Sunday, June 20, 2021

Father’s Day Focus - Are Parents Interchangeable?


It has become traditional, or more to the point inevitable, that on Father’s Day I reflect on my role as a parent. This year I was also plunged into reflection by a Culture Desk essay I read in the paper titled “Celebrating mothers who taught me how to father.” I’ve blogged before about whether fathers are necessary and what fathers are for and realized I’m not done grappling with these questions. In planning this post I reached out to my brothers, my wife, and my kids, and their feedback is incorporated in what follows.

(Above: the card one of my kids made me this year.)

The Chronicle essay

The essay in the San Francisco Chronicle is by Kevin Fisher-Paulson and describes how he learned how to be a father from three friends who are single mothers. These women, he asserts, have to be “mom, dad, coach, buddy, the works” and are thus in a great position to share their wisdom. I like the article but it left me a bit confused, because Fisher-Paulson is gay, thus his kids have two dads … so don’t they have to fill the role of mom, too? Aren’t he and his husband really learning how to father and mother from these women?

I was also a bit puzzled by Fisher-Paulson’s fairly traditional sense of what makes a father, given how nontraditional his family is. He cites a number of fathering skills the women taught their sons: barbecue, lacrosse, screen defense, how to install an outside heater. He concludes, “Some days I worry that I will not have taught my own sons how to be a father, that my boys will grow up without knowing how to change the furnace filter” but that “Deirdre, Jill and Sarah taught me that a son does not need instruction as much as he needs support.”

I came away with more questions unresolved than answered. The essay challenges—but also reiterates and thus runs the risk of reinforcing—stereotypes about which parent does what. (I don’t mean this as a criticism: challenging the reader without resolving everything is often what a good essay does.) So I’ve been pondering the matter of whether there is any consistent, demonstrable difference between the nurturing and other resources bestowed on a child by a father vs. a mother. Are parental roles interchangeable? Does the average kid get A, B, and C from Mom and X, Y, and Z from Dad, or is it totally mix and match?

Some obvious parental differences

Clearly there are fundamental biological differences I won’t ignore. To newborn babies, fathers fall into a large category (comprising about 7 billion people) of “not Mom,” meaning they’re not just useless, but in fact barely exist. My brother Bryan echoes this, describing how his wife “certainly had the upper hand initially,” as “it would be many months before the child even realized who I was and that I had anything to do with her at all, while she knew right off the bat where her milk came from.”

I don’t think this is a huge deal, though, in terms of the overall relationship between parents and kids. After all, the breast feeding generally happens before the child is capable of forming long-term memories. And while breast feeding is important, it’s not the be-all, end-all.

There are of course more minor differences. Moms are certainly more valuable in the realm of purses. As a single man, one of the things I looked to marriage for was to have access to my wife’s purse—not to put a lot of stuff in or anything, but because when I need, say, chapstick or a toothpick, there’s a chance it’ll be in there. Kids benefit from this too and in fact it’s far more likely they’ll want something—gum, loose change, cosmetics, a hairbrush—that’s in there. For all the societal changes we’ve seen, it’s almost unheard of for a man to carry a purse.

Many men, meanwhile, still know how to tie a necktie. I taught my younger daughter, in fact, when she needed a necktie for a costume. And men are still on the hook for doing the household jobs that require brute force and drudgery, as detailed here.

But seriously

Okay, I had a little fun there … just seeing if you’re still awake. Of course there are many more noteworthy differences. One, which my wife and both daughters agreed on and which I’ll concede I know myself to be true, regards physical safety. My wife is far more concerned with safeguarding our kids than I am. I’m not talking about home invasion or anything (though I keep a big Maglite next to my bed and fantasize about one day getting to use it) but about keeping the kids out of dangerous situations in general, whether it’s bad neighborhoods or risky activities.

(Speaking of home defense, I once sneaked out of the house in the wee hours of the morning, and just as I made it to the driveway the front door burst open, and there was my mom, in her nightgown, with a large frying pan in one hand and an iron skillet in the other, yelling, “Who’s out there?!” while my father stayed in bed, no doubt sleeping peacefully.)

Here are a couple of examples from my own parenting life. When our kids were very young, my wife found it tiresome taking them to the playground because she feared they’d fall off the slide or jungle gym or whatever, so she would supervise them closely which was exhausting. When I took them, I’d bring a paperback. Or there was the time I had my brother’s family over to visit and their three-year-old went straight to a giant pile of Lego my kids had out, and I asked, “Should I be worried about her choking?” In the same instant my brother replied “no” and his wife replied “yes.”

Another example of this different risk management approach: when I was coaching my daughter’s high school mountain bike team, we were all descending Mount Tam one morning and my daughter was riding more aggressively than usual. Not terribly surprisingly, she crashed. My reaction was twofold: as a father of course I was somewhat alarmed, but as a coach I was glad to see her pushing it a bit to improve her skills. (She wasn’t hurt.)

My wife contends that if the men had to carry those babies around for nine months in our wombs, we’d be a lot more vested. I think it’s also possible that, convinced as we males are of our own invincibility, we may well project that onto our kids.

Now, in terms of sports, math, home repair, and other activities traditionally associated with males, my family members all agreed that the teaching of these things simply falls to whoever is most capable. My brother Bryan described how, as a math major working in tech, he was naturally the one who taught the kids “how to employ the quadratic equation in real life scenarios.” (I hope this was a joke.) He also has the role of fixing broken things around the house, so he said “it was natural for me to show the kids how to take apart the dishwasher or zip-tie something together.” He was quick to add, “I did not discriminate when it came to these sorts of lessons, I was more than happy when the girls wanted to learn something ‘manly’ or fix something. In fact, I would often recruit them just because they were girls.”

