Changing the Language of Fatherhood

Today there is an article in the New York Times Magazine section Adventures in Parenting titled Motherlaod: Changing the Language of Fatherhood.  It’s a good short read for any parent or expecting parent (hint, hint).  In the article Lisa Belkin references a post by Paul Hankes Drielsma titled “Daddy & Me”, which reads as a whoa-is-me soap-box diatribe from a cerebral stay-at-home-dad who probably has too much extra time on his hands.  His note focuses on three key themes, the primary objective being to distill our lexicon for biases that prevent, deter, or undermine a new father’s ability to be wholly accepted as a primary caregiver by our modern society.  His argument hinges on three themes which are: 1. Our lexicon must change to meet the growing number of stay-at-home dads who long for acceptance as primary caregivers, 2. Daddy Discrimination exists among the original primary caregivers (women), and 3. our current social order prevents social acceptance of dedicated male parents. 

After reading Paul’s note, I had a few bones to pick .  While I understand where he is coming from, and I think that people could become more sensitive to a man’s choice to stay home with a newborn, I felt as though he ran off course in getting to his point, and ultimately just published more fuel to fan what might be a modest amount of societal insensitivity.  His note begins with:

At the top, the flyer read “Mommy & Me Yoga” in 40-point font. At the very bottom, it added “Dads welcome!” in a font sized appropriately for the disclaimers in last second of a car commercial. When I arrived for my first class, the other participants (all mommies) glanced at me suspiciously. A few reached nonchalantly for their diaper bags and removed their Hooter Hiders, designer covers for discreet breastfeeding. It was clear that, to some, I had intruded into an environment where these were not supposed to be needed.

With regard to this example, I agree wholeheartedly with a comment on the NYT website by “-stewart”.  His comment was:

Why did you need to go to Mommy and Me Yoga? The baby doesn’t really do yoga. These classes are designed for women who have recently given birth and want to get back in shape. It’s a way to get exercise while keeping an eye on your baby.

Had you recently given birth and wanted to get back in shape? I’m not sure why the flyer said “Dads Welcome” but surely you could have found another class for you and your baby to enjoy together. There are baby gym classes and music classes and story time at the library.

— stewart June 13, 2009 11:31 am Link

Paul was looking in the wrong place for acceptance.  His examply is no different than when any “stranger” enters a room made up of any closed community.  “The music stops” scenario is not confined to a daddy in a Mommy and Me class.  The same thing happened to me years ago as young city-sliked New Yorker walking into a Waffle House in rural Indiana.  As I was then Paul was a stranger in a strange land, and when that happens, the proverbial needle skips on the record and heads turn in your general direction.  Unless fathers everywhere decide to start going to Mommy & Me classes, I don’t think that will ever change.  He should not have expected anything less, and he should have been grateful that he was not unkindly asked to leave.  That aside, in my opinion breast feeding is a darn good reason to require that men do not come to any Mommy and Me class. 

Another example Paul uses to identify gender biases is that there are less changing tables in public men’s bathrooms than in public ladies bathrooms.

For the empirically minded, try challenging a friend of the opposite sex to count the number of changing tables you both encounter in public restrooms in a given week. If you’re a man, don’t take any wagers on finding the greater number of changing tables: men’s rooms aren’t assumed to be places that need them.

You could not pay me any amount of money, as a father, as a sitter, as a mother or even as Mother Theresa to change a baby in a typical public men’s restroom.  They are filthy, full of really odd men, and often times have homeless people or other oddities mingling about.  I realize that as a father alone with a new born this could pose some logistical challenges, but it should come with the decision to stay home.  I don’t think I want to see cities creating ordinances to put changing stations in public men’s rooms.  I also don’t think any mother who has visited a typical men’s room would want her child lying naked on any surface within.  This was just a silly point altogether.

Our society has created a social order around mother’s being the primary caregivers.  This is rooted in tens of thousands of years of human development.  Women have been the primary caregivers since the dawn of humanity.  Fathers were the primary providers.  This is not a function of language, or of gender roles, it has been a function of biology.  A mother’s body is the primary care center for a developing baby, the father simply has to provide the sperm (and take care of the mother).  But note that the father’s role (should there be a father-familial networks and friends/partners may substitute the father for single mothers or in same sex couples), is to support the mother through the pregnancy, which is a bit different than supporting the baby.

We have made amazing progress technologically, created massive amounts of leisure time, and allowed for many more freedoms than those who wrote the constitution could have imagined.  But that has all happened inside of 100 years. Modern society has produced wealth and excess that has allowed us the flexibility to redefine gender roles and in turn to adjust the social order, at least in the US. 

However, for all of our advancements, all of our technology, and all of our wealth, there are a few matters that will never change.  Among them is that women will always carry our children to term, and in the simplest sense men will always be “donors” to that process.  That’s the biology that society will never escape.  And that biology is critical to the definition of roles as parents, particularly of newborns. 

To think that there should and will be equal acceptance for stay-at-home dads is a bit misguided.  To think that the public could learn to adapt and accept that some men may choose this role is more than fair and needed.   Lexicon is one thing, and I think Paul’s pointing out that our language has not adapted to what may be a growing number of stay-at-home dads, is interesting and noteworthy.  It certainly has some merit and I’d be curious to listen to the discussion.  However, I think it was obfuscated by poor examples which became counter productive to his argument.  Rather than write the article, if he really thinks he is not alone then he should be opening and trademarking the first Daddy-and-Me center in his home town.

Lisa Belkin, New York Times Magazine, June 13, 2009


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