7/29/16: 41st Annual NOMAS CONFERENCE
I have been asked to speak about fatherhood and feminism today, a topic I think about often. For example, here are some random questions: 1) Why do some people think I am not fulfilled as a father because I have daughters and no sons; 2) Why am I the one who goes out shopping for bagels on the weekends?; 3) Why did my wife keep her last name but we give our daughters my last name? These are just a handful of the many many questions that may come up if you analyze your life with a gendered lense.
Let me put it another way: I write a lot about children and gender because I have two young daughters facing unprecedented levels of “pinkification,” because I was raised by a feminist leader who had to figure out how to incorporate a son into her feminist world, and because I think challenging the gender divisions children learn is crucial to our future.
I also think about these things because as a modern parent they are inescapable; they pervade everything. And, most infuriating is that the gendered world of children stands in direct opposition to the changed and changing gender norms of the adult world. So, while my girls see women doctors and police officers and judges and politicians, and both parents working outside the home and stepping up inside the home, and variations in gender identity and sexual orientation, the rules of their world are quite strict.
But, as novel as some modern feminist analyses of parenting may appear to be, the truth is that we have been having these same discussions for a long time.
In 1979, my mother, Phyllis Chesler, was interviewed for a New York Times piece on raising feminist sons. She told the Times that she thought one of the most important things in raising a male child was to involve fathers in daily child care. She also reported that I (then 19 months old) was given lots of toys to choose from including “teddy bears and trucks,” but that I wanted a female doll which I cuddled with and fed and called “Baby.” She quickly added that I was “quite a whiz bang on [my] bicycle.”
Other feminists, such as the author Robin Morgan, had their sons play with “dolls as well as blocks,” pointed out feminist issues to their sons, and told bedtime stories about heroic women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Eleanor Smeal, then president of of the National Organization for Women (currently president of the Feminist Majority Foundation), described setting an example in the division of household chores so that her son would see “there are no women’s jobs and no men’s jobs.” The author Lois Gould similarly had her sons perform typically female tasks at home such as doing the laundry, vacuuming, and helping to prepare meals.
Still others mentioned exposing their sons to strong female colleagues engaged in typically male professions, or bringing their sons to work. Responding to the fear that sons raised in feminist ways would grow up to be homosexuals – a fear reminiscent of the recent backlash to Target’s decision to stop labeling toys for boys or for girls – author Letty Cottin Pogrebin retorted that the “homosexual threat” is always used when “we challenge the patriarchal system that keeps men in a supremacist position.”
In other words, other than the phrase “whiz bang,” all of the content in a 37 year old article on feminist parenting is very relevant today. Should we laugh or cry first?
Indeed, the same pointers for feminist parenting are made in many recent articles, including the continued importance of allowing children to play with all sorts of toys, making sons do the dishes, having fathers engaged in childcare and household chores, the use of homophobia and sexism to police boys’ gender expression, and the absence of women in children’s media. I have written about the division of labor in my own household that remains connected to biology and to which parent is the primary caretaker, and I pondered whether we need to resurrect Alix Kates Schulman’s “Marriage Agreement” from 1969 which proposed equal sharing of childcare and housework.
In November 2015, the New York Times even published a roundtable debate on raising boys which covered the ideas of modeling inclusivity, speaking up when boys are subjected to gender limitations, and encouraging individuality. And, earlier this year, the parenting site Babble suggested “18 Easy Ways to Raise Feminist Boys” which included concepts voiced in 1979. That piece, by Joanna Schroeder, advised parents to encourage their sons to understand a full range of emotions, to let them wear all the colors, to learn bodily autonomy, to express gender however they like, to deconstruct the media, and to bust the myths that girls and boys are vastly different.
A Huffington Post piece profiling powerful women on raising feminist sons from this May even mirrors the 1979 article, and features Jillian Michaels describing letting her son play with a doll, Feminista Jones talking to her son about sexism and historic heroines, Ilyse Hogue imparting what she knows about feminism to her son, Reshma Saujani planning to show her son equity in household chores and gender roles, and Geena Davis promoting teaching children about sexism in movies and television shows.
