Thursday, December 17, 2009
Sunday, December 13, 2009
The first time your baby crawls is one of fatherhood’s most cinematic images. Movements recorded in the memory to be replayed years later in slow-mo reminiscence. For a few weeks now I’ve been waiting for my son Sam to crawl. At first, he looked like he’d cracked it and I wondered idly when he’d start running and when applications closed for the 2012 Olympic track team. But my excitement, initially feverish, has faded as he pauses before the summit. I feel like Sherpa Tenzing waiting for Edmund Hillary to notice the view instead of rooting in his backpack for lozenges.
Yesterday, while watching Sam’s latest attempt to upgrade snake-belly-scooching to four wheel drive across the colored alphabet tiles in our living room, I reflected on my own memories of his first seven months. If this really was a movie, I mused while mopping up Sam’s vomit off the letter D, which dad would I be?
Ideally, one would borrow from the best, stealing Spencer Tracy’s wisdom, Gary Cooper’s sense of duty, and Jimmy Stewart’s Wonderful Life family devotion. Imagine if this was possible, fatherhood would be an absolute cinch. I’d just download the requisite qualities, then be instantly able to diagnose my son’s teething, or translate his gurgles, or be kinder to my wife.
Sam burped and reached for the pack of wipes by the sofa, reminding me of Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, the desperate dad grabbing diapers as he robs a convenience store. Who was I kidding? This was hopeless, fatherhood was never a pick’n’mix deal. Besides, knowing my unerring eye for idiocy, I’d probably download qualities from all the wrong dads: Nic Cage’s rap sheet, Eugene Levy’s American Pie-style tact, Darth Vader’s bedtime stories.
Actually, there’s no doubt about who’d play me in the ideal movie of Sam’s life. Every father wants to be Atticus Finch. With his quintessential calm, Gregory Peck sets the celluloid standard. He is also the furthest thing from my own performance as a dad. Self-control and understanding are not exactly my watchwords when Sam craps biblically, or pukes so voluminously that I need to change not only his outfit, but mine too. On those endless nights when I stalk up and down a shadowy hallway to get him back to sleep – thinking darkly that if this is how it ends up, there’s no way I’m ever having sex again – I’m probably closer to Boo Radley.
In front of me, Sam lurched heavily from letter H to P, then slumped sideways. Arranged across the carpet, the alphabet tiles seemed a brightly-coloured roadmap of progress. Just as his scooching would become crawling, walking, and running, each letter represented something bigger, the building block of a word, a sentence, or a screenplay (though given that I’d only laid out 20 letters, it might not be much of a screenplay). Whether it was cinema dads or step-development, Sam and I each knew where we wanted to go, just not how to get there. He’d probably be okay – I know very few adults who are still crawling – it was me I was worried about. In these times of fractured families (my own father is 5000 miles away), who do today’s dads learn from? No wonder I’m making up my own rules.
Undaunted by my failure to identify my own cinematic inspiration, Sam scooched to the edge of the four-by-five rectangle with the crocodile-slither he mastered last week. Every day, it’s amazing to watch him. Even if he doesn’t crawl, each morning there’s another blink of consciousness in his eyes. He doesn’t recognize the boundaries of his two-dimensional tiled world, but reaches beyond it like a tiny Christopher Columbus. If he doesn’t need a roadmap, why should I? As he inched forward, there was something soaring about his effort, and for a moment I believed that Atticus Finch was attainable for us all. Then my boy collapsed facedown on the letter K and began to cry.
Neither his plastic giraffe nor the stripey rattle staunched the tears, so I flipped him over turn-turtle to bite his belly and he shrieked with laughter. I love hearing him laugh. After his grey months of heartburn, it’s like sunshine. Recently, he’s been teething, so I’ve taken to pouncing on him at unpredictable moments to distract him from the pain. Frequent mauling might be closer to assault than affection, but it’s the only act guaranteed to divert him. Forget justice or respect for your neighbor, eternal vigilance is our watchword.
When I rubbed my nose on his tummy, he yelled happily, then grabbed two handfuls of my hair. In that stabbing instant of pain I realized. Here am I biting him while he’s yanking my hair. This wasn’t To Kill A Mockingbird civics class and we weren’t Atticus and Scout. I was Clouseau and he was Cato. Sure, Peter Sellers and Burt Kwouk duelling obsessively in a Parisian apartment won’t make Good Parenting’s top father-son relationships, but it works for us.
Wisdom, restraint, and manners was what I shot for as Sam’s father. What he got was premeditated attacks inspired by an accident-prone Gallic detective and repeated every morning with autistic reliability. Still, what do you expect when you aim too high? You hope for Atticus Finch and you end up with Aspergers French.
Here's an excerpt (FYI, David is the first name of Daddy Dialectic blogger "chicago pop"):
What is the best part of being at stay at home dad?Check out the rest here.
David: Being there to watch my child grow and experience life, and to have him teach me all the simple things that I had forgotten when I grew up.
It reminds me that life is not at all a straight line onward and upward, that there is a lot of circling back to elemental things. Spending time with children helps you circle back.
Jeremy: Gaining new skills, like patience and compassion, and gaining confidence in taking care of my own child.
"Daddy bloggers" are a rare breed in comparison to mommy bloggers. What do you feel dads offer that is different from a mom, blogging-wise?
David: I think there are a thousand different ways to be a daddy blogger, the way there are a thousand different types of dads with a thousand different styles of parenting, if not more. The importance of what daddy blogs offer is not so much in the their content, but in the collective testimony they give to the fact that men are entirely capable of doing these things.
Jeremy: Yeah, that's true. The most important thing for guys to do right now is to just tell and hear stories about taking care of kids. Every time they do that, they're helping create a culture of care among dads and a new image of the good father. For decades, dads have been told they're worthless or absent. Now guys are providing positive examples, to reflect what's best in fatherhood back to men and boys. Of course, they often joke about fatherhood much more, I'd argue, than moms do in their blogs.
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
One thing I've learned about children's TV programming is that parents have widely varying opinions about what they like and don't like. Most of my friends like Yo Gabba Gabba because it's got good music and has artwork that reminds us of the video games we grew up on. But those are just my friends. There are some out there who find the Cyclopes-ish, phallic tube creatures that populate the show disturbing. I happen to really like Oswald the blue octopus, but have a friend who can't stand the Backyardigans. There's no accounting for taste.
So I'm going to give you a few purely narcissistic reasons why I like Caillou, and one point of principle. Hopefully, you'll find the point of principle as persuasive, if not more so, than my own peculiar taste in kids' TV.
I like Caillou because it's Canadian, and I have a crypto-Canadian sensibility. It snows in Caillou-land, just like it did when I was a kid and where we live now. I go back and forth on whether Caillou's family lives in Montreal or Toronto, two of my favorite northern cities.
They live in a big old house like the one I grew up in, with a cat like I had, and Caillou is bald, or has a big round head, or maybe flesh-colored hair, sort of like my son for his first year. His grandparents are involved, the way mine are. They seem to be close to canoe country, and live in a city with good public transportation -- a subway, even -- two things that give me personal joy. I can relate.
Yet there are viewers out there who dislike the show. They think Caillou is whiny, and that if your kids watch the show they will become whiny, too. There are a number of comments to this effect on the show's website. Personally, I think this is nonsense: Caillou has a range of emotions, some of which include frustration, impatience, and anger, just the way one of the characters on each episode of Ni hao, Kai-Lan usually gets "mad" or "frustrated" in order to illustrate how people experience social situations.
