Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Trophy husband, one year later

[originally posted on August 10, 2011 at daddy in a strange land]

Exactly one year ago today, The Today Show told the entire morning-news-watching nation that I, as a stay-at-home-dad married to a doctor, was an example of a new status symbol for "alpha women." I was a trophy husband.

If you watch the entire segment linked here [having trouble embedding it, sorry]—which was pegged to a Marie Claire article for which la dra. and I had been interviewed for an hour each and in which we were reduced to a family photo and one quote about (not by) me presented very much out of context—you'll see that the NBC videographer who shot and cut the piece ignored the magazine editor's "trophy husband" framing and that good ol' Matt Lauer actually went after her for it, closing with a reference to "the guy in the piece" who said "'it's not babysitting, it's parenting." [My new catchphrase. Heh. I need to make t-shirts.]

In the intervening year, the conversation in the mainstream media and in the parentblogosphere about changing roles, especially in an uncertain economic environment, and the redefinition of fatherhood has continued. Fatherhood gets talked about in the context of a larger re-envisioning of modern manhood online, dadbloggers plan their own testosterone-centric take on the momblogger conferences only a few of us dare to crash—and yet, things like SAHDs, involved fatherhood, and equally shared parenting continue to be treated as "trend stories," as anomalous and intriguing oddities that are newsworthy because they're not "normal."

Just a week ago, AngrySAHD Josh K. wrote some guidelines on "How Not to Screw Up the Conversation About the Modern Dad" on the site of The NYC Dads Group after watching another group member and dadblogger get set up in an adversarial moms-vs.-dads conversation about parenting skills on iVillage. His "list of a few things to think about when being an involved dad, and especially when discussing it, whether it's on TV or the playground":

  1. Don't be the boob.

  2. Be involved in everything—not just major discipline.

  3. Be on top of your stuff.

"For better or worse," he writes, "part of the 'job' of being an involved dad is helping to change the incorrect impressions people have of all dads. Set an example, live that example, and correct people when they are wrong."

I was lucky with how my Today Show experience turned out. I had no control over how the finished article portrayed me and my family, and no control over how the video piece would use us as an example of a stay-at-home-dad/breadwinning-mom family with which to introduce the topic on the show. I totally lucked out in having Matt Lauer virtually have my back and fight against the usual mom-vs.-dad, stay-at-home-vs.-work-outside-the-home adversarial framing of much of the media coverage modern parenting gets.

In a comment on the NYC Dads Group post, I wrote, "[I]n terms of how not to screw up the public conversation, a lot depends on the luck of having sympathetic allies involved in the set-up and presentation of the discussion. We can't assume folks'll have our back or be on the same page, and if they aren't and we're all by ourselves, especially if we're on their media turf, it's very easy to get steamrolled no matter our intentions."

As I said earlier, this stuff still gets portrayed in the media as the funny little human interest story, "hey look, they're doing things different [read: not normal], maybe it's a trend [read: not mainstream]." But as hinted at above, we're not waiting around for the mainstream media to tell our stories or just sitting around waiting for the day that what we're doing is so non-remarkable that there is no story. We're telling our own diverse, not-always-agreeing-with-each-other stories, moms and dads, SAH and WAH and WOTH and full-time and part-time and everything in between, in every possible permutation of "parent" and "family. We're connecting with each other virtually and IRL and creating fluid, fluent communities of interest and support, on new blogs, on Twitter, in books [like the new Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood, to which I am a proud contributor], everywhere.

And so that's how we continue to shape and "not screw up" the conversation—by having it with as many different people in as many different venues as we can. I recently had a conversation with another dadblogger about his mixed feelings on being lumped into a "trend" of redefined fatherhood when all he felt he was trying to do was raise his kid and be himself. But he was a part of it, I countered, whether he liked it or not, simply by the fact that he had chosen to talk and write publicly about who he was and how he was raising that kid, as a dadblogger. Mere presence, while not enough to make real changes, is enough to start—and I think that there are enough of us out there writing and talking about what we're doing and living to be sure that this is, indeed, the start of something.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Race is Always a Parenting Issue

[originally posted at The Good Men Project]

Last week, The Good Men Project started a conversation about race by publishing 8 articles from diverse points of view over the course of the week. However, the site launched the series last Monday with four pieces, all approaching the topic from a black/white perspective and written by black and white writers. I wrote the following response in partial reaction to the disappointing but unsurprising couching of America's continuing race problem in monochromatic terms, and it was published the next day, after, as it turns out, Daddy Dialectic's own Rad Dad Tomás Moniz' "Beautiful on All Sides," reprinted from Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood (buy your copy now!).

