The problem with “Men’s Rights” groups isn’t that individual men aren’t in need of support and advocacy in their personal lives, or that they aren’t also victims of violence and injustice. The problem is that as a collective of men we haven’t yet really listened to the voices of women well enough to justify amping up our own.
This past weekend my six year old daughter and I decided that we needed to check out from the world and have a Father-Daughter Fun Day. We made the one hour drive to Denver, stopping for breakfast at one of those chain family restaurants at her request so that she could order the chocolate chip pancakes off the kid’s menu.
As a post punk Gen-X father most of my weekend attire consists of simple shorts and a T-shirt. As I’ve settled into parenthood, my career, and the early stages of middle age I’ve noticed that my band and snarky political message shirts have given way to shirts I’ve received as promotional shwag for programs I’m involved with at work.
As I retire worn and raggedy vintage Jesus Lizard, Butthole Surfers, and Steel Pole Bath Tub concert tees to the back of the closet, I’ve replaced them with shirts that read “I’ve Been Caught In the Act of Being a Great father”, “Men Standing Against Violence”, or my wife’s favorite “Consent Turns Me On”. Most of them tend to have a pro-feminist, anti-violence slant of some sort.
On this particular morning I was wearing a shirt I had got recently while attending a fabulous training by Tony Porter and his A Call To Men organization. The shirt has some little stick figure people on it (kind of like the male and female icons on public restroom signs) and boldly proclaims “Manhood = Respect For Women”.
After we finished our meal I went to pay the bill and the young woman who was running the cash register commented on my shirt.
“I’ve never seen a guy wear a shirt like that before. What does is mean?”
I took the brief opportunity to talk about my work as an anti-violence educator, engaging men and boys as allies to end gender violence, and then put in a plug for Tony and his excellent video presentation featured on the TED Talks site.
“What was the name of that site?” she asked.
“Ted, like what you might name your teddy bear”, I replied.
“Oh, I just saw that movie, it was hilarious!”, she exclaimed.
In case your not in the pop culture loop Ted is also the name of a new film directed by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Ted follows the exploits of a young man and his teddy bear who has magically come to life is sort of like the pot-smoking, womanizing, bar-fighting antithesis to the Care Bears.
I shrugged it off.
“Well, let’s just say that Tony’s message is a little more positive and less hurtful to women than that Family Guy garbage.” She laughed and handed me back my credit card and we headed out the door and and across the parking lot to our car.
“Dad? my daughter asked. “We do you think I know more about girl power than that grown-up lady did?”
“I don’t know, why do you think?”, I asked.
“Because you teach about it and you’re my dad and I’m your daughter”, she answered with a little giggle.
Deep in thought she continued…
“How come only girls ever seem to like your shirts?”
“I don’t know buddy, maybe a lot of boys’ dads never taught them anything about feminism.”
“It’s a gown up way of saying girl power”, I replied. “Being a feminist means you care about women and girls and their rights and you try to make things more equal and safe, and really just try to create a world in which its cool for everybody to be themselves.”
“So, that means mom and I are feminists because we are girls, but you’re not because you’re a boy?”, she asked.
“No”, I replied. “Do you think boys can care about all of that stuff too?”
“Well I think everybody should care about that stuff”, she said. “Especially boys”, she added thoughtfully.
Six years ago I had put my career as a social worker on hold to become a stay-at-home dad, a role in which I truly relished but found immensely more challenging than I had assumed it would be. I had served in the trenches as a caregiver for adults with disabilities and had already changed the diaper of a 300 pound man with behavioral issues while getting punched in the head on regular basis. Changing an 8 pound infant’s diaper was a piece of cake in comparison. The turds were so dainty.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the social isolation and the loss of personal identity that accompanied this transition of roles. The decision to take on the role of stay-at home parent was made primarily because my wife was suffering from severe postpartum depression and it just seemed to make sense to structure our newly consolidated family in this way. Plus, she made a bit more money than I did and had a better health insurance plan.
Shortly after our daughter’s first birthday my wife received news that she had been accepted into a graduate program in Colorado studying hydrology and groundwater. So we packed up our tiny pickup truck and left our home in Anchorage, Alaska for the long migration to Colorado. I would be returning to the workforce as she passed the torch of primary breadwinner to me. She would be juggling the roles of part-time stay at home mom and full time student.