But, as they say, whatever. The real reason Caillou is a cut above the rest is because -- and here's the point of principle -- he looks after a younger sister.
A younger sister? Big deal, you may say. In fact, however, it is a big deal. I admit here and now that I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of children's television programming over the last 40 years, but my sense just from watching PBS and Nick Jr are that it's rare to see a show with an older brother nurturing a younger sister. Caillou doesn't always know what to do with little sister Rosie, but at least he gives it a shot.
He is older, he is the role model, he has the responsibility for watching after a younger sibling -- all things that are traditionally associated with female nurturing. Where else do you see this kind of male nurturing in kids' TV?
Let's go throw the Nick Jr lineup and find out.
Go, Diego? He has an older sister, Alicia who occasionally saves the day. Little Bill? Youngest child with an older sister April and a nurturing Japanese-American female friend, Kiku. Pinky Dinky Doo? A seven year old girl with a little brother Tyler, who "ends up with a lot of problems--problems that can usually be solved with the help of a made-up story from his sister Pinky." Olivia? "She is a 6 and 3/4 year old dynamo who believes she can do anything," who has a four-year old brother who "can quickly turn into an annoying "little bother" and "is interested in space, dinosaurs, robots."
Nick Jr programming, therefore, is populated with lots of pain-in-the-ass little brothers who need to be set straight by older female figures. A real-enough situation, with plenty of strong, precocious little girls -- but it is really as progressive as it looks to let the older sisters do all the work of socializing their younger (male) siblings? How would each of these characters come to view their roles as parents if we allowed them to become animated adults?
In this respect, the most egregious of them all is Max and Ruby. There is one little boy bunny, Max, and three older female bunnies: Ruby, her friend, and her grandmother. Max likes things that are "slimy, mucky, or sticky," whereas Ruby "spends time with her friends Louise and Valerie playing with their dollies." The show is pleasant enough, and has its own aesthetic appeal, but after viewing several episodes the overall formula jumps out at you: Max likes to get into trouble, make lots of noise, and disobey the rules, while Ruby tries to keep everything together and show Max how you're supposed to do things.
It's not all black-and-white: Max very often sees through the pretense of what Ruby is doing, or comes up with his own worthwhile contribution, and Ruby does more than play with her dolls. But, on the whole, he's a classic little boy who needs an older sister to look after him because, as we all know, boys and the men they become just tend to make a mess if left to themselves.
So I say: Go Caillou! You do your fair share of whining, have a preternaturally large, round, hairless head, and have a name that means, not coincidentally, "little stone" in French. Show us how you can help Rosie learn to find her way in the world, and how a boy is fully capable of taking care of a younger person. Caillou can do it, which means that when he becomes a man and has a wife or partner and children, he'll be able to take care of them, too -- without the constant presence of a female tutor.
Monday, November 30, 2009
As baby Sam closes in on four months, I’ve given up on movies. Evening chores mean less time for entertainment. It used to be a question of just rocking, but now there’s bathing, massaging, feeding and burping, and that’s just my wife. By the time Sam’s sleeping, Fitzsimmons and I are too tired to commit to a 90-minute movie. Romances are out, obviously, and comedy disappeared some time ago. Which leaves domestic drama as our preferred genre.
So now instead of watching films, I invent my own. There’s some borrowing from Hollywood, because after all, making up stuff for a living is hard work. Last Thursday, as I walked with Sam on Van Ness Avenue at six in the morning, I thought up a twist on Speed, the 1994 thriller in which a bomb on a bus is primed to blow if the vehicle drops below 50mph. After fifteen blocks of steady metronomic footfalls, Sam had finally fallen asleep in his sling. Then I realised that not only was I a mile from home, but if I stopped moving, he’d wake up.
‘Halt and the baby explodes’ ran through my head as I jiggled uncomfortably while waiting for the Jackson Street traffic lights. I wondered whether a better tagline would include bombs, given the ticking detonator strapped to my chest, but I wasn’t sure I could sneak it past the censors. Americans are notoriously po-faced about combining nitroglycerine with babies. Plus it’d be tough to keep everything PG.
At Vallejo Street, Sam started to wake up and I had to get a move on before he began yelling. Unlike most British cities, San Francisco seems to have no highway regulations for the use of horn or police sirens before 7am, but given Sam’s Richter-like capabilities I’m pretty sure they’d say something. Walking downhill was handy for picking up speed – we were up to about 4mph. It doesn’t sound much compared to Sandra Bullock’s breakneck bus-driving, until you remember the extra fifteen pounds bouncing on my ribcage. For those of you who don’t have children, try to imagine all-you-can-eat pizza followed by a steeplechase.
We caught green lights at both Union and Greenwich, but I knew the real danger lay ahead. Lombard Street. Six lanes of commuter traffic sweeping in from Highway 101. The odds were against us. Even if we were lucky enough to catch the lights and Sam didn’t wake up, the exhaust fumes would probably kill us. It would be like snipping the blue wire only to find out that instead of defusing the bomb, you’ve started the countdown.
The lights were red. I cursed American streets, their rigid blocks and ridiculous jaywalking laws. Sam snuffled. We’d been walking now for nearly forty minutes. My shoulders throbbed. If he woke up, I might have to do the whole thing again. I looked west, towards the green treeline of the Presidio; there were no cars or cops on Lombard Street for three hundred yards. We could still make it. I leapt off the foot-high curb…
Later, after I’d defused the baby and put him to sleep, I wondered whether waking Sam was really what I feared. Crossing Lombard was like parenting, a little leap of faith. Stopping represented doubt, that anxiousness innate in every parent. Are we doing this the right way? Will he ever be this cute again? What comes next? In the tiny thrillers of our own lives, dread drives our blind pursuit of infant development: the first tooth, the first step, the first word. And out beyond our fear of stopping, lies our need for speed.
Friday, November 20, 2009
1) Fathers are pretty much defined as "bad parents," as the term is being popularly used. When we talk about proud "bad parents," most of the time we're really talking about "bad mothers" who are rebelling against the idea that they must be perfect to be good. Ayelet isn't actually a "bad mother," at least as revealed by her book and in her husband's new book, Manhood for Amateurs; Bad Mother is a reaction against the unrealistic, cognitively dissonant standards to which mothers are held. Meanwhile, fathers are not held, and do not hold themselves, to the same standards. When fathers reveal their foibles and failures as parents, they do it, by and large, with a laugh. They are allowed to be human, which, I think, adds more to the pile of evidence that guys remain a privileged class in America and the world.
2) That said, I think the "bad mother" thing is also evidence of the degree to which the genders are measurably converging in attitudes and behaviors. Wide disparities remain; it's just that differences are smaller than they were ten, twenty, fifty years ago. More women expect to have careers, and many do have them; more men expect to do more housework and childcare, and they are doing more at home. Fathers and mothers are both expected to play breadwinning and caregiving roles. That's a big change. When moms like Ayelet shake their fist at "good mother" standards, in many respects they're asking to be judged by a standard that's closer to the twenty-first-century "good father"--someone who is perhaps a slob and is perhaps not always the most empathic person in the world, who perhaps carves out space for a life apart from his family, but who is still a day-to-day presence in the lives of his children and fulfilling whatever role falls to him as parent.