As a boy raised by a feminist, I was exposed to authoritative women, read books by and about women, and played with dolls and a diverse range of toys. I was also told and shown that men and women could do anything, wear anything, be anything – that women could run countries and that men could be tender, present fathers – and so I learned to value individuality and self-determination. All of these things also taught me how to listen to and love women, how to learn from them, how to honor their narratives, and how to move beyond narrow visions of masculinity that limit and dehumanize men and boys. I also believe these ideas made the modern hands-on dad possible and inform how I parent my daughters every day.
But, I also know that I was deeply impacted by the culture in which I was raised. Thus, despite all these great foundational lessons inside my home I internalized the sexism around me, including from my favorite childhood movies and television shows and in the misogynist rap music I grew to love.
I suggest we recognize two things. First, feminist parenting is primarily about analysis and awareness and doing our best to raise non-sexist kids while living in a sexist society. Even we feminist parents have internalized sexism and remain works in progress, and so we must constantly challenge ourselves as well as our children. This work lasts a lifetime and will remain necessary until we are able to change the power structures in our society. Second, the feminist values we teach our children will be contradicted by their media, peers and by the adult world. As Lucia Valeska noted to the Times back in 1979, we must focus our attention on moving women into the public realm, as this “will change the situation in the world.” Nell Scovell, the film director, in a recent op-ed advocating for more female directors, recently put it this way: “awareness without change is worse than ignorance.” In short, the first order of business for feminist parents must be to demand more female representation in government, business and Hollywood. Until we really change those things, we will continue to have our work cut out for us at home.
But, now I want to step back for a moment to talk about why some people, men and women, are reluctant to call themselves feminists? On the one hand, we live in a time in which many celebrities and public figures embrace the term. Actors like Matt McGorry and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, singers like John Legend, and even President Obama have all referred to themselves as feminists. Beyoncé had a gigantic neon feminist sign at a 2014 concert. On the other hand, others like pop star Taylor Swift and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer reject the term and call themselves humanists.
For some, feminism has a negative connotation, and feminist is a dirty word. But since feminism simply means believing in equality of the sexes, one is either a feminist or a sexist.
Some still fear that feminism is women’s turf. But, as this 40 plus year old organization can attest, men have always been involved in the feminist movement. This is true going all the way back to the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, even though men have not always been welcome. Bill Baird, the great crusader for reproductive rights, whose work lead to groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions in that area, has reported being excluded from the movement, and was accused of being an activist as a way to get women to sleep with him.
I too recall being suspected of similar motives when I was very active in women’s rights at my college. This is why I admittedly use my mother’s name as a shield when I write about feminism. It lends me legitimacy that I might not have if I were just a man with another last name.
But I believe women feminists want men to be involved in the movement. The only real question is what role we should play. One thing is clear: Our voices should not drown out the voices of women. Sometimes the best way for men to support women and feminism is by listening or amplifying women’s voices. Indeed, what I learned from being raised by and around feminist leaders was how to listen to women, how to learn from them, how to honor their narratives—essential skills for men who seek to advance feminism. But, I also learned that male feminists must lend our voices to the cause, especially to other men, especially on how misogyny hurts us and on questioning what it means to be a man. We must recruit other men too.
Good people of all sexes should be motivated to end gender inequality because patriarchal rules limit everyone’s ability to be their whole selves. We should all challenge painful and limiting notions of gender and gender inequity not because we are riding to the rescue of others. We should do it because we all want freedom of expression and self-determination for ourselves—none of us should have to be in pain for trying to squeeze into a socially constructed box.
Ultimately, feminism is for everybody and the only way to effect change is for everyone to be moving feminism forward. If we are ever to defeat the systems of oppression we are all subject to, men must be involved and men and women must work on these issues together. This is because, as Maya Angelou taught us: “no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”
As one example of a good father shying from the feminist label, Dave Lesser believes that his daughter should be able to take leadership positions, earn as much as a man doing the same job and be free from sexual harassment, challenges his daughter’s gender norms and wants to ensure that she will never be limited by her gender, yet he questioned whether he is a feminist because he allowed her to watch Disney movies.
