men, masculinities and gender politics

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De-gendering Daddy

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I used to abuse women in just about every way imaginable. This is not something of which I am proud, but the most shameful part of my past. I was raised by a partner-violent father in the American south, lived among partner-violent male family members and "friends" in the north, and, as a result, reached the very misguided conclusion that there was no other way for me to resolve interpersonal problems "as a man."

Such learned misbehavior was twined with a demeaning, demanding, and domineering view of females - a view also imparted to me within the context of my patriarchal upbringing. Consequently, I treated females as though they were beneath males, belonged to males, and as though they could not possibly have beautiful minds, wonderful desires, and amazing abilities of their own. Such were the aggressive and regressive tendencies that caused me to abuse women. Such was the foolishness that only filled my life with regretfulness.

I began changing several years ago, especially when in the aftermath of marital separation I was forced to face my personal demons. Throughout our marriage, my wife had constantly reiterated to me the point in the title of one of her favorite books: "Do Yourself a Favor and Love Your Wife." Alas, I did the opposite and often treated her as though I hated her. I was smugly confident that I could carry on with or without her, as long as I still had my daughters. However, soon after our separation, I realized that my daughters only resented me for wrecking our home. I had not been a father to them, but an in-house foe because, rightly, they could not see me except as the man who mistreated their mom.

I thought that I was a dynamite dad even though I was a pathetic partner. However, my daughters' rebuke and rejection of me brought me to the compelling realization that my attitude and approach to females were far more problematic than I ever imagined. My abusive ways had not been contained and confined to my so-called love life, but had also contaminated the rest of my life. I just did not truly see this until my daughters dreaded seeing me.

I began doing a lot of soul-searching when I thought I was losing my daughters. Finally, I discovered - and I am still discovering! - ways of living and loving that helped me find my way back into their good graces. Surprisingly, the secret was not to become a better man, but to become a better person. It was not to cling to perspectives and practices that merely reinforce patriarchy, but to embody an egalitarianism that engenders mutual respect, fairness, and nonviolence in all my relationships.

Ours is a society in which males are still encouraged to think less of females than they do themselves. From entertainment and ads to much relationship counseling and clothing fads, women are constantly paraded and parodied as sexy but shallow at best or outstanding but out-of-place at worst. Though it is not politically correct to claim one's allegiance to this attitude, the thinking yet prevails among males that females are not any more fit to lead men, families, institutions, and societies than an infant attempting to steer the Titanic.

Such menacing messages are even being conveyed through much of the backlash against single mothering and through many of the political and parochial initiatives to reinstate "the man as the head of the household." Even when males are "good" to females, far too often there is also the assumption that the genders are somehow "equal but different," with the greatest difference being that women are "the weaker sex."

Whenever males with such condescending attitudes toward females succumb to feelings of paranoia and powerlessness and possess very poor anger management and relationship-building skills, the subsequent male aggression directed at females can be downright deadly.

It is not male chauvinism or anger in itself that causes a male to abuse a female. There are countless male chauvinists who are angry for myriad reasons, but who do not perpetrate acts of violence against females. However, you can be sure, for example, that a male will abuse a female if his demeaning attitude toward her is commixed with a lust for control so great that he gives himself permission to stoop to any level to gain control over her.

It is such deleterious master roles meshed with mean-spiritedness that I had to forsake in order to play more meaningful roles in my daughters' lives. Therefore, I gave up on being "da man" to become a good human. This was not a choice between the many sexualities, but a decision to make and maintain positive changes in my moral sensibilities. I wanted to make my daughters proud to call me Daddy again, not because of my gender, but because of my goodness.

Traditional masculine gender ideology limits the father's roles to breadwinner and "benevolent dictator" (primary disciplinarian). This conventional thinking is also consistent with the prevailing perception of mothers - or, more specifically, women - as naturally more suited to be the emotionally available nurturers and day-to-day caretakers of children.

However, degendering Daddy meant that I would no longer permit those arbitrary restrictions and restraints to be placed on me as a parent. Gone were the days of distinct parental roles. Instead, I became and remain interested in creating what one group of researchers described as "a hybrid, degendered parent role that encouraged both [parents] to be adept at most childcare duties”.

Playing more active and affectionate roles in my children’s lives continues to bring us closer than we have ever been. According to one of them, this degendered parenting has also softened me in that it has helped me become more and more sensitive and responsive to the emotional needs of my children and others. I feel like "less than a man," of course, but I love this feeling because I have never felt more human.

Richard Jones (www.iamrj.com) is a writer living in Detroit, Michigan. Send your feedback to rj[at]iamrj.com. Copyright (c) 2005 Richard Jones. All rights reserved.