3) That flexibility is key; in a time of profound gender role fragmentation, that's what both mothers and fathers have asked for--the ability to be themselves and to be judged by the circumstances of their lives--as opposed by the standards of fifty years ago or by the standards of people who imagine that their own private circumstances are universal. In a dense, connected, diverse world, tolerance and openness are necessities as well as virtues. And as I think Ayelet's work reveals, acceptance of one's own failures is a pathway to accepting other people's "failures," as we perceive them. Self-compassion leads to compassion for the people in our lives as well as a more generalized social compassion.
4) I won't personally be jumping on the "bad parent" bandwagon. I've rarely felt oppressed by the judgements of others about my fatherhood--but I have been confused about what, exactly, I'm supposed to be doing as a father. For that reason, my book The Daddy Shift is not a bad parent book--it's about good fathers, and what ideals help them to be good. There are individually bad fathers, of course, just as there really are genuinely bad mothers, but fathers as a group are often judged as "bad parents" for not behaving like mothers. That's why we need a good father movement. Moms might indeed need a bad parent movement. But fathers need positive, aspirational images, and tools for negotiating roles that their fathers were never expected to adopt. And I think we need other people, particularly the women in our lives, to understand the kind of fathers we are trying to be.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
I enjoy learning things from a book, those moments when you are stunned at what you just read, or shocked at some statistic, some point, some example. Those are the books I cherish. My Baby Rides the Short Bus was just such an experience.
From reading the introduction and on through the essays, I learned that some parents of special needs kids are radical prior to becoming parents and some become radicalized through parenting. I learned that they struggle, make mistakes, come to realizations about things they did, realizations that cause them pain, that inform choices they will make in the future, that serve as a catalyst for standing up and fighting for change.
I learned that, like parents everywhere, "they learn how their kids function and they make it happen as well as they can." Just like me; just like you.
But I also learned about the complexity of parenting, how it is something we learn to do, how we discover the depth of our militancy, awareness and patience, strengths sometimes we didn’t know we even had. Until we needed them.
I learned that the medical profession and schools and court systems, which can be difficult to navigate in general, can be downright ruthless when dealing with a special needs child and family.
I learned how encounters with these institutions can belittle, can terrify, can cut deeply.
I also learned that encounters with other parents sometimes hurt the most.
I learned a little humility.
I learned new words: neurotypical, authentic activism, and scores of acronyms I never knew existed.
I was reminded how sometimes the simplest things are the most effective, like playing with your child. Down on the ground rolling around.
I was reminded of the intensity of love. How sometimes the best thing to do is pick up your child off the floor and walk away, leave the office, ignore the advice. And yet, sometimes the most difficult act of love is to let go, to trust.
Reading My Baby Rides the Short Bus, I was reminded of the ferocity with which we love, the depths of our feelings, the need for community.
I was reminded of the power of sharing stories.
These are the stories I want to hear. The stories of pain and fear, stories of surprising strength, of learning, and then of doing. As Sharis Ingram writes, “at some point you will give up trying so hard, and come to trust yourself, trust your child, trust what *is.*”
Trust me, and go get the book yourself.
Monday, November 09, 2009
In the dark days of Sam’s first month, back when I wondered whether the diaper existed that could contain him, his principal redeeming feature was his infant semaphore. Startle Reflex occurs when babies instinctively raise their hands. Because they don’t yet recognize their own limbs, they’re frightened. I was tickled by his ‘what the...?’ expression as well as the idea of infants scaring themselves with their own arms.
Babies’ startle reflexes are totally natural; just as when the doctor boings your knee with a rubber hammer. For some reason, I always giggle at that too. Maybe I’m the immature one here, not my boy. Back then I used to watch Sam sleeping, occasionally freaking himself out like a stoner watching a looped horror movie. Only later did I recognize that it was me who was crazy, the lunatic adult who sat rapt on the edge of the bed, chuckling quietly as his tiny son raised his arms aloft like a footballer encouraging fans.
In his fourth month, I marvelled at his developing dexterity, his growing strength. Though he quickly became accustomed to his arms and no longer scared himself, the sudden two-handed salutes continued. I wondered what he was thinking, my tiny son venturing into his embryonic imagination – I imagined an event, an arena, and Sam rising intermittently to join a Mexican Wave amid a roaring crowd that only he could hear.
At five months old, he still naps occasionally with both arms raised over his head, as if surrendering to sleep. But he’s graduated from the startle reflex, in which his empty hands appear unexpectedly. Now the problem is what’s in his hands. Although Sam can pick up objects with the grip of a Burmese python, he has yet to master releasing anything. I watched him today, impassively gnawing Zoe the plastic giraffe. He drooled on her little nubbly antlers, wrapped a slimy paw around her nose and bit her foot. Giraffe feet are probably a delicacy somewhere in the world. Pig’s trotters are big in the Deep South, I’m told, so imagine what kind of cachet a giraffe offers for bigger game eaters.
Sam eventually tired of the chewtoy snack and tossed it aside with the casual profligacy of a drunken Mississippi gambler. Only he didn’t. Because his release isn’t perfected, a tightly-gripped giraffe appeared immediately in front of him. He stuck his lower lip out and looked at me desperately. I picked him up and nuzzled him and told him he was a good fellow and that a giraffe in the hand was worth two in the bush. It was the least I could do. After all, where else am I going to find a home entertainment system like this. I can’t wait till he discovers his feet.
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
What are we to do as parents, as individuals? What do you do?
For the next issue of rad dad tell us; consider winter in all its glory, in all its potential, the beauty of quietness, of hibernation, in the profound way it sets the stage for the coming rebirth.
Send in stories, polemics, celebrations, recipes, songs sung with you and your people to keep at bay the monsters, lurking, lurking...
With much love and respect,
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Now comes a new study providing more evidence of a link between testosterone and social cues. The night to the 2008 presidential election, it seems there was a a dramatic drop in testosterone for men who voted for McCain or the Libertarian candidate, whoever that was.
"In contrast, men who voted for the winner, Democrat Barack Obama, had stable testosterone levels immediately after the outcome," says the press release for the study. "Female study participants showed no significant change in their testosterone levels before and after the returns came in."
"This is a pretty powerful result," said Duke neuroscientist Kevin LaBar. "Voters are physiologically affected by having their candidate win or lose an election."
In a post-election questionnaire, the McCain and Barr backers were feeling significantly more unhappy, submissive, unpleasant and controlled than the Obama voters.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Potty training, when you really think about it, is applied economics. Sure, I could make jokes about toxic assets and deposit banking, or diapers as a form of moral hazard, but what I'm talking about here is the creation of value, the function of currencies, and rational calculations of profit and loss. If the field of economics is to survive the ongoing market debacle, it will behoove the profession to get back to brass tacks, as it were, and ground such basic concepts of these in the behavior of real people, not computer models based on the herd behavior of androids and coded by physics PhD's.
This is why my son Spot and I offer you an empirical case study on the economics of potty training, based on data collected in my bathroom.
The Case: Potty Training and Sticker Inflation
incent toddler behavior as long as we can remember, probably since the dawn of adhesives. Like gold or precious stones, stickers have an intrinsic value to the toddler's eye. So the first step in potty training is to establish a standard of value between a certain amount of potty production, and a certain number of stickers. In our study, this standard was 1 : 1, or, 1 sticker to 1 poop or 1 pee-pee.
Prior to this step, poop has no value. Suddenly, it is worth one sticker, and if he pees, maybe two. The basis for exchange has been created, and through the miracle of economics, poop has become a commodity.