In a piece I wrote responding to Lesser, I noted that the label feminist doesn’t have to mean either perfection or rigidity. I also noted that modern dads would not be possible without feminism, which encouraged fathers to be more involved in their children’s lives and that if you believe that dads are capable of diapering, feeding and raising children as well as women can, you might be a feminist. If you are a stay-at-home dad and your wife (or husband) is the family breadwinner, you might be a feminist. And if you believe that dads deserve better paternity leave policies, you might be a feminist.
Like Lesser, I recognize that my daughters also “love all the crap that is shamelessly marketed to girls their age,” But I challenge them when they repeat ideas about gender norms or limit the roles we can each occupy during pretend play. I will never let them limit their vision of who they can become. And I will continue to analyze and dissect the rigid gender roles placed on children’s clothes, toys, and cartoons and in popular culture. Feminism is also crucial for dads raising boys. If you care about ensuring that boys aren’t denied their full humanity and aren’t stunted in their emotional development, you might want to thank feminism for recognizing that boys and men have feelings too. If we truly care about boys, we can acknowledge, as feminists have, that placing them in a limiting “man box” hurts them deeply and releasing them from it will improve their lives. Just as being a parent includes a learning curve and requires constant effort, and sometimes trial and error, feminism recognizes that we are works in progress and need to challenge our children and ourselves as we grow together. Mistakes will be made. Sometimes we will succumb to our culture’s sexism. But we can rise to challenge it the next day. So while I want equality of the sexes and safety for all our daughters and try to resist gender limitations for my daughter, I sometimes buy my daughters clothes and toys that make me cringe because I know that they will make her happy. I buy her those things to respect her choices. What could be more feminist than that?
But, whatever dads consider themselves, another interesting phenomenon is that when men have daughters they do become more feminist in their values. In fact, congressmen with daughters have better voting records on reproductive rights and take more feminist positions all around. But, as a number of women feminists have asked, why does it take having a daughter for men to care about women and girls?
These women are rightly frustrated that it takes reproducing a girl from their own genetic material for many men to be aware of what it’s truly like to be female in our society. Yet, it is not really surprising that when it comes to issues faced by girls and women it takes the personal for many dads to be conscious of the political.
So, why does this blindness persist? First, boys continue to be conditioned to view girls as inferior, and are prevented from acknowledging their own emotions or from learning and practicing empathy. We as a society still encourage looking at women as inferior and, in fact, we show that women are inferior in every sphere. Just look at the appallingly low numbers of women representing us in government or running companies. Think about how we handle domestic violence and rape cases in this country. Or look at the high status of male professional athletes compared to, with few exceptions, the lower status and pay of female athletes. Or consider the fact that most children’s books feature male protagonists or that most films feature male characters.
In order to change things so that future dads will not learn of women’s humanity only after having a daughter, we must diversify our children’s media so that they see females as central actors and not inferiors. We must continue the fight for equal pay and bodily autonomy and take violence against women seriously, demand gender equality in sports and jobs, demand an end to the “motherhood penalty” and the provision of universal child care. And, let’s also demand radical reforms like those seen in Iceland and France, where gender parity in government and on corporate boards are mandated by law. In this way, we will be showing future generations of dads that girls and women matter long before you have one of your own.
Another dad, author Brian Gresko, embraced his inner feminist when he became a stay at home dad. He writes: “I’ve come to recognize that there is a political dimension to my domestic choices and my work. If men don’t decide to be more involved around the house and with childcare, and more candid discussing these decisions, then the gender dynamic in our culture that sees women as primarily responsible for children or affected by having a family will never change.” Interestingly, Gresko has noted that he has both been mocked and celebrated for being a stay-at-home dad.