It seems that whenever a new conversation about race in America is started, no matter the good intentions, the starting point is always the same. The American historical experience and conception of race is grounded in the opposition of blackness and whiteness, two categories socially constructed over time in ways that have served to define “the other” as “not us” and “us” as “not them” at the same time as preserving power and privilege for one “us” over the “not us.” Thus, it’s no surprise that The Good Men Project’s call for a new conversation about race, and its intersection with what it means to be “good men,” begins with four personal, deeply felt, and honest essays that nevertheless fail to acknowledge that when we talk about race in 2011, it’s no longer enough, if it ever was, to color the dialogue in only black and white.

When I am called to put a racial or ethnic label on myself, I call myself, among other things at other times, a multiracial Asian American. I am also the stay-at-home father of two multiethnic Asian American daughters. Short version of the long story, three of my four paternal great-grandparents were Austrian Jews and all my maternal great-grandparents were from Japan (yes, my family was in camp), and I’m from LA, married to a woman who came from the Philippines when she was one. What does it all mean, and what does it matter? It means that I am a father of color of children of color in a United States in which multiracial by no means equals post-racial, and it matters a hell of a lot.

When I was a newbie SAHD in a new town, I started blogging. But before I was a dad, I was a college activist on race and diversity issues, an ethnic studies major, and a social studies teacher at a diverse, urban LA-area public high school not unlike the one I had attended myself. Issues of race and social justice were intimately intertwined with my journey as a new father—how could they not be? And so, besides writing about the archetypal SAHD-out-of-water experiences and the daily routine of diapers and naps, I co-founded a group blog for Asian American dads and joined a nascent blog whose blunt name needed no explanation, Anti-Racist Parent, which has since been renamed Love Isn’t Enough.

Countless times, I’d encounter commenters asking, “I thought this was a parenting blog! Why are you always talking about this race stuff?” For a parent of color, navigating race and racism is a parenting issue. Already, as one of the few Asian Americans at her school, my six-year-old has come home asking me why classmates insist she’s Chinese or ask her where she’s really from. And I know that it will be far too easy for my smart, personable girl who also happens to be really shy in large groups and with authority figures to get lost in the stereotype of the quiet Asian girl, and that it’s my job to monitor, teach, and intervene.

Race may be a social construction, but it continues to have real consequences upon people’s lived experiences. I know that my experiences as a biracial Asian American boy growing up in the Los Angeles of the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s (I graduated from high school just a few scant months after the National Guard used our blacktop as a staging area) will be very different from my daughters’ experiences as multiethnic Asian American girls growing up in a more conservative, more homogeneous Central Valley in the early 21st century. But I know that having a biracial black man in the White House and mixed folks a Hollywood trend doesn’t equal the end of racism, and that colorblindness leaves us unable to see, and that sometimes it isn’t enough to just love our children and hope for the best but that we must equip them with the lessons of our past, the tools with which they can shape their world, and our guidance with which they can learn to do so.

This conversation isn’t a new one, and it’s not one with an end in sight. And that’s okay. Because we don’t have this conversation for our own sakes. But as we move forward, we need to make sure that more and different voices telling more and different stories are heard, because in those different stories we will find the common experiences that bind us and learn what we don’t know we don’t know. Only then can the conversation include everyone, and move forward.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Blogging, Privacy, Porn, and the Monetization of Intimacy

Today, the Good Men Project published an essay of mine about the lines of privacy in marriage, in which I argue that spouses have both the right to secrets and the obligation to be as honest with each other as possible, using porn as a case study. That sounds like a paradox to some, I’m sure, and here I want to offer up another paradox: That in the age of transparency, we as daddy bloggers have the obligation to speak out and tell our stories—but we also have the right to privacy.

That’s probably not a controversial point with most readers (striking the balance is what we call a public persona), but I have been challenged many times to “tell the whole truth” about my life—or, in my journalism, to dig beneath the surface of what moms and dads tell me about their family lives, to get at “the real truth.” This often has a lascivious undercurrent, as when people want to know how many stay-at-home dads and moms have had affairs. There is a certain, growing strain of thinking in our culture that worries that anything we reveal in public must be a lie of some kind, that surely we’re hiding something, and of course we are. There’s tremendous pressure to reveal more, more, more. This pressure is social—but, as I’ll discuss in a moment, it’s also financial.

As I write at Good Men, this mirrors a dynamic in contemporary American marriages. Today our ideal marriage tends to be totally consuming, in that we expect total transparency and involvement from our partners. But this is a pretty new, fairly unstable (as measured by the divorce rate) social experiment we’ve got going on here in college-educated twenty-first-century America. There are other ideas of marriage that allow both partners to have extensive, separate lives outside of marriage, in friendships and community involvement—and there are ideas of marriage that allow both partners to cultivate inner lives apart from their partners. In other words, they don’t expect total transparency and disclosure. Spouses are allowed to have some privacy. Many marriages are battlegrounds between these competing ideals, with spouses fighting over every intimate inch of private ground.