Problems only arise when Spot exits this closed system and spends the morning with Grandpa. Grandpa, despite our best efforts to persuade him otherwise, does not adhere to our standard of value. Instead of maintaining a 1:1 ratio of labor to remuneration, he demonstrates an utter lack of discipline and rewards Spot four, five, or six stickers for every session on the potty. The inexorable result is sticker inflation.
Grandpa displays all the characteristics of an inflationary central banker. Stickers flow like water. Instead of issuing them himself, Grandpa lets Spot take as many stickers as he wants. He keeps the sticker sheets on the coffee table where Spot can get at them, in effect letting the fox into the hen house. On any given morning, Spot would return with what looked like permanent tattoos on both arms. What we observe in Grandpa's case is clearly a case of hyperinflation, and as a result, the rate of exchange for poop fluctuates wildly between households.
We determined that Grandpa's hyperinflationary sticker regime, therefore, was undermining our own domestic potty training economy. A standard of value of 1 sticker to 1 poop or 1 pee-pee was no longer generating an incentive for Spot at home. He was listless and irritable. Grandpa's inflation was "bleeding over" into our system, poop was now worth far more at Grandpa's house than in ours, and Spot was not happy with the imbalance.
At first, though Grandpa recognized the problem, he failed to perceive the correct solution, and proposed that we abandon stickers as currency and replace them with something else, such as crayons. We argued in response that this would only result in the same inflationary spiral. The only solution, as he came to appreciate, was to resume control of sticker issuance, and to clamp down hard on the money supply. Ultimately this is what happened, and stability returned to the inter-household sticker-poop exchange rate.
Spot is now almost fully potty trained. The sticker regime, over a period of six to eight months -- despite the episode of Grandpa's hyperinflation -- helped to construct a successful regime of incentives for sitting on the potty.
The sticker economy has served its purpose, and has now been largely surpassed. Because he has advanced from potty training, the most basic stage of economic rationality, Spot now covers his entire body with stickers in no relation to his pooping labors, while having absorbed the following important economic lessons: that the origin of economic value is in poop, that poop can function like money, and that the value of poop must be closely managed so as to avoid destabilizing and demoralizing inflationary episodes.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Here's a little video my friend Axel put together about our "Bees and Butterflies" group, which involved a group of almost 20 San Francisco families to explore the life-cycles of bees and butterflies, and to introduce basic ecological concepts to our kids. That's me in the goofy brown and green sweater, reading a customized version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar; that's my wife talking about the puppet show we did at our local farmers' market. Want to start your own neighborhood group? My pal Olivia Boler describes how we did it over at Shareable.net.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
My wife Fitzsimmons has decided that at four months, Sam needs a routine. “All the books recommend it,” she says airily. I’m worried. Routines for babies seem so… fixed. According to our pediatrician, four months is when babies start to understand cause and effect. But what if Sam learns something and can’t unlearn it? What if he never eats again unless he’s being carried? What if he can’t get to sleep ever again without listening to The Beatles’ Yesterday? What if, and this is the big one, my son turns out like me?
It’s not that I’m a bad person, though I occasionally re-use bus tickets. It’s just that I’m resistant to change. I’ve been eating muesli, for example, for nearly three decades. I like to listen to the same song over and over – this week it’s Somebody’s Crying by Chris Isaak. I have a system for washing up that Fitzsimmons refuses to adopt.
At four months, Sam has a chance to escape this fate. At thirty-four years, I’m toast. Since he was born in March, I have become OC Dad. And with all these new routines for the baby, I’m only getting worse. “You need to read to him every day,” Fitzsimmons will say as she leaves us for work. “And when he shows sleep cues, make sure you play the Rockabye Baby music.” “Sleep cues,” I say, “Rockabye baby.” As if I need reminding about repetition.
I blame my parents. My mom said that when I was a baby, they made a rod for their own backs by creeping out of the bedroom backwards when I fell asleep. Three decades later, I can’t remember any of this routine, but I quite like the sound of it. The image of a snoozing baby on his crib seems faintly monarchic, as the courtier-parents retreat backwards, curtseying as they go. From where I stand as OC Dad, looking backwards and forwards, I’m conscious of a crossroads in the history of Hodgson routines. I feel like the Hamlet of novice dads: to repeat or not to repeat? Do I deny our son these simple behavioural guidelines because I fear his future? Or do I agree to Routines, knowing what might befall him?
My problem is that my own amateur autism is selective. I never seem to repeat sensible practices: do 100 sit-ups daily; drink four liters of water; be nice to my wife. Instead, it’s always random, daft stuff: eating crystallized ginger after every meal; cooking the same meals compulsively (linguine with garlic and pancetta); watching Spies Like Us on YouTube.
Sam’s needs have prompted freaky new OC Dad iterations. My latest idiocy is to help him burp. He has reflux, baby heartburn, so I’ve evolved a method of winding him, by stalking around the apartment with a herky-jerky motion to release those tricky gastric bubbles. Yesterday, while carrying him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and I was ashamed. I looked like a rooster with too-tight underwear. Or Richard Pryor ‘gettin’ bad’ as he prances into prison in Stir Crazy. Still, every time I do it, Sam eventually burps, so I think the herky-jerky jive turkey is here to stay. When Fitzsimmons left for work this morning, she handed me a stack of parenting books with yellow tags on the Routine pages. I’ve yet to find my new technique in any of them. I’m not sure why.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Despite his tough guy reputation, British film star Clive Owen is no stranger to cleaning up after kids. In real life, he’s dad to two young girls. On screen, he’s done diaper duty in both Children Of Men (protecting the last baby on earth) and Shoot ’Em Up (delivering a newborn amid a gun battle). His latest picture however, The Boys Are Back (released in cinemas October 8th), offers the brooding actor a new challenge: performing opposite children.
Owen plays Joe Warr, a sportswriter in South Australia shattered by the death of his wife, then confronted with the responsibility of taking care of six-year-old Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). Although the RADA-trained actor prepares for every role meticulously, playing off Nicholas wasn’t exactly something Owen could plan, says director Scott Hicks. The film-maker had his own problems: how to light a scene featuring a spontaneous and unschooled performer. Hicks chose to film using handheld cameras “to capture something that might be unrepeatable.” Owen meanwhile responded by delivering one of his most complex performances to date.
This is a Clive Owen that film audiences haven’t seen before. Unguarded, angry, and bruised, Joe Warr doesn’t have all the answers. He makes mistakes, leaving Artie and fourteen-year-old Harry (his son from his first marriage) alone for a weekend at their farmhouse. When he returns, the house has been trashed by beach revellers. Actually, it’s hard to tell whether it has been trashed, given Joe’s laidback housekeeping. When Harry arrives from England, he’s shocked at the stack of washing-up in the sink, then thrown straight into a pillow fight riotous enough to put the bed into bedlam. “I run a pretty loose ship,” says Joe, explaining his no-rules approach to Harry. “The more rules there are, the more crimes are committed.”
So evolves Joe’s credo: Just Say Yes. What father wants to tell his boy ‘no’ after what they’ve both been through? Want to skip the washing-up? Cycle through the kitchen? Drive the Land Rover through a river? Yes, yes, and yes again. So what if Joe’s mother-in-law thinks he’s drinking too much, so what if the house looks like a bombsite, so what if the moms by the school gate frown? Through giving Artie the freedom to grow, Joe too finds the space to move on.