Here’s the thing: When you have a child, gender is one of the first things thrown in your face by others and your choices are narrow and scripted. I think this reality easily ignites one to respond with feminist values. Before my first daughter was born in 2010, I had no idea of the extent to which children are still placed in gender boxes. But I learned quickly enough after her birth as we received gifts. First came pink onesies. Then pink dolls and strollers. Then pink dogs in pink purses. Then things to put in her hair. And later, princesses. While there are innate differences between the sexes – mostly related to a difference in testosterone levels and the lengthy development of the frontal lobe in boys – “boy-girl differences are not as hard-wired as many parents believe.” In any event, whatever differences there may be between boys and girls, this script our children are given limits possibilities, discourages imagination and individuality, and diminishes them.
I refer to the normalcy placed on rigid gender roles in children’s clothes, toys, television programming and books as “The Subtle Backlash.” I call it this because the way corporations and advertisers have made everything gendered is both subtle and presented as natural. The message children in 2016 get about gender is ”this is just the way things are.” Boys are blue. Girls are pink. Boys like trucks and balls. Girls like dolls and strollers. Boys are physical. Girls are verbal. Boys are messy. Girls must look beautiful.
As Elizabeth Sweet, who researches gender and children’s toys at UC Davis, has noted, “Practically everything is gendered . . . School supplies. Toothbrushes. Snacks with . . . princesses on them, and snacks with Superman. And boy is the gender-neutral default. For girls, they ‘shrink it and pink it.’” Sweet has also found that toys are more gendered than ever before.
In fact, after two and a half decades of seeing rigidly gendered toys, it may be hard to remember that it was not always this way. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s legos were made in primary colors and sold to ALL children. Now, legos marketed to girls are pink and purple and focused on homes, and legos marketed to boys absolutely avoid pink and purple and revolve around superheroes and action.
As another example, think about what children’s books and other media teach. Twice as many children’s books feature male protagonists as those that feature female protagonists. Just under 30% of films for children have female protagonists, less than 25% of films have a female lead or co-lead, and the vast majority of speaking roles in films are male. While there are exceptions, many children’s books teach the male default just as children are first exposed to language. So, animals of all sorts – even dinosaurs – are always referred to as “he.” And let’s not forget what gender children are always told God is. This default pervades children’s books, television shows, and movies. So children learn that males are important and “normal,” and that females are lesser and abnormal. Or as feminist writer Soraya Chemaly has argued, “Each time a child plays male-dominated games, learns a womanless history, or watches gender-imbalanced movies, he or she learns that girls and women are worth less.”
On top of all that, boys, having been taught they are superior, also learn they must constantly differentiate themselves from girls by suppressing any “feminine” emotions, traits or interests, and sometimes to prove their manhood through physical power and violence. So, not only do boys not learn empathy, they also learn entitlement and to express themselves through rage and violence. To be clear, as Chemaly has noted, teaching boys they can’t be like girls and to avoid their human emotions “alienates them from core aspects of themselves…portrays what is feminine as undesirable and inferior [and] forces boys into a “man box” from which emotions and empathy are excluded. Chemaly adds that “the boy crisis we should be focusing on is how “boys will be boys” ideas and sexist media leave boys ill-equipped to function in diverse societies [and that] American masculinity is dehumanizing them.” This is why, as Mike Reynolds has written, it’s important to celebrate boys who love to dance or wear dresses or play with dolls or do anything that challenges the gender norms placed on them.
Rigid gender rules ignore that, however we define ourselves in terms of gender, we are in fact individuals with unique traits, interests and affinities, and that our gender identity exists on a spectrum. Nevertheless, given the foregoing backdrop it is not a surprise that people – both men and women – continue to devalue things that are labeled feminine.
In fact, it’s tricky when you are placed in the role of fighting back against pinkification not to devalue the feminine. I myself had to learn to accept that my daughters may like dresses and jewelry and nail polish and that I shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about their appearance – exactly what I don’t want them to do. And further that my daughters can grow up to be feminists, good people, and valuable contributors to society even if they wear makeup or dresses. While I do not want my daughters to be limited by a focus on their appearance (both their focus and others), or by the fantasies they are offered, it is also true that, just as many women before them have, they can stand up for themselves and other women and strive to fulfill their dreams, all while wearing a dress. Similarly, I have come to appreciate that Disney princesses show my daughters that women’s stories are important too, can offer positive lessons, and that, rather than try to avoid all such characters (which is impossible) it is worthwhile to emphasize the traits of princesses I value, like Belle’s heroism in rescuing the Beast, The Little Mermaid’s agency in following her dreams out of the sea, Merida’s skill with a bow and arrow and in riding horses and her rescue of her mother, and the importance of sisterly love exhibited by Anna and Elsa in Frozen. And, as Rebecca Hains, author of The Princess Problem, recommends, a major part of navigating princess culture is teaching our daughters to think critically.
