Herewith, some notes on gender and parenthood, by way of organizing some thoughts and soliciting dialog in advance of a panel I’ll be speaking on. These notes also provide attendees a place to which to be able to trace various threads, should they like, or carry on the conversation we started.
This Friday I have the honor to be speaking at the Dad 2.0 Summit alongside four other really smart panelists and in dialog with the great folks assembled in the room. Our moderator is Parent Hacks founder/author Asha Dornfest; co-panelists are National At-Home Dad Network President Al Watts, therapist and Father’s Forum founder Bruce Linton, and Huffington Post senior columnist Lisa Belkin.
The question organizing our chat: Can parenting ever really be gender-neutral? Framed in the program thusly:
When it comes to parenting, mothers are held to an unreasonably high standard, while the bar for passable fatherhood is disproportionately low. As fathers strive for greater credibility as parents, the gap between those standards is diminishing. But will that gap every truly disappear? And is this the only way dads will ever be perceived as having a truly equal footing when it comes to raising kids?
Below, some notes on things I consider axiomatic and fundamental, but worth stating explicitly, since so many of us come from so many different standpoints. Also, some postulations about gender, parenting, and the relationship between pubic and private sphere power.
- Sex: derives from biology, and its meaning is (usually) more fixed. Gender: derives from culture and its meaning is (usually) widely varying, depending on historical period and cultural locale . Folks perpetually say “gender” when they really mean “sex,” because saying sex feels like SHOUTING: SEX! I am in a same-sex partnership, but lard love me I am not in the least in a same-gender partnership. Noooo, ma’am. And we both love it that way.
- Sex and gender are not rigidly aligned. That is, men possess both a masculinity and a femininity, to different proportions in each man; women possess both a femininity and a masculinity, again, to their own idiosyncratic proportions. (More fun on this whole topic can be had at one of George Saunders’ finest essays: My Amendment. The less faint of heart could assay Judith “Jack” Halberstam’s Female Masculinity.)
- All gender is a performance, whether we are aware of performing our gender or not. It’s all a drag show, is the idea. Following from this, the more aware we become that we are performing a gender (usually in some dialectic, conscious or unconscious, between our culture and our selves), the more agency we can have, the wider the spectrum of opportunity we have to arrive at a mix that feels most comfortable and rewarding. (For extra credit, anything by Judith Butler, most famously, Gender Trouble. Wikipedia on “gender performativity” might give you a headache if you’re not a currently enrolled college student.)
- There is more variation around gender expression within any given biological sex than there is between them. Really. Sit a theater queen next to Manchester United soccer fan and then try to say that the theater queen wouldn’t be more comfortable on a shopping date with Carrie Bradshaw. For myself, I’m not sure which of these extremes I’d be most comfortable with. Ideally, I’d have the choice to sit next to Mr. Rogers and talk about model trains.
- Social change, at any substantive and widespread level, takes time, and is worth a lifetime’s dedication. Also, it can happen. We are not sheep inside the pen of a culture outside our control, we’re the pen-dismantlers and the pen-rebuilders. Once we identify cultural forces on us and understand how they work, we can disregard various roles and expectations, and recreate ones that work for us, that enable us to live more fully and full-spectrumed. Also? Anything that’s a threat to the status quo must be fought for tooth and nail, and every inch gained must be both celebrated and defended. Social change work is not for wimps.
- Equality is the great equalizer. In the case of pejorative, out-of-date notions around men, fatherhood, and caregiving, consider this: the more equally women share in pubic sphere power, the more equally men will be regarded in the private sphere. Tit, tat. No pun intended. Or let’s say, quid pro quo. Demonstrable competency as a caregiver is hard to dispute, but it must be more and more widely demonstrated. For heterosexually-headed families, women’s public sphere, economic equality with men is the primary path toward men’s equal access to caregiving responsibilities at home.
- Parents in this generation are in the midst of redefining what mother and father really mean. It’s happening now; we’re all of us part of the process. If mother and father and the tasks and roles associated with them were plotted in a Venn diagram, we would be watching the overlapping area where they join getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Not for every mother-father pair, not for every individual mother or father. But in aggregate. We follow our hearts, and they are leading us all to greater wholeness. LGBT parents, equally-shared parenting hetero parents, caregiving dads and breadwinning moms are all part of this. And our kids are watching and learning, and are going to do it even better than us.
- Parenting oughtn’t be any more gender-neutral than people are. We needn’t eradicate gendered differences; we need only understand and appreciate them, and also rigorously decouple them from biological sex, re-understand them as dynamic elements we can any of us try on for size, elements subject to our influence, in our historical time and in our cultural context. All parents provide, all parents protect, all parents nurture, each in their own way. The more fully realized any of us is as individual men and women–the more full-spectrum an emotional life we create for ourselves–the more effortlessly we’ll be able to help our children fully realize themselves, as boys becoming full-spectrum men, and girls becoming full-spectrum women.
- As someone who has felt tethered to neither “mother” nor “father,” but instead attach to a hybrid of my own making, I can report that the water’s just fine. In my experience, “both/and” is always the best answer to every “either/or” question. I feel exempt from the so-called and perpetually resuscitated “mommy wars,” and yet I know, as a woman, that I am not presumed to be incompetent as a caregiver. What I feel I am most truly is a parent, maybe even more specifically the kind I am, a “Baba.” When asked (mainly by kids), I say I am the best parts of a mama and the best parts of a papa, all-in-one. Nurturing, gentle, also piggy-back riding and ball-throw-coaching. Equally involved in domestic responsibilities, toggling public-sphere influencing and income-earning with my co-parent, the kids’ mother. This can be the definition of the 21st century mother or father just as easily as my own definition of a Baba. Dad 2.0, indeed. Upside is, when you make it up as you go along, it fits you like a glove. And remember: you are never, ever, the only one. If you blog it, they will come.
Hey: any of youse who see this before noon, Texas time, Friday: what would you say to a room full of thoughtful parents?