Not just a rewarding family drama, The Boys Are Back also offers an original parenting model. Behind the Hollywoody catchphrase of Just Say Yes lies a real idea. Joe Warr doesn’t want to deny his boy, he doesn’t want to say ‘no.’ He fears, like so many single dads, that Artie will miss his mom. He fears that he alone is not enough. Simon Carr, the British political writer whose memoir inspired the story, remembers wondering what would happen to his own boy after his wife’s death. “Frankly, I didn’t know whether I’d be allowed to keep him. The idea of a man bringing up a young child was alien to the spirit of the age.”
As the plate tectonics of 21st Century parenting shift toward fatherhood, here is a big screen dad who’s not afraid to fail. Just Say Yes is neither an epiphany, nor the promise of a happy ending. It’s a compromise, a deal Joe strikes with his boys as he struggles to find his feet amid mistakes and missteps. This quirky little family remains a work in progress, albeit one whose success is simply in surviving to write its own warming story.
Monday, October 12, 2009
What’s the worst bit, friends ask, about being a new dad? I smile and give them my Enron answer: It’s great. This week, I’m changing my tune. I’ve been struggling to get Sam to sleep. Babies don’t always know how to sleep, they have to learn. Which means I have to learn how to teach him.
“He’s virtually asleep,” says my wife Fitzsimmons, handing me our bundled baby.
“Uh-huh. See you in twenty minutes.”
By the time I figure out that ‘virtually asleep’ means wide awake, she’s slipped out of the bedroom, leaving me bouncing mutinously on the exercise ball, while Sam gazes at me wide-eyed. This is Fitzsimmons’ latest tactic in our unspoken competition. We spoke last week about trying to be better parents. I now see that what she meant was to be the better parent. So when she hands over Sam saying blithely, ‘virtually asleep’, it’s a win-win. Either he nods off and she takes the credit for preparing him, or he stays psychotically awake and I’m Rubbish Dad.
What really stinks, I think as I bounce our child listlessly, is that she is the better parent. Her instincts are more developed, her rocking techniques are first-rate and she has breasts. I, meanwhile, have a saggy exercise ball and a handful of secondhand lullabies. I rock dangerously close to the sharp corner of the bed, voice cracking from a cold as I repeat another tuneless dirge.
“Hang on, Sam. I have to get a cough drop.”
As we leave the bedroom to retrieve a Halls throat-soother, Sam perks up. He doesn’t usually escape from the bedroom until the morning, so this must be like the Nazis escorting Steve McQueen to a motorbike race. I settle back down on the ball, bouncing more jauntily. On my tongue, the cherry-flavoured tablet seems the size of a horsepill, easily large enough to last until he falls asleep. My throat feels as soothing as the lullaby. “Beo, beo, be my bonny baby,” I sing, then swallow the lozenge whole.
As a YouTube devotee, I’m accustomed to pythons gulping foreign objects. But the sensation of a cherry-flavoured pebble sliding down my gullet is new to me. Imagine Frankenstein ingesting the bolt in his neck. Despite my discomfort, there’s no way I’m calling for Fitzsimmons. Although maybe I should be dialling 911. Sam’s eyelids are drooping, or perhaps it’s just my asphyxiation. I wonder how the San Francisco press will swallow this one. ‘Mystery of dad found dead Tuesday 7pm beside yoga ball. No murder weapon found. Infant asleep, virtually.’
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Q: So then what happened?
A: So I'm sitting with Spot back in the corner at parent-tot, and he wants to read, so we pull out a Barney book, Barney's on the farm, lots of pull-up flaps, he loves it, we read it like four or five times whenever we go there. So I'm getting into the pig, the cow, the ducks, all that, and one by one a few other toddlers make there way over to where we're sitting, like the way the ducks on a pond figure out who is tossing out the breadcrumbs and assemble until they're in a naval formation coming your way.
So then I'm reading Barney to two, then three little kids plus Spot, all girls, and we're hanging out. It suddenly strikes me that Hey, this is what the teacher usually does, but the teacher is over on the other side of the room, standing next to the empty easels, the vacant sandbox, talking to 3 or 4 moms.
Q: What are they talking about?
A: I don't know, I can't hear. I'd guess it's the stuff they usually talk about. I call it "boob talk". I can't really participate, although I know what they're talking about. I mean, I was with my wife the whole time that stuff was going on, I understand what boobs are for and how sometimes they work and sometimes they don't work. I like boobs as much as the next guy. But I can't talk about boobs. Certainly not the way they talk about them, and not with Spot hanging around.
Or they might be talking about their husbands. Joking about how their husbands spend all Sunday watching the game, or maybe complaining a little bit about how they are always the ones who are doing all the laundry. I'm like, then why did you marry such losers? This is the 21st century, people. But you know, that's not polite, so I sit in the corner and read books to their kids while they kvetch.
Q: How does that make you feel?
A: I kind of like it. I like kids. I'm a teacher, always have been. It keeps you young. It's a beautiful thing, really, to read to kids. But it weirds out some of the moms, clearly, when I do it.
Q: How so?
A: Well, I have this image in my head, or it's more like say there's this screen behind me, and on it is projected my real life, my secret life. And what you see is the parking lot behind the school, where my white, 1989 Ford Econoline van is parked with the engine running, because that way it will be easier for me to abduct all these little girls and drive off onto the set of America's Most Wanted.
That's what the other moms see when they look over at our little reading group.
Q: How do you know that's what they see?
A: Well, not all of them, but I'm pretty sure that's what a lot of them instinctively feel. But I mean, it's [deleted] 9AM in the [deleted] morning, I haven't shaved, I'm strung out just like everyone else, and I'm there with my 2.5 year old son, the last [deleted] thing I'm thinking about is sex with anyone, OK? And I don't drive a Ford Econoline van with plywood bolted over the windows, in case anyone is wondering.
Q: This really strikes a nerve with you.
A: Of course. Jesus. So we'll be reading for about 2 or 3 minutes, then a mom will notice her little girl is over with Spot -- now we've moved on to a counting book from the Natural History Museum, How many mummies are on this page? How many dinosaurs are on that page? that sort of thing -- and Mom Q notices her kid is not at the easel or at the sandbox, and so calls to her: "Sally, do you want to come over and paint at the easel?" which really means, "Can you please leave that pervert and come over to where I can see you?" And Sally is like, "Forget that, mom, cause this is where the action is," and so Mom Q kind of sashays over to about 6 feet away and pulls out a firetruck to tempt Sally away from the danger.
Q: Do you do anything to reassure these mothers that you are not the kind of person they may be worried about? Think about it from their perspective: the media is bombarding them with stories of abducted children, child abuse, horrible stories on TV every night.
A: Yeah, sure. I need to reach out. I try. But then I run into the other problem. The "pack problem". I've thought about this a lot. As soon as they have kids, most moms want to form a tribe with other moms. It's a way to get some sense of orientation when you're going through all this stuff you've never gone through before. I understand that. The thing is, when you form tribes, there's a danger of being tribal. So you have more and more dads, who don't form tribes, and they're trying to engage with all these moms, who do form tribes, and it's like a big culture clash.
Q: Can you give me an example of how this tribalism affects you?
A: Well, it doesn't just affect me, it can affect other moms, too. I've seen that. In fact, if you're a man, you're kind of spared, because you have this other universe you live in, where you really don't give a flying [deleted] what the local mom-pack might think about this or that, who packs the best lunches and all that [deleted]. But the other moms, especially the young ones, they don't have that luxury. If they're not "in" the pack, then they're on an ice floe with a starving polar bear drifting out to sea, and it's mighty tough place to be.