Now six years have passed and our family is once again in transition, my wife has completed her graduate program and recently accepted a position as hydrologist with an engineering firm out in San Diego. She is already out there and started her first day of work this past Monday, leaving my daughter and I to tie up loose ends in Colorado before joining her at the end of the summer.
Professionally I find myself in transition again, or more effectively limbo as I begin my employment search. When my wife was given the official job offer for her new position we sat down as partners and as a family and weighed the pros and cons. Together we decided that San Diego made sense. It was a chance to live by the ocean but more importantly an opportunity for her career to really take off. Hydrology is a niche field and you have to go where the jobs are. She worried about me though, knowing that I would be giving up a job I loved – working with men and boys, promoting concepts of responsible fatherhood and healthy relationships. I joked that it would be OK. “I’m a social worker. I can find work anywhere…there are people with problems all over the place!”
The next day at work I prepared to tell my boss of the impending closure to my employment. In a weird twist of fate before I could tell her I was basically offered a promotion, pending the interview process. Damn. Talk about poor timing.
As I processed this missed opportunity with my wife, I could truly feel her empathy for my situation and both of us began second guessing our newly hatched master plan. I realized that I was indeed grieving at the loss of hands down the best job of my career but worse yet I found myself justifying and rationalizing the loss through the lens of my role as a pro-feminist partner and father. I began to have internal dialogs eulogizing myself as some selfless martyr to the cause of women in the workplace.
“I’m taking one for the team.You know, in support of women in engineering. It will be healthy for my daughter to have a strong female role model excelling in science. After all she wants to be a marine biologist, my wife will be opening doors for her.”
I’m happy to say that with a little help from some friends I quickly got over myself.
Parenting and marriage is all about partnership and compromise. Some times my wife takes the lead, sometimes I do. Sometimes her career takes precedence, sometimes mine does. It’s a give and take, an ebb and flow, a constant mindfulness to what will be in the best interest of our entire family. After all, I would be lying to myself if I didn’t acknowledge that new opportunities for growth and exploration await for all of us in the San Diego.
Besides, our daughter already has the perfect job picked out for me – ticket taker at Sea World so her and my wife can get in for free when I’m working.
For most of us dads who are raising daughters, we have an understanding of the important role that we as men have in guiding the positive and healthy development of our daughters. Sometimes, however, we overlook the important role a daughter can play in the development of a man.
I had always thought of myself as a “good guy” – the kind of guy who treated women with respect, valued my platonic friendships with women and stood up for women’s rights. However, in 2005 when my daughter, Luna was born that all changed. The moment this amazing little girl came into my life it upped the ante on everything. As I cradled her tiny body next to my bare chest I was excited and hopeful for the life that lay ahead of her, but also nervous and scared because I knew of the challenges she would undoubtedly face growing up female in our society.
I thought of my grandmother, who struggled to become more than just a housewife in the post-war 1950s and how she triumphantly took a job outside of the home despite my overbearing grandfather’s objections. I thought of my mom who struggled to raise my brother and I as a single mother in the wake of the 1980s divorce epidemic. As she struggle to put food on the table with her part-time teacher’s salary she confided in us that she never really wanted to be a teacher and that as a young girl was told that career options for women were limited to nurse, teacher, or nun. I thought of all of the strong, independent, exciting, and in some ways intimidating women I befriended in college in the early 1990s; listening in horror to their stories of abuse, rape, and dehumanization during a campus Take Back the Night Rally. That event in many ways prompted me to begin to question my own masculinity, my role as a man and my relationships with women. I thought about my wife – my daughter’s mother – who is a survivor of domestic violence in a previous relationship and the hell she had endured. I thought again of my daughter and hoped that she wouldn’t have to experience any of this. Once again I found myself questioning my role as a man, as a father, as a partner, as a human being.
And now six years later I have seen Luna grow from an infant into a beautiful little girl with her own magical personality. I take great pride in knowing that in many ways Luna has accompanied me on my journey both professionally as a fatherhood practitioner and personally as her father. I will never forget her first Take Back the Night Rally at age 4 when she accompanied me on stage during my speech and stole the show by yelling “Girl Power!” into the microphone to the delight of the crowd.
