Some notes on gender and parenthood

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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?

8 Responses to Some notes on gender and parenthood

  1. Christi January 31, 2013 at #

    Here via Asha Dornfest on Twitter. I don’t have any advice about tomorrow’s presentation, but I wanted to say that I enjoyed reading. I’m excited to check out some of the articles and books you recommended on gender issues. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Lesbian Dad February 1, 2013 at #

      Thank you, Christi! I expect the conversation will be as stimulating as it will be unpredictable. What I appreciate is having it, and with these folks.

      • Christi February 1, 2013 at #

        Re: unpredictable – I was thinking it might be tough to work all that in. :-)

        A couple of things I was thinking about on a walk this morning…

        The whole Mr. Rogers comment was great just put out there, but I started thinking about him more. Mr. Rogers was such a model of nurturing for many of us growing up in the seventies, a great model for intentional parenting. I can imagine him holding a baby or running a vacuum as easily as putting together trains.

        Thinking about Mr. Rogers made me think of both caretaking (which I think of as attending to basic needs) and taking care (which I think of as deliberation and attention). I think it’s easy as a parent of any gender to do the first without the second. Like it’s pretty easy to feed my kids (though some nights are better than others for that) but to really *listen* to, I don’t know, the intricacies of which Pokemon evolves into what other Pokemon at which level…that can be tough for adults, I think, but it’s an essential thing for kids.

        And I think of you talking with kids, and how wonderful it is that mostly you can say to kids, hey, I’m a bit of both, mom and dad, and I’m making it up as I go…and I imagine kids really get that concept of invention in a way that we as adults can lose as we get older. I think we need to keep having conversations about gender with kids in age-appropriate ways, because there are so many other societal forces (I am trying to avoid the commercials rant :-D) influencing them in less-than-ideal ways.

        Anyway, I hope this isn’t too long and rambly. It’s good to be able to think and write about this.

  2. Jeff Byrne February 1, 2013 at #

    Of course, I agree with all of your notes! My two cents:

    Regarding the “As fathers strive for greater credibility as parents,” framework — I’d say a lot of fathers (most?) are busy actually BEING good and involved parents, and don’t see themselves as striving for credibility. Striving for balance, perhaps, like everyone else, but not giving much thought to their own credibility as parents. It does, however, suggest that someone out there is withholding a positive regard from these fathers. So I’d suggest a better framework is to focus on them, maybe something like “as gender-rigid people continue to insist that fathers are an inferior class of parent….”

    As part of a 2-dad family, I sometimes feel sorry for straight couples and the gender-role nonsense with which they must contend. Part of the problem, though, I think is with women who truly believe (& the men who agree with them) that there is something essentially superior about a woman’s capacity to parent, something in the very nature of being a female that gives women an advantage in the good-parenting business. While this may give them some kind of an ego-boost, it comes at the terrible price of their male co-parents feeling subordinate and it perpetuates this unfair “incompetent father” problem.

    And though I’m not stuck with the ramifications of this problem within my own family (there’s no mother here who is presumably better than me or more innately able to parent), I am still stuck with the problem — because these are the same people who believe that there is something deeply tragic about two men raising children, that we have prevented these children from experiencing a needed and special kind of parenting that only a woman can provide. (In Papal parlance, we have done “real violence” to our own children.) And yet … here we all are. If there is an essential something that children need to thrive, and if we cannot stop calling it “mothering”, let’s at least intentionally keep saying that not all mothers are women, just as not all dads are men.

    • Lesbian Dad February 1, 2013 at #

      Bravo, sir, bravo. I will read this verbatim if at all possible, and convey its gist at the least.

      Now, get yourself a blog (the world *does* need another!) and then come and drop some of this knowledge in person next year!

  3. Cheryl February 1, 2013 at #

    Nothing to say but yes, yes, and yes. And thank you.

  4. Christine February 3, 2013 at #

    I know you hoped for comments before your talk and this is after the fact, but I have to share anyway. I am a high school English teacher, and many of my students are way ahead of adults in accepting and expressing gender in a range of manifestations. We have great discussions about gender and sexuality in regards to authors and literature that I cannot imagine having with my students even 10 or 15 years ago. However they are still fixed in old fashioned notions of what parenting looks like. When we read Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” they suggested the speaker could be a woman mourning her male lover, a man mourning his male lover, or a woman mourning her son, but none suggested a father mourning his son. Similarly, when we read The Great Gatsby, many comment on what a bad mother Daisy is, but none have ever said that Tom is a bad father. When I question them about this, they claim, even the kids in GSA, that she is supposed to be better because she is the mom!

  5. tracy February 9, 2013 at #

    wow. thanks.
    so glad to read this.
    i think i would suggest that the tendency towards narrow thinking about men as parents has come from much of the experience of us late baby boomers, who had fairly gender-determined parenting. the nuclear family. it will die out but it comes from people’s experience mainly, i think.
    i know i’m not being the kind of parent my father was, though i certainly appreciate aspects of his parenting. i also wonder if he would have been a more involved father had the roles not been so strongly marked out, by his parents, and theirs, etc. as well as society in the 50s and 60s and perhaps beyond. it’s a cultural thing that as LD suggests that is changing. and it’s changing with all of US.
    -another Baba’s 2 cents

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