But say you get a brave mom, a real Independent, and she's like, Oh, that dad in the corner, he must feel left out. She then faces the following dilemma. She thinks:
I'd like to be nice to him, because he's being nice to my daughter, thereby freeing me up for boob talk with the other moms over by the sandbox, and of course I am motivated by real and genuine and profound feminine sympathy for another human being ...
... but then a sudden tribal signal scrambles these intentions and she makes the following social calculus:
But if I go over there, he may take it the wrong way and think I'm flirting with him, that I'm being a coquette, yes a coquette, over animal crackers and grape juice and the amorous fragrance of Purell hand sanitizer. Because that's how men are, they see everything that way, but also because I'd kind of like that, actually, because it would be nice for an impartial outsider to make me feel attractive at this stage of my life, plus all this constant baby care is a drag and I need an escape. But in reality the problem is not what HE will think, it's what the TRIBE will think if I do go over there, because if the tribe thinks I'm being a coquette, even if I haven't the least flirtatious intention, then I might be branded with the Scarlet Letter, led out to the town square and shamed on the scaffold, kicked off the island as it were, which means of course that this poor mom -- me -- will then have no one to sit next to at the playground except the nannies, and I don't speak Polish.
And that would be hell, pure hell. And so I'm not going to go talk to him, she thinks.
Q: Do you feel sympathy for her?
A: In a way, yes. These moms, they're nice people. I meet them one-on-one on the outside and it's like we're best friends. Hey, how's Baby Julius doing? Great, how's little Esmerelda? But on the inside, it's like a street gang or something. Even if they like you, they have to focus their energy on maintaining their rank in the gang. Chatting-up stay-at-home dads at parent tot class gets them zero cred with the tribe. Zilch.
It's like I'm a Pacific island and they are Britain and France fighting over who gets Samoa and who gets Fiji. I just smile and keep planting my yams while they work it out.
Q: We're out of time.
[End of session]
Friday, October 09, 2009
There are a lot of ways for a man to be in a group of women. A man could, for example, be taking a class. It doesn't matter what. Any extracurricular interest aside from black powder riflery, auto repair, or stock picking, will attract more women than men. Especially past a certain age.
I'm not making this up. As with all my opinions, I got this one from the New York Times. Men tend not to take classes. Women tend to be oversubscribed. In the journalistic explanation, the old stereotypes come into play: men, at least Manhattanite men, don't want to publicly learn something new. They prefer to achieve private mastery which is later revealed to the world in all it's perfection.
This is not an issue for me. So I've spent a fair amount of time with groups of women in dance classes, in tennis classes, in alpine skiing classes, and evening adult-education classes, pushing my glasses up the damp ridge of my nose every five minutes or so. And of all of these classes, the only one that came close to achieving gender parity were the pre-natal and birthing classes.
There are still other ways. A man could be working as an office temp who, because of relatively good typing skills (learned in a class, also full of women) and a degree that connotes a tolerance for spending hours in a chair, looking at computer screens, and not talking much, one could for these reasons get placed in the secretarial pool of a large corporation full of, generally speaking, women.
A man could also have an office job downtown, working for the County Clerk, the Recorder of Deeds, or the Public Library. Although the last occupational subset does not overlay the first two in the sense of yielding exposure to the white-sneaker-over-nylons-for-the-commute-to-work class, it does reliably guarantee a man at least 2 or 3 luncheon sojourns to Wendy's every week in the exclusive, or almost exclusive, company of women.
And of course, there are ways for a man to be in the company of women that I have not yet experienced, such as being 60 or 70 years old in a time of war when the vast majority of able-bodied men are either dead, damaged, or in enemy POW camps.
All this being said, however, once a man hits a certain age, gets married and has a kid or two, the already rare occasions for being in groups of women become vanishingly less frequent. When, through some freak aberration of personal life history and global economic mutation, you find yourself like me the one dad in the parent-tot class, you realize that the situation is of a different kind, with new rules, its own vibe, and that everything you thought you had figured out about how to be the one guy in a group of women gets tossed out the window.
Because you're not really with a group of women anymore. You're with a group of moms, and that changes everything.
Tuesday Moms and Thursday Moms, or,
Angels and Mean Girls
Monday, October 05, 2009
1) I've started a new series over at my Mothering magazine blog: "Twenty-Five Ways for Dads to Change the World." Here's the introduction and here's the first entry, "Attend every prenatal class and doctor's appointment."
2) I'll be reading with Daddy Dialectic contributor Tomas Moniz at Book Zoo in Oakland, California, to celebrate the release of the fifteenth issue of the Independent Press Award-winning 'zine Rad Dad: November 6 at 7 pm.
3) My new employer, Shareable.net, launched (softly) last week. The basic argument of Shareable is that there is a generation coming up whose sensibilities have been shaped by peer-to-peer file swapping, social media, and open source programming, and that sharing is actually becoming necessary (and even profitable) in offline areas of life due to a combination of technological innovation and ecological crisis.
So at Shareable.net we'll be pulling together stuff like Zipcar, equally shared parenting, Kiva, Facebook, cohousing, Burning Man, etc. all under the same umbrella, in order to explore how a specific worldview (that we can generate value by sharing what we have) is being implemented by different people working in different areas of life and the economy. We're just playing with that idea, holding these things up together so that we can see what they have in common and how they can be replicated. For a better sense of Shareable's philosophy, see Janelle Orsi's essay, "Four Degrees of Sharing."
Also of possible interest to Daddy Dialectic readers: "What's your carbon Footprint?" in which I ask: Can the California Academy of Sciences help families see themselves as part of the solution? I talk with tourists about the impact of the museum's climate change exhibit.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Certain places in the city disorient me. They are passages where multiple layers of traffic converge in space, passing over trestles, across bridges, up and down ramps, at grade and at elevation, in different directions and at different velocities.
I experience a moment of anxiety at the wheel of my car, focus on the lane lines on the road, and in a few seconds I am through the vortex and in the clear. No particular bravery is required to do this; hundreds of thousands of people do every day. It's the system that does most of the work, I just hold the wheel. The elements hold together, and its contents circulate safely through their channels.
My son's pre-school is nothing like the web of ramps and tunnels that I navigate every few weeks. It's a quiet, calm place, where everyone comes together in one harmonious room and stays there. We arrive at the same time and depart together. But on the first fall day, sitting around the snack table with its bowl of animal crackers and all the toddlers silently chewing their over-full mouths, I feel the same flash of anxiety, as if I were entering the expressway chute, merging into freight traffic with locomotives rolling above me.
What could possibly connect the two situations? None of the kids that Spot played with last spring are here. Older than him, they've gone on to the half-day program. The new set of kids is younger. But this is only temporary. In three months Spot will join the older kids for the half-day program. It will be familiar to him but new to me, because for the first time in three years, I'll be taking him somewhere each morning and leaving him there. These are small, gradual changes, like the turning of the seasons.
But they remind me of bigger changes, the ones my wife and I talk about after Spot is asleep, chronicled across time zones in phone conversations that go later than we'd like. Grandma is in a state of lingering emergency. Mother-in-law is struggling against a terminal condition. The prospect of one day fathering my son without a father of my own rouses me from whatever sleep I managed to win earlier in the evening. And when not observing our son, who is channeling the cosmos as it gathers inward for a burst of youthful transcendence, I study my own face, an ancient piece of furniture, tracing the spread of cracks in the varnish that seals the wood.
