This is Not a Male Bash: Male Role Models, Female Parenting and Social Inequality

February 17, 2011 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

I have a confession to make.

(And believe me, no one is more tired of Mommy Confessions than I am. Mommy Confessions tend to give the illusion of opening the door to honest communication about the real challenges of parenting, but instead they wind up being a false apologia for bad parental practices disguised as shame but actually playing a who-can-be-more-funny about hurting children while secretly thinking of oneself as the hero of the story because of the confessional itself (definitely a column for another day). I digress.)

The confession:

I don’t have enough men in my life. Or I should say, in my daughter’s life. And I wish that were different. It’s not that I don’t give credence to the idea of the importance of male role models in a child’s life because I do. It’s that … it’s that … and here is the real confession: When I think of parental figure role models who we know, almost all of whom are parents themselves, I usually like how women parent much better than how men parent. Egads! I said it!

Now let me just say (hello, friends!), I know of at least half a dozen straight families of which I am blown away by how thoughtfully the male partner parents. But in most straight families I know, the mother is doing so much more of the heavy lifting and so much more of the thoughtful, careful parenting. And worse than that, and heartbreaking to see, I often see fathers who hinder good parenting with impatience – who would rather quickly fix a problem than try to understand what’s going on – and with a lack of sustained time, energy, and attention to issues of parenting, or to their children.

And this is not just limited to fathers I personally know. I have overheard dads talking at the playground or park, or before or after children’s classes and programs. They seem to studiously avoid discussion of childrearing, and if their talk does stray into that realm, they quickly turn to issues of equipment, such as stroller comparisons, or to reporting on their child’s latest feat, and then just as quickly move back to a non-parenting related topic.

I am also on several online parenting boards, and they are primarily filled with mothers. These mothers are seeking peer advice and resources about important and necessary questions related to, say, the nutritional and sleep needs of their children, or how to solve important and pressing family issues. I realize that some of these women are stay at home moms whose primary occupation is parenting and/or the maintenance of the domestic sphere. But many of the women are also working full-time outside of the home and still make time to focus on parenting issues. Yet I almost never see men on these boards in spite of some boards reaching out specifically to men.

I do realize that many women are terrible parents and many men are wonderful parents. However, I am talking here about a larger trend, not individual cases. And in the larger scheme of things, men are not prioritizing parenting.

These men are not bad people. Many are good, wonderful, smart people. And I hear from some of these men too that they feel criticized by women for their failure to be more involved with their children or their failure to parent better (or as they see it, parent more like the other partner wants, which is not necessarily better). These men often express something along the lines of: Give me a break! They want a break from the relentless criticism which is taken as demoralizing and harsh, and brings up feelings of hurt and anger. Of course that would not be fun for anyone.

A long-distance friend of mine, a very enlightened straight father, talks about how people often critique or offer his wife advice when she is out with the kids no matter how well things are going. Yet when he goes out with the kids, he can be practically dangling them by the feet and he usually gets very positive responses … “Oh, look at the great dad!” So society tells women they cannot do enough for their children and tells men they are heroes for simply walking around the block with their children. No wonder it sounds so harsh when women in a relationship try to tell their men otherwise. No one wants to go from hero to villain in the blink of an eye. And the walking around the block hero narrative is so much more appealing. Who wouldn’t want to be seen that way? Yet it isn’t honest.

And it’s important for women who co-parent with men to be honest about the amount of work involved in parenting, and that we as a society work toward shifting our sensibility about women’s and men’s responsibilities toward their children.

Our culture, particularly the perpetuation of patriarchy, hurts these poor clueless-seeming men as much as these beleaguered-seeming women. I would like to see things be different.

What would I like to see?

1. Women demanding and expecting equal partnership in parenting with men.
2. Women, straight women in particular, having children on their own if they can’t find a responsible, giving man with whom to co-parent.
3. Men stepping up and opening themselves up to the time-consuming hard work and attendant joy that is thoughtful parenting.

Is this just an extended male bash? I hope not. Men are acculturated to function in the world so differently from how women are acculturated. They’re taught to take action, to gently let things slide in social relationships, to be comfortable in their bodies and in taking up space, to be courageous, to endeavor to fix problems. Those are all qualities I would like my daughter to be exposed to and to learn from.

I just hope that as some of us are teaching a new generation of girls to take on more traditionally male characteristics, that we’re teaching a new generation of boys to prioritize communication, emotions, and relationships, to be willing to sit with a problem or difficulty before acting, to be vulnerable, and to respect the space of others – so that the next generation of men feel comfortable and at ease with the role of good parent.

To those men who are already are good parents: I salute you. And hope you’ll come hang out with my daughter.

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[Photo Credit: Flickr Image: Disgustipado]

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Do It–Have Kids!