My commitment to Luna involves more than just being a good dad at home. It means I have to take a stand for women’s rights and model aspects of positive masculinity not only to her but to everyone in my community. Many men have not yet opened their eyes to the invisibility of male privilege and the negative effects our patriarchal society has on women and girls. I don’t think any father would ever intentionally say, “I want to raise my kid to be a second class citizen”, but in effect that is the legacy we leave to our daughters when we fail to confront the status quo and when we fail to confront ourselves.
I know a lot of men get squeamish at mention of the “F Word” – feminism. I would like to offer a new father-friendly definition that comes from Michael P. Johnson Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Women’s Studies, and African and African American Studies at Penn State:
You’re a feminist if you believe that (1) men are privileged relative to a woman, (2) that’s not right, and (3) you’re going to do something about it, even if it’s only in your personal life.
I believe that as a father of a daughter you become a feminist by nature of the job description. And that wouldn’t hurt for fathers of sons too. Boys could also benefit greatly by growing up in a world were true gender equality was a reality. To paraphrase anti-violence educator Jackson Katz, feminism isn’t anti-male; it merely provides a world view that encourages men to be honest with ourselves about the society we’ve created and the way in which we participate in it. It’s really about promoting a state of equality that can benefit both sexes.
So this Valentine’s Day I encourage you to talk with your daughter about the issues she faces specifically as a girl. Be open to self reflection and talk with other men about what you can do to create new opportunities for our daughters and support the safe and healthy development of their full potential as human beings. And lastly, whatever your situation is treat her mother and all women with respect. She’s learning how to relate with men by your example. Provide a great one.
This past Mother’s Day when my five year-old daughter, Luna suggested that we take mom out to breakfast we headed to our local IHOP only to be met with a line of other families with the same plan stretching out the front door. Luna wondered why the pancake house was more crowded than usual and my wife explained that “For many of the moms here Mother’s Day is the only day that they don’t have to cook for everyone and do all the dishes.” Luna responded with a puzzled look on her face, “That’s not how it works at our house, Dad does most of the cooking.”
I was really struck by Luna’s comment and my wife and I both smiled and gave each other a loving glance. In that moment I knew that this was one area that I was really succeeding as a father – I wasn’t just challenging traditional gender roles, but more importantly I was modeling partnership and cooperation within my relationship with my daughter’s mother.
We all know that fathers play an important role in the healthy development of both daughters and sons. But we often take for granted how important it is to be a positive gender role model. When kids look to their fathers they see a model for how they believe men are supposed to act and treat others. Even non-violent fathers can do tremendous harm to their kids if they raise them with sexist beliefs or attitudes.
Becoming a feminist father basically means that as a male parent you strive to treat all people equally—first and foremost your children’s mother. You don’t have to look too hard to find examples of misogyny and sexism throughout our culture, some of which you might feel powerless to address, but there’s one thing you can do— don’t allow it in your home. Share the chores with mom, validate her perspective, treat her with respect, and show the kids that you are both equal partners. Both sons and daughters will thrive in this environment and it will set the stage for them to value and seek out healthy relationships with both men and women when they grow up.
While all fathers face the challenge of raising a son or a daughter or in many cases both, feminist fathers are able to see beyond the duality of nature and set their sights on raising human beings. Boys and girls are different, and in some cases they do have different needs, but when we come to realize that gender is a cultural construct we also come to understand that in most cases boys and girls are more alike than different and have essentially the same basic needs. All kids need both roots and wings to realize their full potential. When we force kids into rigid gender stereotypes we limit their capacity for growth.
With Mother’s Day behind us, I’m now looking forward to Father’s Day and the rituals that my family has created as a means of celebrating. But between now and then I’d like encourage other dads to remain mindful of your relationship with your children’s mother and your role as a positive male role model. Talk to your kids about gender roles and what it means to be in a fair and equitable relationship. If you’re not in a relationship with your kids’ mom and there’s still some drama there – take the high road and find a way to compliment her in front of them. It can be as simple as telling your kid, “I love the way you laugh—you have your mother’s laugh. That laugh could light up a whole room.”