A family is a group of people traveling at different velocities, some of them accelerating and some of them slowing down, some departing for a while to other time zones, but all of them usually circling back. For stretches of time, our family has been a uniform frame of reference, something against which I gauged the movement of other things. Yet lately is feels more like the expressway chute, a frame of reference that appears to be decomposing, pulled in the directions of all the different people passing away from and beyond it.
Spot is often in the backseat when I go through the chute, strapped in and protected by a steel cage as the trains go over and the barges float under us. With Spot in the backseat it's the rest of the world that is moving, not my own. It's a favor he grants me, letting me share the optimism that a small force of attraction can counter life's scattering impulsions. Thanks to our smallest and most needy family member, no one of us can go very far. I don't care where the semis and boxcars and minivans wind up. For now, even in the chute, I have my privileged and uniform place of rest.
In the outer lanes, it's true, I see the pieces breaking off, veering down ramps and disappearing through tunnels that may not circle back. I can only keep my hands on the wheel, focus on the lane lines ahead of me, and get into the clear. No bravery is required to do this; it just means picking up my son in a few moments, rolling his soccer ball out the door, and stepping into the September sunshine.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
"Parenthood seems to heighten the political 'gender gap,' with women becoming more liberal and men more conservative when it comes to government spending on social welfare issues," says Dr. Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at NC State and co-author of the study. Greene and Dr. Laurel Elder of Hartwick College used data on the 2008 presidential election from the American National Election Studies to evaluate the voting behavior of men and women who have children at home. Parents who have grown children were not part of the study.
"Basically, women with children in the home were more liberal on social welfare attitudes, and attitudes about the Iraq War, than women without children at home," Greene says, "which is a very different understanding of the politics of mothers than captured by the 'Security Mom' label popular in much media coverage. But men with kids are more conservative on social welfare issues than men without kids." Men with kids did not differ from men without kids in their attitudes towards Iraq.
You can read the press release here and the whole thing here.
This is a strong study; they have a good data set, and like all good social scientists they control for variables like age and education. The results are consistent with other studies, and also easy to understand.
Response scales varied, but all ranged from a number indicating very liberal to one indicating very conservative. So, the "social welfare index" (which measured support for issues like government-sponsored, universal health care), the scale ranged from -1.37 (very liberal) to 2.07 (very conservative), based on responses to specific questions.
This is the area where the contrast between men and women was starkest. Women zoomed from -.01 childless to -.11 after having children in the social welfare index--which is statistically very significant. Meanwhile, men went from .04 childless to .14 after children. A ten point difference for both, but in opposite directions.
To which I say: Wow.
Why the difference? The researchers argue that it's women's experience with nurturing kids that pushes them a more liberal direction when it comes to weaving the social safety net. From the paper:
We argue that this long-standing liberal motherhood effect is grounded in the gendered experience of parenthood. The societal expectation as well as the reality that women play the primary role in nurturing their children and take primary responsibility for their health care, day care, and educational needs fosters an appreciation for well-funded, domestic government programs.
Moreover, with the vast majority of mothers working outside the home, mothers are required to rely on people or programs outside the nuclear family for at least part of their children’s care, which may also foster their appreciation for a supportive and generous social welfare state. The fact that the liberal effect of motherhood remains highly significant even in the regression model (Table 2) when potentially confounding variables are controlled, means that it is not simply Democratic or unmarried or poor mothers that are driving the liberal motherhood effect. Consistent with some feminist theories, there seems to be something about the experience of being a mother that leads to more liberal social welfare attitudes (Ruddick 1980, 1989; Sapiro 1983). It may be that the act of nurturing children fosters empathy and caring, thereby generating more liberal attitudes concerning the role of government in helping others.
Whereas fathers, they write, tend to "view an active social welfare state as an intrusion on their ability to provide for their families."
That sounds somewhat plausible to me--although it must be pointed out that throughout American history, many men have looked to government to support their roles as breadwinners, as with, for example, minimum wage laws. It might be more accurate to suggest that men's relatively privileged social position makes them more receptive to contemporary conservative messages, and more invested in the status quo.
Some folks, I think, will tend to see this as an essentialist argument: Women are more liberal and pacifistic because they're women, and men are just warlike jerks. But actually this research suggests politics are shaped more by social roles and day-to-day tasks than by biology. An obvious way to test this theory is to look at stay-at-home dads: Does taking care of kids push men in a more liberal direction?
I don't know of any peer-reviewed studies that have examined this question, but I explored it quite a bit in researching my book The Daddy Shift through interviews with families.
The result: It's certainly the case that many stay-at-home dads and breadwinning moms feel that taking care of kids does make dads more liberal--according to these couples, they're just more conscious of the importance of access to the commons, things like playgrounds and health care. "The world would be a better place if more fathers...took care of children," said one Kansas City mom. "I think a man becomes more aware of other social issues."
Many of these couples, it must be said, were at least somewhat liberal to begin with, which makes sense--liberal values allow for the possibility of a gender-role reversal. However, there are many conservative stay-at-home dads; do their attitudes evolve? To get a firm answer to this question, you'd need to track couples' political trajectory over many years, from pregnancy to the teenage years, and control for many variables.
If the answer turns out to be yes, this suggests that men as a group should become more liberal as they spend more time with kids. And if we want to push our society in a more liberal direction, policies that encourage male caregiving--starting with paid paternity leave--are a good place to begin. If the answer is no, we'll need to look elsewhere for an explanation about why men and fathers tend to be more conservative than women and mothers.
[Originally posted to my Mothering magazine blog.]
Monday, September 21, 2009
I'm at a reading by the novelist Nicholas Baker. The man who asks this question (apropos of nothing) is in his fifties, trim and gray, and he leans forward earnestly, as if he has seen in me the possibility of some revelation.
"Yes," I say. "Yes I am." I'm still surprised when I hear myself answer this question in the affirmative.
"Oh!" His eyebrows rise with admiration. "What do you write about?"
I can see the admiration drain out. "Oh," he says.
I hasten to add, "But I write about other things as well."
Too late. He turns away, hand going to his cheek, waiting for Nicholas Baker to appear.
2. "Are you a writer?"
The barista sweeping the floor isn't asking me. She's asking the long-haired bohemian with a serious mien who sits across from me.
He smiles. "No," he says. "I work in a record store."
"I thought you were a writer," she says, leaning on the broom. "You look like a writer!"
They both laugh.
"I'm a writer," I say.
They both look at me cautiously.
"Really?" I can see that the barista doesn't believe me, even though I'm sitting at the table with a pen in hand and a stack of manuscripts. "What do you write about?"
"Fatherhood, most of the time. Books. Science. Politics."
"Oh," she says, her interest visually waning. "Well, you don't look like a writer."
"What do I look like?"
She thinks for a moment, eyes skyward, and then goes back to sweeping the floor.
"You look like a schoolteacher," she says.
3. "Are you a writer?"
I'm on an airplane, and it's the steward who asks me, a clean-cut, blonde, middle-aged Midwesterner.
"Yes, I am."
"Ho boy!" he says. "I've got some great stories. You should write about one of them! This one time blah me and my father blah blah blah blah blah blah biggest fish I ever caught blah blah blah..."
I look past him, towards the emergency exit. Can I make it...?
[Originally posted to my Mothering magazine blog.]