December 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

Since writing the last blog/column for The Next Family, my baby had her first birthday and is now officially a toddler. Getting through the first year is a huge relief – as a friend recently said: the first year is all about survival – yours and theirs. It’s no small feat, so it was both weird and amazing to see my daughter turn one. Looking back to before I conceived, I remember how worried I was about choosing to be a single mom. I anxiously weighed every step of the process – perseverated over minute details, and agonized over decisions. I thought being a single mom by choice was going to be super duper hard. And it is super duper hard. I also thought and hoped that it would be incredibly wonderful – a joy, and worth everything I would be giving up for it. On the heels of this time of year in which everyone meditates on thankfulness, I’d like to say: Thank you thank you thank you –it is less hard and so much more joyful than I imagined. If I could talk to my three or four-years ago self, I would say: Shut up and do it. It will be the most earth shattering, mind blowingly wonderful thing you will ever do and you will be so happy you did. I love being a parent, I love my baby, and I’m so grateful for all of it, in spite of the hard. I want to say to everyone, anyone genuinely considering it, anyone who knows they want to be a parent but isn’t sure if they can do it on their own that yes, you can do it on your own. If you want to and can nurture and love and raise a child, you should. Do it!

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[Photo Credit: Flickr Image: Marian Doss]

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Gloves Off

August 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

You know those people who are super serious about every little thing? Who can’t seem to crack a smile? Who think they know everything about everything and act like the fate of the world is at stake in everything they do? I’m turning into one of those people!

I found myself at playgroup the other day going on and on about sunscreen, and in particular another mom’s sunscreen. This sunscreen is really popular with health-conscious, informed, concerned parents. It’s on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) list of best sunscreens. In fact, it is in the top five. Yet many in the alternative health world believe that some of the ingredients are questionable – mainly titanium dioxide, as well as micronized minerals, or nanoparticles, and, I said, the truly best sunscreens use only zinc oxide as an active ingredient and then non-nano blah blah blah. This is me going on and on about what is basically, more or less, good sunscreen. You can imagine how popular I am in playgroup.

Childrearing is a serious business. Yet no one likes a know-it-all and no one likes being told how to raise their kid, even if it is just about sunscreen. It’s amazing what we parents can get into spats about, or in my case, start randomly lecturing about. These spats are sometimes called The Parent Wars, although more often they are called, honestly, The Mommy Wars. There is something slightly Stepford Wives Remake with Nicole Kidman about the concept of The Mommy Wars. Most of the new moms I meet who are at home with their little ones, full or part-time, have a successful background before mommying. They come to motherhood with a strong professional skill set, interested and capable of reading, digesting, synthesizing and analyzing information, and making informed and complex decisions for their families. And then sometimes making the terrible faux pas of talking about these decisions with other moms. This talking about our decisions is one part of what gets called The Mommy Wars which turns my picture of smart, thoughtful mamas sitting around enthusiastically sharing ideas, resources, tips, advice, opinions and yes, even debating, into an image of moms in camouflage with rubber-soled boots and a practical ponytail ducking behind slides and scurrying across jungle gyms to crouch, duck, cover, and shoot.

I don’t think the problem is that we have a diversity of opinions and passion. And I hell-to-the-don’t think the solution is trying to be even more polite, avoiding The Mommy Wars by nodding sweetly and murmuring generic neutrality.

I have a friend who parents in some very non-traditional, progressive ways, but she really doesn’t talk about it too much. She would never, ever comment on the nanoparticles in your sunscreen, even if she had just taken a class in sunscreen nano-chemistry. She would just be like, “Oh, I like the bottle; it’s got a cute picture!”

There is something to this approach of respect and, really, butting out, which is very kind and very appealing. If we don’t talk about how we’re parenting with other parents, we are more likely to all get along and be able to give one another very simple and direct support – having a cup of coffee while our kids play, passing on clothes or toys we no longer need, lending out an item we have. Yet I’m not sure this Code of Silence is the ideal work-around to The Mommy Wars. I deeply appreciate the gesture of all parents who don’t want to be placed in polarized opposition to other parents. But I’m wondering if we can be both not at war, and also talk to one another? Or, to put it simply, is Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell really the only solution to avoiding conflict over discussion of our diverse parenting styles?

The thing is, if we came to parenting accustomed to being in dialogue in our communities, to talking about differences and sharing our ideas, and, dare I say it, if we have even been accustomed to working and agitating for social change before becoming parents, do we really want to suddenly stop — to not speak within a community about our thoughts, our experiences, and even about our alternative ways of doing things?

I realize that parenting is highly personal. But so too is marriage, abortion, state-sponsored murder, rape, citizen ID checks. In other words, if we are invested in social justice issues, we are used to thinking and talking about the highly personal in terms of its larger implications. I think it’s better that we try and fumble, better we let the conversation get a little messy, than to slide into mannered indifference.

I’ve already fessed up to my tendency to be a bit, uhm, pedantic. And I’m working on that. Because there is a lightheartedness, a playfulness in some of the most inspiring parenting I see and that is more important than whether or not your goop is micronized. And I know there is a lot of room between the two extremes of feigned indifference or pushy remonstration. So barring pedantic know-it-all-ness, is it unrealistic to think that we can share parenting ideas and resources beyond the safest and most superficial?

If you’ve found a way to be in real dialogue with parents you encounter – those you already know well and those you are just meeting – how do you do it? Do you feel like you can avoid the feeling of stepping into a boxing ring, yet still talk about (and disagree about) hot button issues such as sleeping and healthcare choices? Do you share information and ideas which are not mainstream with parents who are?

I look forward to starting a dialogue about parenting dialogues with you.

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