what is none of their business. The distribution of labor and authority in a marriage should be exactly what the couple says it should be. It is none of anyone else's business. In the end it suffers from the worst flaw of "traditional Christian marriage", which is the real name of the "Male Dominate" marriage. It is an external entity saying what my life should be like. I find no difference between some one telling me I'm unfair or unchristian.

To me being a stay at home dad has nothing to do with being fair to my wife. It is about being rational and level headed. It is about being all those things that men have been for the 2000 or 20,000 years. I look at the situation, as it exists, not as how I would like it to be, and do what is best according to simple rational criteria: it is better to have children raised by their parents, spending less money is better then spending more money. Like Chicago Pop, my wife out earned me by a good margin, she paid more in taxes than I made, I looked at the numbers and found that I couldn't make enough to pay for child care that what as good as I could do. So I bit the bullet and stayed home myself. Done. Nothing more to think about or decide. Everything since has been issues of execution.

Craig said...

I wonder if part of the issue might be a chicken and the egg issue. Because there aren't a lot of dads at the potlucks, it gives the dads who are invited to come an excuse to not go. My babies are only 8 months old, so this issue hasn't come up yet, but I'm already seeing it. At the library baby story time I take the girls to, I'm frequently the only dad in the room. I'm still working on how to socialize with the moms.

Nancy said...

No one's forcing you to do equal parenting if you don't want to. It is just a choice I wish was available to more people if they wanted it (and I'm one of those people who wants it).

None of us makes these decisions in a vacuum even if it feels that way, and it's good to understand what the context is?

And the context in the US is that we are the only industrialized nation not to recognize concepts of parental leave as boundaries on what employers can extract from employees.

This means I suspect many people end up in traditional or reverse traditional arrangements because of marketplace pressures. If the was more space carved out for anyone, male or female, to do parenting, would more families set things up differently?

For those who want the choice of equal parenting, it is more difficult and more incomprehensible because the norm is still traditional or reverse traditional (or maybe it isn't, I don't know). And what is the norm ends up being the marketplace and vice-versa.

This is why I think getting this issue on the table, whether in the context of government parental leave policies or just in conversations like this that raise awareness and maybe motivate parents to negotiate for leave, would help us get through this choked-up political economy we seem to be in right now.

I didn't take your comments as sarcastic. said...

Craig -

You are completely right. It is a chicken and the egg issue for a huge extent. It's not just a lazy, I don't have to go, issue either. Starting to go after you have missed a few feels a lot like coming in the middle of something. It's uncomfortable.

As for getting on with the Moms. Really watching your Ps and Qs matters. Patience is key also. A touch formal without being stiff has always worked for me. I took to wearing blazers and suit jackets and I am sure it helped. It really set a tone that was so useful. Clothes make the man, it is said. I have never managed to be part of the "moms group". But my kids were never penalized for it. As time went on I was accepted more and more. I'm not one of the girls, I don't try to be one. Over time we all found a place for ourselves. I have also made sure that my wife was firmly in the loop and that she had things she, and just she, did. Certain trips and things were hers to do. This way I made sure all the other moms knew her, and they could do that mom bonding thing.

We got to be very good friends with a number of other families. It takes time, but it happens. said...

Nancy -

Thanks a lot for taking the time and effort to make the posts you have made. I am a firm believer that we should take every opportunity to make the world a better place. You have helped me to clarify, and shake to cobwebs out of, my thinking.

I just don't see paternity leave happening any time soon in the US. I agree it is a good thing in every way. My elected reps at least say they will vote for it. So -- I've done my bit on that. What will be will be. Regardless of what the government does, I still have to take care of my family. The big and growing issue of daddy duty is the growing ranks of the male unemployed. How will they react is of huge concern to me. Many men will never have the same sort of job again. The same self image. This is a huge pool of labor that has to be focused. The example of African American males shows one possibility when you have a surplus of idle angry hands to be the devil's workshop. We need better examples and a path for these men to follow. I keep thinking that Mike Rowe is the man for this. Maybe Discovery networks has a board or email address for suggestions. So, is being a SAHD a Dirty Job?

What I see instead of concern for families, who just get angst and lip service, is a huge emphasis on "worker productivity". Article after article, worrying, hand wringing, how do we keep americans being as productive as ever? The simple side effect of this is that there is still only 24 hours in a day and time spent hustling at work has to come from somewhere. Since time devoted to religion has almost disappeared in America it now comes from home life. In the choice between profits and family we as a people choose profits. Maybe I've become overly cynical, but I don't see this changing. If you look at the Wall Street Journal site you can read (may not be free) a Peggy Noonan opinion piece where she makes very clear that things like paternal leave is what destroyed Greece. The US just cannot afford to make the same mistake. Shady accounting aided and abetted by Goldman Sachs had nothing to do with it.

As we solve one problem, profits, we make and worsen others. Then denial sets in. It is the liberal media, video games, TV, internet, what ever is to blame for how our kids act. No. Like all kids, they just do as they see us do. The hard part is you have to live the life you want your kids to live, yourself, now. That is how they learn. You can always tell how a parent really is by watching their kids. Your children are one of the most complete and honest reflections of who you are.