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Five Questions on Profeminist Fatherhood

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Last year, Australian feminist blogger Blue Milk posted "10 questions on feminist motherhood," which a range of mom bloggers have tackled.

I wondered: Could profeminist fathers adapt these questions for themselves? If yes, would it be productive, for them and for everyone else? And I thought: Why not give it a try and see what happens?

An abbreviated version follows. What to read all of them? See my full answers to all 10 questions at the blog Daddy Dialectic: http://daddy-dialectic.blogspot.com/2008/08/10-questions-on-profeminist-fatherhood.html.

1. What has surprised you most about fatherhood?

In college, I was active with many feminist and profeminist organizations. After college, I was in a stable, monogamous relationship and in my work with various progressive nonprofits, I usually had solid, respectful relationships with female co-workers. I watched guy co-workers get into trouble for sexist remarks or actions (inadvertent and otherwise), but that never happened to me and my policy was to duck and cover if it turned into a major issue.

Every once in a while, a female co-worker would even go out of her way to tell me how refreshingly non-sexist I was—“When Jeremy talks to me, he never looks at my breasts,” said one person, whose breasts I did, in fact, secretly glance at once or twice. These pats on the head were always reassuring and contributed to a decade-long mood of complacency about gender issues.

Then I became a dad. And I was shocked by the degree to which my now-habitual commitment to feminist values was put to the test. In fact, habits went out the window; everything took conscious effort, as if I’d had an intellectual and emotional stroke and needed to learn how to walk and talk all over again.

Most shocking of all, I think the power in our relationship started to inexorably tilt in my direction, as perhaps it always did, as we became parents. Even when I took time off of paid work to serve as my son’s primary caregiver, the tilt continued. It didn’t seem, and still doesn’t seem, to matter what I want or decide—I just keep growing more powerful in the relationship.

What do I mean by power? In this context, we might say it’s the ability to do and say what we want and need to do or say. From this perspective, we’ve both lost power: Parenthood constrains our choices in countless ways, which I don’t think I need to explain to other parents.

But there is no question, absolutely none, that my wife has lost more power than I have. This won’t surprise moms who are reading this, but it certainly surprised me.

The biggest reason for this, I would say, is that I have simply not been as absorbed by the physical and emotional demands of caregiving, even when I was primary caregiver; and at this writing, I am the one who is making most of the money and feels most driven to advance in my so-called career.

Mind you, I have been vastly more involved with care than many other fathers and I have explicitly designed my work situation to be flexible. And yet it is still the case—this is the important thing, the most important thing that needs to be said—that parenthood has diminished my wife’s power. Or, to put it a different way, constrained her ability to make choices.

2. How have your profeminist values changed over time? What is the impact of fatherhood on your profeminism?

Think about the implications: If a guy like me—who has every good intention and a history of profeminist activism, and who even served a stint as a stay-at-home dad—is failing at the task for forging an egalitarian family, then what does that tell us about the prospects of wider social change?

Some people reading this probably think they have this one all figured out. They’ll say I was naïve for ever even imagining that equality in one family was possible—what we need, they’ll argue, is nothing less than the overthrow of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Only after the revolution can our piddling interpersonal relationships be lastingly altered.

Before becoming a father, I was one of those people.

And so I never thought utopia in one family was possible; I was really just trying to muddle through, as I still am. Here’s the thing: Most of the people I’m talking about aren’t parents—and the ones who are, are not what I would call dedicated parents. In fact, too often left-wing activists and leaders neglect their family responsibilities, especially the guys.

Am I judging them? Sure, a bit—the fathers, anyway—but mainly as a warning to myself and others. They’re workaholics in the service of social change, as I once was, and I suspect that they will regret the things they missed just as much as their corporate counterparts.

As a result, the problems parents face are all very abstract to them. They don’t see, they can’t, how vital and immediate it is for heterosexual couples to establishing a domestic division of labor that makes both parties happy. They have no idea—I had no idea, before becoming a parent—how difficult and urgent it is for fathers and mothers to figure this one out.

It’s all very well to talk about universal health care and parental leave and so on—but who will take the baby to the doctor? What do you say when a breastfeeding mother just wants to stay home and take care of her baby? Do you condemn her, as some have done, for being insufficiently feminist? Or do you say society and the economy made her do it, thereby denying the importance of her perception of what she needs and what the baby needs?

And what about the fathers? Are their feelings and needs irrelevant? What happens when a father yearns to stay home with his child, but can’t, because his wife wants to be the one to do that and he has to earn the money? Or what if he does stay home, and spends his days feeling like a fish out of water? No social movement can help him; feminism can tell him that he’s doing the right thing—God knows, nothing else in our culture will—but that won't matter much to the average stay-at-home dad. He mainly needs a supportive community as well as role models. 

Here’s something I think progressive feminist folks need to understand in a deep way: Parents aren’t soldiers. We don’t take marching orders. And none of us is a general. You can’t tell your partner what she should want out of life, even, perhaps especially, when her decisions make you more powerful in the relationship. You can’t control the way the world thinks of you, and you don’t get to say what social and economic conditions you’ll face as a parent. This breeds feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, anger.

At the end of the day, your main task is to survive and support your family and raise happy children; how you respond to the things you can’t control reveals a great deal about your character, some of it good and some of it bad. You might discover (have you noticed my retreat to the safety of the second person?) a capacity for sacrifice and care that you never knew was there.