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Thanks to Kate Haas and China Martens for their help and inspiration!
As he sauntered past my table I knew what he was gonna say; I could see it in his eyes.
‘It must be strange to be like the only zine on parenting. I mean how many parents still make zines, right?’
I get a version of this statement every time I tell someone I do a zine. I generally shake my head and say, ‘well, there’s actually a huge history of parenting zines….’
And almost immediately their eyes glaze over, as if I’m explaining the mechanics of pumping and preserving breast milk, and when they see I’m done, they say something like, ‘well, that’s cool, but I guess it’s not for me; what does a zine on fathering have to do with me?’
Ok, here’s my official response for the record on both these rhetorical questions.
Allow me to respond to the last question first: why you should read a zine on parenting even if you are not a parent. Let me ask you this: what does a zine on punk life in the East Bay have to do with you, what does a comic zine with foxes and bunnies as characters have to do with you, or a zine on being a fisherwoman in the Pacific Northwest have to do with you. Most likely nothing. But what they do have to offer you is this: good storytelling, filled with poignant moments displaying our humanness, our tenderness, our commitment, our love. That is why zines are so amazing.
At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, I have to say the best parenting zines are as much about parenting as they are about trying to live an authentic life, about trying to love honestly and consciously, about working to create a better world. And that has everything to do with you.
So hell yes, pick one up.
And for the initial question, I figured I’d research the genealogy of parenting zines, which I tried to do, but soon realized that it seemed impossible to find a starting point: the reality of parents asking questions, sharing strategies, and soothing fears has been around in one shape or another for a long time. Plus parenting issues tend to morph into various other areas of people’s lives, so is a zine on alternative living a zine on parenting? Well, yes. Is a zine on dropping out of school a zine on parenting? Actually, yes. On navigating non-monogamous relationships, on living in another country, on pirates and the history of arrr matey? Yes, yes, and (surprisingly) yes. I have, in fact, seen many of these very zines.
So how’s this for a history: we’ve been around for a long time.
Looking back historically, however, we can clearly see that an important moment for all zines was the early to mid nineties, a period that that saw the birth of Hip Mama and The Future Generation. These two and other zines inspired and continue to inspire parents and non-parents to take up the pen and stapler to this day.
Then, in the early 2000s, there was another explosion of new zines. Even today, despite the continued growth of blog and website accessibility, I believe zines have yet to reach their peak. In fact, the audience for zines is now greater than ever. As a friend of mine said, ‘back in the nineties they were an oddity, today they’re a genre.’
Personally, I love all zines, love the hands on quality, the notes I write in them when I give mine away, the quirky and individual touches that each zinester does to her zine. And no amount of changing the font or margin colors on a blog can replicate that personal quality.
There is no denying though that the internet has provided a cheap, easy way for many parents (and writers in general) to connect and share stories. And so, many people wonder what the future holds for zines. I, too, have been thinking about this issue and the future of my own zine, rad dad. And in doing so, I discovered an interesting point that reminds me how vital zines still are.
Zines are consciously exclusionary. Hold on; let me explain because when I hear this I immediately become nervous and suspicious because (let me gernalize for a second) zines historically have been “white,” mirroring the communities in which they initially caught on: punk and soon after, radical leftist circles. Of course, there were people of color active in those communities, and there were zines by people of color during that time period. And zine culture has slowly become more and more diverse.
But my point in all this is that exclusivity can also be an asset, an attempt to stay connected to ideals and to others in similar circumstances. Zines speak to an intended community. Perhaps even strive to create that community. People have to work to find them, have to pay money or trade their own zine for them, perhaps even write an actual letter.
However, it is important to remember that this exclusivity places more responsibility on us as writers to be self-reflective about our goals, to ask tough questions about whom we are writing to and who has access.
And if what we discover is acceptable to us.
I can’t stress this fact enough. For example, I want my zine to be everywhere, to be in people’s hands, on the buses, in bathrooms, at places of work, and not relegated to when someone has the time (and privilege) to peruse the internet at their leisure. I also don’t really want my zine displayed in some upscale baby boutique.
Sometimes the exclusivity of zines can be a defense mechanism. There are so many parents out there that if even five percent were interested in rad dad, I am afraid to imagine what that kind of attention would do to the stated mission of rad dad: to be a space for diverse voices, men and women of color, trans parents, anarchist parents, all those trying to parent in conscientious ways. How might that attention change my choices as editor to please more readers or affect my decisions about whom I publish?
I guess for me, I’ll stick to folding and stapling, to answering letters and writing them; I’ll relish the pleasure of asking a fellow writer to trade my zine for his. It’s like a secret.
So I’m ready for the next shocked reaction when a person sees my forty year old butt sitting behind a table trying to sell zines. ‘Here,’ I’ll say, ‘read this and let me know what you think. I wrote it just for you.’
Here is a brief list of zines both past and present to check out.
Current mama and papa zines:
• Welfare Warriors/Welfare Mothers Voice Newspaper (1986) by, for, and about mothers in poverty.
• The Future Generation (1989) the longest-running subculture parenting zine written by single mama China Martens.
• Hip Mama (1993) the mother of mothering zines.
• Miranda (1998) Portland mama zine.
• La Dama (1998), still going on after eleven years
• East Village Inky (1999) immensely popular hand written and drawn zine. Everyone loves monkey.
• Hermana Resist (2002) by Noemi Martinez, but now it’s online only, with the promise of one last issue!
• Joybringer (2003) zine on staying politically engaged, creating communities that are multigenerational, and having fun all while parenting.
• Mamaphiles,(2003, 05, 07) a huge compilation zine (three issues so far) by over two dozen mama (and a few papa) zinesters with a fourth issue coming out soon.
Random and totally subjective list of cool mama and papa zines that have flown the coop:
• Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single, 1998 early graphic novel (thought it was a zine but not sure now). Please read this.
• Zuzu and the Baby Catcher, local Portland zine ended in 00s.
• Placenta (early 2000s) the punk rock and vegan parenting zine, only saw the first issue but loved it.
• Baby Bloc, the Activist Family Handbook 2003 -2006. I loved the politics and the illustrations.
• Mama Sez No War 2003 about mamas’ actions to protest the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq. Part of Vikki law’s prodigious body of work; check out her new book Resistance behind Bars, which grew out of a zine.
• Pirate Papa (2004) one kick ass issue.
One time zines or special issues:
• Earth First printed a “Birth First” insert in their newspaper; it was interesting yet a little freaky that it was trying to justify the choice to have kids.
• Maximum Rock-n-Roll (2000) puts out “Punks with Kids” special issue. Jessica Mills contributed to that issue and starts her own column in MRR that September: My Mother Wears Combat Boots. After 3 years of writing monthly columns, Jessica (editor of Yard Wide Yarns zine) puts out kick ass book called My Mother Wears Combat Boots.
• My Baby Rides the Short Bus, a collection of essays by parents of kids with special needs.
• As Soon As You’re Born They Make You Feel Small (1985) (from a review) A very important (and fun!) pamphlet that seeks to cover the largely ignored territory of kids’ liberation. This would be a good read for parents, kids, or anyone who works with kids and recognizes their potential for integrity, intelligence, and individuality.
• Phases of the Moon, it’s the account by two young, poor, on-the-road punk rock kids, of the year they accidentally conceived a child and made the decision to place her for adoption. A really interesting, thoughtful read (thanks Kate of Miranda zine).