Some dads challenge princess culture by seeking out and demanding other role models for their daughters. For example, John Marcotte started Heroic Girls, an organization dedicated to empowering girls by advocating for strong role models in alternative media — particularly comics. That site covers the absence of female characters in many comics and toys, and highlights and recommends strong female heroes. Marcotte explained his affinity for superheroes this way: “Princesses wait to be rescued, superheroes rescue themselves and other people. Princesses project unattainable beauty, superheroes teach girls that it’s ok to be different. Princesses reinforce a very narrow version of femininity, superheroes tell girls they can be more.”
But, as Marcotte has uncovered, it can be very difficult to purchase toys of the strong female characters that do exist, like Rey from the new Star Wars movie. It turns out that many of these characters are purposely disappeared by the toy industry because there is a fear that boys will not purchase toy sets which include female characters. We’ve seen this again when the toys for the all female Ghostbusters reboot were marketed with only boys on the packages. Of course, the bottom line for the industry is all that matters. But, when children continue to see the disappearance of strong women how can they truly believe in equality of the sexes? Making these alternate characters visible is important because recent research tells us that Disney princess culture magnifies stereotypes in girls, aids gender segregation, and limits what girls think they can do.
Tom Burns has created a site called Building A Library where he compiles what he thinks are the best books for children and offers critiques of books and comics with a gendered lense. Burns is also famous for sharing a story of when his daughter requested to dress as Han Solo for Halloween and suggested he be Princess Leia. He accepted and the pictures they took and his story about the experience went viral. Burns said of his daughter “I’m glad that she picked who she saw as the coolest character and didn’t limit herself to the available girl choices.” He added that because he was telling his daughter it was OK for a girl to dress as a boy character, he thought the only appropriate response when his daughter requested that he dress up as Princess Leia was an emphatic “yes” in order to show her that equality and crossing gender lines goes both ways. Similarly, Burns has written about buying boys’ underwear for his daughter featuring Star Wars characters and other superheroes because she loves those characters and they did not make underwear for girls featuring them. Eventually his campaign paid off – they now make Star Wars and superhero underwear for girls.
Another blog I love, created by dad blogger Simon Ragoonanan, is called Man vs Pink and seeks to challenge “the gender stereotypes of the pink aisle.” Man vs Pink has covered everything from the importance of marketing science toys to girls as well as boys to the importance of female characters in Star Wars. But, one post from it speaks to having to accept our daughters preferences, including for the feminine. In it, Ragoonanan discusses a cartoon from Vader’s Little Princess by Jeffrey Brown in which Darth Vader acting in fatherly mode tells Princess Leia she can’t go out dressed in her Bikini. Ragoonanan’s response is: “You are not going out dressed like that! (unless you want to).” He goes on to discuss the importance of teaching children to develop their own sexuality.
Taking it to the next level, Ferrett Steinmetz wrote an open letter to his daughter telling her he hopes she has awesome sex. He did this to challenge the idea that sex is awful and that he controls his daughter’s sexual destiny. Relatedly, some great writing on feminist parenting focuses on the importance of teaching all children about consent and boundaries from a young age, including teaching them that their bodies belong to them and that everyone gets to decide about their own bodies, and teaching them about healthy sexuality.