On the flip side, the dark one, you might also find yourself erupting with petty rage and misdirected resentment, eruptions that frighten you, your child, and your partner. In those scary moments, when our worst emotions take over and drive our ideals and aspirations over a cliff, it is easiest of all for both fathers and mothers to fall back on traditional patterns of dominance and submission.

What does that have to do with feminism? Everything, and nothing.

Pledging allegiance to feminist ideals doesn’t make you a good person or a good parent or a good partner, but it might remind you of the power you have—we always have power, if only over ourselves—and the need to restrain that power or share it with other people. It can also remind fathers of something that I think is crucial: There are alternatives; you do have choices, and your choices matter. You don’t have to be the man your father was; you don't have to be the idiots we see on TV; you can be a new kind of man, and you can help your sons become that kind of man.

3. What makes your fathering profeminist? How does your approach differ from an anti-feminist father’s?

At the start, I saw participating in infant care as being the most important thing I could do to make my fathering profeminist, and maybe that was correct—it had the merit of being a pretty straightforward mission. I did my best.

And that’s a fundamentally different framework than the one an anti-feminist or non-feminist father brings to fatherhood—for the best of them, fatherhood involves an uncomplicated commitment to breadwinning above all else, which, whatever its shortcomings, is definitely an important role to fulfill; for the worst of them, fatherhood becomes another opportunity to dominate women and expand their egos. On this front, I don’t sell myself or profeminist fathers short: A commitment to care is crucial, and makes a real difference for mothers and children.

I also think a commitment to profeminist fathering leads in a very direct way to supporting profeminist public policies: antidiscrimination policies, subidized daycare and preschool, universal health care, paid parental leave, and so on. Enacting these policies will provide a nurturing context for our personal decisions and make profeminist fathering more likely to flourish. That's another difference between a consciously profeminist and a non-feminist father: There's a political dimension to your fathering that, I think, must be expressed through voting, activism, writing, and, ultimately, public policy.

4. When have you felt compromised as a profeminist father? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a profeminist father?

At this point, I’m compromised every freaking day; I fail every single day. This is not false modesty. The commitment to infant care was straightforward, though in retrospect I see those halcyon days as a simpler time. As the years have gone by, I’ve fallen further and further short of my ideals, and profeminist fathering has started to look increasingly complicated to me.

I confess that I feel really quite lost when it comes to applying profeminist values to my relationships with my wife and my son as they are right now. From that perspective, this is an awkward time for me to tackle these ten questions—I’m struggling toward the answers, but don’t yet have good ones, and it’s possible that I never will.

5. Do you feel feminism has failed fathers and, if so, how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given fathers?

“Feminism” is, of course, not monolithic.

I would say that individual feminist thinkers and leaders have certainly failed fathers, in the sense that they have behaved as though fathers don’t matter or don’t exist or can only serve a purely oppressive role within the family. Another group of feminists has actually attacked the emergence of caregiving dads—I submit Linda Hirshman as an example.

But I would describe those two groups as a minority; I think a majority of feminists can foresee a positive role for fathers and, indeed, desperately want to see fatherhood redefined in a positive and progressive way. I don’t think feminism has offered a well-articulated vision of fatherhood, but that’s OK: It really falls to fathers to redefine fatherhood.

This is the great thing that feminism has given fathers: Its success has triggered culture-wide dialogues among men about what a good father should be and do. Feminists themselves are not always comfortable with these arguments, and certainly there has been much to criticize.

But, as an old New Leftist once said, revolutions don’t happen in velvet boxes. They’re messy, contradictory, sometimes downright revolting—but usually also thrilling and necessary. Women have been rising for over a century, and only recently have men started to really change in response. From that perspective, it’s an exciting time.

This leads me to another thing that has surprised me about fatherhood and feminism: In a perverse way, fatherhood has strengthened my commitment to feminism. By revealing the limits of my good intentions and scope of action, fatherhood has pushed me to seek new answers to feminist questions I thought I had answered in my early twenties, on both personal and political levels.

Fatherhood has also reminded me, in a visceral way, of the inequalities that persist between men and women, and, in particular, the burdens carried by mothers. Those burdens and inequalities shape and poison our most intimate relationships whether we want them to or not.

Here again, feminism is useful for fathers and mothers: It gives us perspective, or it should.

It’s easy to be overcome by day-to-day difficulties and despair of the possibility of changing the balance of power between men and women. But if we lift our eyes and look at the sweep of the past through feminism’s eyes, we can see that the balance of power has changed, on this and many other fronts. History doesn’t stop just because we personally feel stuck. If we look at the lives of the people who came before us, we see that our actions in the present do matter, both our individual choices and the act of speaking out in public.

Finally, returning to question two, fatherhood has changed my relationship with feminism in one other way: If I speak out now, it is with a lot more sadness and less righteousness than I did when I was a college student. At this point, I’ve failed so many times that I can hardly denounce others for their imperfections.

But I still feel like we as fathers need to speak out, even if it’s just to friends or through blogs or zines with a few hundred readers. The alternative is silence—but worse than that, meaninglessness. If I’m going to fail, the failure has to mean something. It has to be recorded (if only for myself), examined, put to use, leveraged, transmuted. Feminism gives us a way to do that, to transform our private pains into social change.

Jeremy Adam Smith is the author of The Daddy Shift, forthcoming in June 2009 from Beacon. See  www.jeremyadamsmith.com.

Reposted with permission from The Daddy Dialectic, at http://daddy-dialectic.blogspot.com/.