Similarly, in my household I do the computer and IT stuff, am more helpful with math problems, and fix the bikes, and I do as much as I can to teach these things. My wife does most of the cooking and gardening, and thus the kids learn these from her. But it could easily be the other way around, in my family or any. My brother Bryan pointed out, “If our roles were reversed and [my wife] was the one running in the rat race, she may have had more practical influences on the kids (how to treat coworkers, how to get ahead of your peers, that kind of thing).”

This being said, it’s not hard to find lots of examples of fathers handling the math, home repair, and sports end of things. Could these truly be a man’s domain? It’s sometimes tempting to think so; just watch small children play and you’ll see predictable gender differences. When our family randomly came to own a toy B-52 bomber (maybe from a garage sale?) they didn’t exactly play war with it. I caught one of them tucking it under the covers of her bed and she announced, “I’m putting my little plane-y to bed.”

But really, can we call this an innate preference when society has been ramming domesticity down girls’ throats for generations, and destroying their confidence in their intellects, particularly where math is concerned? (It’s shocking how often my wife and I heard, growing up, that “girls can’t do math.”) I’m certainly seeing a lot of changes around these attitudes now. Whereas my mom was called a dyke for playing field hockey in high school, my daughters’ high school has a very robust girls’ sports program, particularly their champion girls’ wrestling and mountain biking teams. My older daughter is more science-y than I am, and she and her two best friends crushed it on the math section of the SAT. I don’t think anybody can make a credible case anymore that kids need to learn fix-it stuff, sports, and math from their dads.

A more complex suggestion

The most intriguing feedback I got on this topic was from my younger daughter. She proposed that perhaps a child learns shame from his or her father. This gave me a jolt, needless to say. “Do I make you feel ashamed?” I asked, incredulously. No, no, my daughter said, and went on to explicate the idea: she doesn’t mean it as a criticism; it’s more like the father wants to be more stoic, even to the point of denouncing shamelessness. The mother, on the other hand, may be more freely emotional, and is more likely to model tact than to confront people.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what my daughter meant—this conversation was in a loud restaurant, and we got interrupted, and I have a hard time keeping my teenagers on such a topic for long—but it’s a good jumping-off point for me. It ties into my visceral sense that there’s a traditional male behavior that does need to be modeled, now more than ever as it’s somewhat under assault, and it has to do with keeping a stiff upper lip. I’m not holding up stoicism as a major virtue; it’s more than I’m pretty fed up with this whole emo thing.

Now, I’m not an expert on the exact meaning of “emo” but I’m talking about guys who think being really modern by eschewing traditional male traits like fortitude automatically makes them better. It’s as though appearing vulnerable, and freely describing their feelings, gets them off the hook for suffering from arrested development and other versions of age-old male prickdom. I’d rather see guys bravely facing the music than begging for forgiveness because they can’t.

The singer Lana del Rey illustrates what I’m talking about. In her song “Norman fucking Rockwell” she totally rips on her “man-child” boyfriend, complaining, “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news/ But I can’t change that and I can’t change your mood.” The fact of his writing poetry isn’t the problem; it’s that the poetry is bad, and moreover the boyfriend is too self-absorbed to realize it. She goes on, “Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all/ You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you.” Del Rey continues in this vein on the next song on the album, “Mariner’s Apartment Complex,” complaining that this boyfriend took her sadness (which is temporary) out of context, equating it with his own (which is perennial). But she offers him support: “You lose your way, just take my hand/ You’re lost at sea then I’ll command your boat to me again,” and concludes, somewhat surprisingly, “I’m your man.” No, this is not some gender change-up; the persona in this song is very much a woman. More to the point, I think she’s saying, “If you can’t man up, I will.” Just like the single moms in Fisher-Paulson’s essay, perhaps. If all moms were like Lana del Rey, perhaps my daughter wouldn’t equate such fiery criticism with fathers.

Does any of this even matter?

In response to my inquiry about parents’ roles, my brother Max took a step back and challenged whether there aren’t more important matters to contemplate:

The question about parental gender roles may need to be further contextualized. The question as you put it asks about the average kid. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 45% (2.8 million out of 6.1 million) pregnancies in the U.S. were unintended in 2011. Of these, 58% ended in birth. So the question isn’t whether a kid typically gets A, B, and C from mom and X, Y, and Z from dad. The average kid, if lucky, may get A from mom and Y or Z from dad, but rarely A, B, C, X, Y, and Z. The average kid has to grow up navigating a minefield of parental indifference and/or incompetence. 

I’ll add to this that more and more families don’t have two parents to begin with. According to the US Census Bureau, “Between 1960 and 2016, the percentage of children living in families with two parents decreased from 88 to 69.” So almost a third of children don’t have the luxury of wondering what resources derive from which parent. They only have one.

Max went on to say,

So the short answer is that gender roles in child rearing have much less bearing on the success of the child being raised than the child itself. It is ultimately the work of the kid that will determine success or failure. Sometimes researchers use twins to dig down into these matters, as a control group sort of tactic. … [One] example would be that of Remus and Romulus in ancient times, twins raised by wolves. Remus was eventually killed by Romulus, who of course, went on to found the city of Rome and the Roman kingdom. Although they both grew up with exactly the same advantages (although the sexes of the wolves have not been determined) one was wildly successful, while the other, poor old Remus, wound up dead … most would agree, less than successful.

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