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.

A dad's take on the breastfeeding wars

As World Breastfeeding Week winds down and the streamers and buntings are removed from city streets, the breast-shaped floats are garaged until next year, fountains in plazas once again feature cascades of chlorinated water instead of spurting milk, and the piped-in mamo-centric music at the mall fades out, I find myself reflecting on how fundamentalists on both sides of the breastfeeding war have misdirected their ire and played into the respective hands of two powerful corporate cartels: Big Formula and Big Breast Pump.

Although not affiliated with any pro-breastfeeding organization, noted attractive person Gisele Bundchen perhaps best expressed the sentiment of the most radically mammalistic of activists when she recently called for legislation making breastfeeding mandatory for mothers of children under six months old. This was followed by feminist men quietly celebrating an excuse to google “Gisele Bundchen breasts” with impunity, a backlash against her overstatement, a retraction and apology by the model, and continued googling of her breasts.

On the other side of the issue, while you would be hard-pressed to find any spokesmodels denouncing breastfeeding outright, there are certainly those who think putting pressure on moms to breastfeed rolls back many hard-won advances of feminism, and that the mandatory household appliance for working breastfeeders—the breast-pump—is an instrument of oppression and even torture.

In the spring of 2009, Hanna Rosin’s controversial article in The Atlantic caused a massive kerfuffle in the interblogosphereweb. Her piece, The Case Against Breast-Feeding, questioned the consensus among the medical community and parenting punditry that the benefits of breastfeeding are so clear that to opt out of suckling one’s young is tantamount to child abuse. She claimed that in fact, the benefits are negligible, and, even though she was breastfeeding her third baby at the time (she planned to continue only for a few months), she was convinced that the hassle to the mom was not worth whatever minor advantages it conferred upon the baby: she encouraged moms not to feel obligated to breastfeed if they didn’t want to, and not to feel like failures if they wanted to but were unable.

Even worse than the inconvenience and career damage inherent in having babies attached to the breast like so much fleshy body-jewelry, according to Rosin and others, is the degradation and humiliation inflicted by the execrable breast-pump.

In describing one of her friends tethered to a breast-pump, Rosin wrote that the first-time mom was “hooked up to tubes and suctions and a giant deconstructed bra, looking like some fetish ad, or a footnote from the Josef Mengele years.” Judith Warner, in a post on her New York Times blog , agreed with Rosin about the de-humanizing elements of pumping, and yearned for a day that “books on women’s history [would] feature photos of breast pumps to illustrate what it was like back in the day when mothers were consistently given the shaft.” The language in these comments is incendiary, and suggests an insidious plot by The Man to keep a sister down by vilifying any alternative to breastfeeding. But the obvious power of Big Formula—the samples and coupons lurking in every free diaper bag thrown at parents on Labor and Delivery floors and pediatricians’ offices being its most obvious artifacts—render that theory as toothless as an Enfamil-guzzling newborn.

Clearly, the tactics of both Big Formula and Big Breast Pump are well beyond the bumbling oppression techniques of The Man. The Man wants only complacence and conformity. BF and BBP want to recruit zealous consumers who will march into righteous battle on behalf of their products.

Just a few weeks ago, my wife switched off the breast-pump for the last time after a year of feeding our twins primarily with the miraculous elixir that somehow her body knew how to produce only when needed and roughly in the correct quantities (yet another supremely bizarre aspect of human reproduction that convinces me that no space alien would ever believe humanity was possible if it were informed of our existence).

But my wife is no breastfeeding ideologue. It worked for her, the evidence of its benefits was compelling enough to make up for the time and discomfort, it gave her license to eat with abandon, and it was actually cheaper than formula. As a doctor, she strongly recommends breastfeeding to her patients, but she doesn’t try to shame them into embracing it.

To her, the pump was a necessary inconvenience, not an instrument of degradation. Even when I tried, just for the sake of conversation, to get her to talk about the indignity of being milked by a machine, she rolled her eyes and went back to reading Perez Hilton to the rhythmic lull of the Medela Symphony.

Although my wife was oblivious to the Symphony’s subtle overtones, every night as I went to sleep, every morning as I changed the babies’ diapers, and every day as I gave the lunchtime report to Dr. Mom over the phone, I heard the infectious subliminal message from the mechanical heart of the pump and realized the extent to which companies will go to win over their consumers.

“Good-girl, good-girl, good-girl,” the pump slurred rapidly in Phase One.

And as the pump slowed down to roughly the pace of the human heart for Phase Two, it would repeat, for the next twenty minutes or so, “Breast-milk, breast-milk, breast-milk.”

Please visit me at Beta Dad, where I write about twins, Asian mommy groups, daddy groups, weird flights of fancy, and post lots of cute pictures.