Sunday, March 19, 2006

Gender Inclusive Parenting

I hate to sound like a crusader, but...

I'm a stay-at-home Dad. While my wife is very involved in raising our son, at least at the moment I am primarily responsible. I don't say that to in any way detract from my wife's ability as a mother. She's great. She's a very patient, nurturing person, who also knows how to get on the floor and play with a toddler. But she's also a behavioral therapist for autistic children, and is very professionally motivated. In other words

a.) She works outside the house (and is great at what she does), and

b.) a huge part of her identity is found in her work.

She loves to be a mother, and she loves to be a wife, but more often than not, first and foremost, she is a behavioral therapist. It is a kind of divine calling for her, a secular ministry.

Meanwhile I stay at home with the kid. This didn't happen exactly by design. For most of our marriage I was both a full-time student and either a youth minister or the pastor of my own church. But I'm in between schools right now (out of seminary, not yet into law school), and no longer have any interest in professional ministry. My degree in philosophy is worth a great deal to me, but not very much to prospective employers.

As an employee I have the disturbing need to be left completely alone. I have to be free from tight supervision, let loose to be creative. Right or wrong, most of the time I think I'm the smartest guy in the room, and I don't have much patience for the incompetence of my superiors. In other words, I'm not the most conventionally employable person in the world. My resume basically reads: Don't expect this guy to drink the company Kool-Aid.

Given the jobs available to me sans post-graduate degree, and given the high cost of child care, it works out best for us if I stay at home with the boy for the time being. And I'm starting to love this strange arrangement. As unconventionally religious vegetarians who love all the sorts of things that conservatives say prove that "liberals" are "out of touch," my wife and I plan to raise our child counter to the prevailing values of our culture.

Since these values - despite conservative protests to the contrary - are beamed in via satellite signals to our televisions each day in the form of advertisements for all sorts of products which no one needs but which keep us sucked into a cycle of emotional dependence on the flagrant consumerism which runs our economy; and since most kids at whichever school our son eventually attends will have been hypnotized by these televised messages; we have a very small amount of time to do a great deal of work.

Raising a kid is all about responsible conditioning. Each of us are in many ways conditioned. We'd love to rail against that, saying that we ought to have complete freedom. But have you ever wondered what such freedom would look like? If each of our decisions in life were unguided by any form of conditioning, how much time and mental energy would it take to make even the most simple decisions? My wife - a very conditioned woman who, as a behavioralist knows the value of conditioning - still takes so much time just to tell me what she wants me to fix for dinner. What would happen if we removed that conditioning? What would happen if she started with a completely empty mind, a totally blank slate? Rather than waiting ten painful minutes for her to come to a simple decision, I might have to wait a decade or more.

So conditioning isn't a bad thing, its a fact of existence. And as far as facts of existence go, its pretty damned useful. And it is one of the primary projects of parenting. Parenting is about ingraining some values (conservatives cannot monopolize that word!) in a kid and hoping that they stick. But when your values - the one's you are trying your best to instill in this new creature - run so contrary to the values of the surrounding society, you've got to make the most of the time you have.

So perhaps, all things being equal (which they aren't, since my wife can make some money, and evidently I can't) I'm the best person to be at home with this kid. I mean, I did used to make my living molding and shaping young minds. And I was pretty good at it. So I'm glad I have this chance to stay at home with our son, trying to enter into his experience of the world so that I can help shape how he interprets that experience, and so that I can guide the development of the values with which he lives his life. At least that's what I tell myself as I adjust to the fact that who I am now is so unvalued by the people outside my house.

I bring this up because for the last couple of days Adam has had a hard time sleeping, and that's not like him. He fusses in his sleep, then wakes up suddenly screaming. It looks like he's having nightmares. But I don't know anything about this sort of thing. So this morning, while I'm on the computer looking up last night's basketball scores and trying to decide whether or not my beloved Kentucky Wildcats have any hope of upsetting UConn in the NCAA tournament this afternoon (for the record, I don't, but I hope I'll eat crow on that) I decided to look for some parenting resources to see what's going on with the boy.

Every item I found was geared toward "Moms". Come to think of it, every magazine I've ever seen on parenting was essentially advice for "Moms". Every time I take our son to the pediatrician's all of the reading material in the waiting rooms are designed for women. I'd say that I wonder why this is, but I think that I know.