A battle between transparency and privacy also rages through the public sphere, online and off. As a culture, we’ve evolved into an exhibitionistic beast in which people reveal the most intimate details of their lives through memoirs, Reality TV, social media, and blogs—and in my view, it’s no accident that this exhibitionism has grown up alongside the rise of the Christian Right in American culture and politics. Moral absolutism goes hand in hand with the assault on privacy, feeding each other. From this perspective, Mark Zuckerberg and Mike Huckabee are allies. We’re at the point where people who cultivate private lives seem suspicious: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, why hide?”

In my Good Men essay, I write the following:
In marriage, disclosure and transparency are important—but we must also recognize the genuine doubts and anxieties that hold our spouses back from being completely honest with us. In fact, I’d go further and argue that to make our confessions compulsory robs them of their power. It’s the struggle to reach the point of confession that defines us, not the split-second catharsis of confession all by itself. To put it another way, truth is a road we build as we travel, not a destination. We don’t have to tell everybody everything all at once.
I’d like to suggest that the same principle applies to disclosure in public life, especially for those of us who write about marriage and family on blogs, in books and magazines, through social media. In both in marriage and in the culture at large, for individuals, honesty is important—but it should not be obligatory. In the essay I mention that I had a conversation with my wife about pornography, but I don’t feel the need to share the details of that conversation with you, dear reader, though doing so would doubtless drive traffic and catalyze outrageous comments that would feed the search machine that would drive even more traffic, and thus generate advertising dollars (if we took ads here, which we don't).

In a very real way, we now live in an economy of confession. Our intimate details can be monetized.

It’s up to each person how monetized they want to be. No one makes any money off this blog (and no one ever will). But I’m a writer and I’ve written about my life in blogs and magazines and books, and I’ve gotten paid for it. I have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and you’re welcome to friend or follow me. But I have rules and lines I’m not willing to cross, which have been set with my wife’s input. We’re selective. I defend our right to be selective. It’s our call, not yours, and people who wants to violate the boundaries we set can go fuck themselves.

So why talk about my private life, or write about other people’s private lives, at all? Why be a daddy blogger? Why write personal essays? Some people do indeed think I should just shut up—more than a few folks have implied that I do this for some combination of money or attention. These are often the same people who demand “the whole truth.” And let’s not pussyfoot around: money is nice, because we need it for food and shelter and books. Attention is important because in our economy attention, like intimacy, can be monetized. And vanity is also a factor in all writing.

However, “the real truth” is that there are better ways to make a living than to write about fatherhood and family. In fact, I suspect doing so has caused some serious damage to the rest of my career as a journalist. Many potential employers worry about hiring a guy who speaks out openly about prioritizing family. Many journalistic employers simply don’t take family issues seriously—I don’t seem “serious” to them since I write about “soft” things like male caregiving. I should be covering wars, business, technology. Man things.

So, again: Why do it? I do it because parents get a raw deal in our society and I want to do something to make it easier for us. I see my writing about fatherhood to be a form of political and cultural activism—among other things, through my work I’m campaigning for more people to recognize that today’s fathers have caregiving responsibilities that demand new public and workplace policies, stuff like paternity leave and flextime. I think a narrow, rigid definition of masculinity has caused an incredible amount of damage to our psyches, our bodies, our marriages. Redefining fatherhood and masculinity demands that we strive to be honest about our lives—to tell the truth, for example, about how we feel when we denied access to our children through divorce or workplace pressures. The more honest we can be, the more powerful our stories will be.

But that is not the same as arguing for verbal diarrhea. As Ernest Hemingway knew and practiced so well, power can also arise from what we choose not to say, from the silences that surround the words we speak. I’ve never been sold on the idea that men and women speak separate languages, but there is certainly a hardboiled male mode of communication (not shared by all men or all cultures) that seeks an artful modulation between silence and confession, secrets and disclosure, which can create a deep pressure that turns men’s inner lives into diamonds. I try to give that tradition—the one that defined our grandfathers—the respect it deserves, and I try to learn from it, build on it, use it to redefine who we are as guys.

I also believe that there are other priorities that can and should undermine public “honesty.” There’s the privacy of our spouses and children; there’s the pressure of our careers, which are the means of supporting our families. These things are important. There are also secrets, our own and others’, that we want or need to protect. That’s OK. Resisting the assault on privacy and the monetization of intimacy (of which porn is an example, incidentally) is a form of activism as well.

I’m not sure if what I’m saying will be useful to you, dear reader—this is a meditation, not a set of guidelines. And those lines, I’d like to suggest, are something that each of us much draw for ourselves, on our own.