The media both reflects and shapes our culture. In this issue it reflects our culture in the sense that, in order to make money magazines need to convince advertisers that they have enough readers and a wide enough distribution to be worth the investment. Most magazines have articles only to get you to pick them up. They are basically fliers for advertisers. Parenting magazines are geared toward women because it is assumed that only or primarily women will read them. Aiming their magazine to women, addressing the concerns of women, is how they figure they will have the best chance to convince advertisers to give them money.

But this also shapes our culture. Women as primary caregivers is the dominant image. Parenting magazines aimed exclusively at women reinforces, then, this double stereotype:

1. The role of women is principally that of tending to children. Even when women work, their main concern should be for their family.

2. Men are not involved in the raising of children. Or, if they are involved, they are involved in a secondary or supplementary role.

This phrasing of the double stereotype concerning gender roles is obviously over simplified. But I'm not in the mood to be fair, and frankly women shouldn't be, either. I'm all for the value of conditioning, but sometimes you have to engage in some counter-conditioning. After all, to use the Confucian language, the "natural substance" of many people is not easily fit into such simplistic molds which are primarily concerned with gender as the defining attribute of a person. I've seen many men and women crushed underneath these societal expectations.

I am a parent. More than that, despite my wife's wonderful maternal skills, I am the primary caregiver for our son. I don't want to have to pretend to be a woman in the anonymity of cyberspace to find out why other parents think my son might be having these bad dreams. And I don't want my wife to be bothered by the fact that her husband is (at least for the moment) doing "her" job while she is doing "his" job.

But this morning she's been doing my job (while I sit in front of this computer screen) too long. I'm going to go see how the boy is doing.


Tom said...

Two things:

1. The crying at night are most likely what I've heard called "night terrors" which are quite common in children Adam's age. In the case of my children they left as quickly as they came, and were best treated with love, affection, and providing a feeling of security.

2. To everything else you said: Amen! I'm tired of the assumption that my wife is the person to talk to when it comes to any issue with any of my children. She won't have an answer for you except to talk to me. I am a father, and the primary caregiver for our children. Apparently that is not so uncommon. I actually know several stay-at-home-dads or dads who are the primary caregiver for their children. All of us have the same complaint about it, which is the same one that you are voicing. Surely our society is "progressive" enough to figure this thing out.

Squirrelly said...

What a fantastic post! And sadly true. It always kills me to read in parenting magazines all this liberal "mommies can work" manifesto, but right alongside it is a plateload of hypocritical articles targeted towards stay at home moms. Magazines really ought to put their money where their mouth is.

Adam is so lucky to have such cool parents. :)

Sandalstraps said...

I have nothing but respect for stay-at-home Moms. Feminism is first and foremost about empowering women to choose what they want to do based on who they are as a person rather than based on a prescribed gender role. If a woman (relatively) freely chooses to stay at home with the kids, good for her. I'm glad that she was able to choose that.

And stay-at-home Moms have needs which can be met by magazines. I have no problem with a parenting magazine trying to meet the needs of Moms who stat at home along with the needs of Moms who work outside the home. My problem is that those magazines only meet the needs of Moms, as though Dads weren't involved in parenting.

If a magazine wants to be for Moms, fine. They should call themselves Moms Magazine rather than Parenting Magazine, because, unless you are also considering the perspective of Dads as well you are not covering parenting.

As far as I've seen there simply aren't resources for Dads. We stay-at-home Dads have to (emotionally - we're not dressing in drag!) pretend we're women in order get get parenting resources.

The only piece of literature I've ever seen on the perspective of the Dad as primary caregiver was the fantastically funny book Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad by novelist David Eddie. I've plugged that book at this blog before, because it's just that good. A must read for anyone who finds parenting as challenging yet funny as I do.

Princess Pinky said...

What bugs me most about the "parenting magazines" is they have articles to help women get their partner involved. It involves a lot of passive aggressive behavior as well as assumes that men are like an extra child. My husband can tell you things about our children that if you asked me I would just look at you funny.
Tom is more nuturing and "mom" like than I am. I think it is time for our society to accept the fact that all women are not from the same mold and all the cornball 50's leave it to beaver bull-shit is as worthless today as it was back then when women didn't have the options they have today.
I should not be made to feel guilty that I can work forty hours a week, make a decent income and support my family. I think women who are better suited to careers versus staying home should be encouraged because it creates an environment for parent and child to be happier. Freeing myself from the bonds of patriarchal views of gender roles and going back to work helped me overcome post-partum depression and significantly improved my relationships with my husband and children.
Now all we have to do is get a cleaning service. Neither of us have ever been any good at that.