What about dads themselves? Well, dads are parents too. Sadly though, stay at home dads and single dads and involved modern dads are sometimes seen as an oddity or novelty, something to gawk at or fawn over. But, these are just dads doing their job. For example, I once took a class for dads and daughters called real men can braid which was covered by local media. While the class is a great idea for dads like me who need braiding pointers, media coverage did seem to make it a spectacle. This insults dads like Doyin Richards, whose photo of himself braiding his daughter’s hair quickly spread around the internet. Rather, than see it as something unique we should recognize that dads are doing these tasks everyday. As Richards said: “Until we can get to the point where men and women can complete the same parenting tasks and the reactions are the same, we will have problems.”
The continued failure to see dads as equal parents is why there are often no diaper changing tables in men’s rooms. It’s why it took a major campaign to force Amazon to change the name of their special parent shopping section of their website from Amazon Mom to Amazon Family. And, it’s why the National At-Home Dad Network created a T-shirt to remind the world: “Dads Don’t Babysit (It’s called ‘Parenting).”
One writer-dad – Whit Honea – has written eloquently about those that mock dads’ parenting abilities. Honea writes “Making fun of incompetent dads is the last safe stereotype, and society will quit bashing fathers when you can pry the clichés out of its cold, dead hands.” He adds “Raising boys in a culture that says dads don’t matter, a culture that overtly celebrates the passé concept of men as emotionally unavailable, unable to function at the most basic of tasks, that leaves the bar pretty low…Belittling men has a similar effect on girls. When girls are told that they shouldn’t expect much from men then they won’t. Instead, they settle for what fits the bill and the cycle eats itself.” Honea concludes: “I am not suggesting that dads deserve any sort of special recognition for doing what they do, because that would imply they are going above and beyond when, in fact, they are doing exactly what they should do. The “super dad” hyperbole that is currently running, somewhat ironically, congruent to the worthless dad trope is equally detrimental to any healthy image of fatherhood. The fact is that dads are parents, neither babysitter nor oaf, but caregivers, be they working, stay-at-home, single, gay, religious or otherwise funneled into the labels and niches that we all love to assign upon each other. Involved dads are no more unicorn than punchline, needing neither awe nor animosity, just the memories they are making and the milestones along the way.”
This is why it is significant that culture and media take us seriously as parents. We should be way past the bumbling Mr. Mom stereotype. Fathers are just as capable of diapering, feeding, and raising children as women, and are doing this work more than ever before. Thankfully, after an offensive 2012 Huggies ad was widely criticized for perpetuating the idea that dads are lost when it comes to diapers, we’ve reached a place where Super Bowl ads are replete with commercials from Dove, Toyota, and Nissan showing dads taking care of their kids in competent, loving, and realistic ways. We saw images of dads brushing hair, cooking, comforting, kissing, and doing the things that real dads do every day.
But what about the workplace? Josh Levs, author of the book All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses — And How We can Fix It Together, notes that “the workplace was designed based on “Mad Men” thinking about the roles of men and women which is why the United States remains an outlier in the world, with no guaranteed paid maternity leave and that our economy still operates based on the belief that the woman should stay home, while the man stays at work. Levs adds that the same thinking explains why paternity leave is still so rare — and why Levs had to fight a legal battle just to seek any kind of equality in paid leave. He adds that when society fails to value fathers as caregivers, it hurts everyone — including businesses and the economy.
Indeed, modern dads want to see business policies and laws that reflect our needs and the needs of our families. This means we want paid family leave for all, and we want it now. We shouldn’t have to sue the companies we work for in order to take care of our newborns, as Levs was forced to do with Time Warner. We also want flexible time so that we can be part of doctors’ appointments and be home for sick days and attend our children’s special events and performances. And we want affordable childcare so that our families are not crushed with that expense — and also so our wives, who are often paid less, are not forced to choose between their careers and caring for our children.
Policies and culture based on woman-hatred also hurt men in the workplace, in the wallet, and at home. In other words, until women are not free, men will not be free. As Scott Behson, author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide, notes, while the current generation of fathers works as hard as prior generations and aspires to career success, the modern dad has tripled the time he spends caring for his children and does twice the housework, compared to fathers of a generation ago, and many dads now struggle with work-life balance. In other words, dads today also want to “have it all.” But, they can’t because workplace and government policies have not caught up with this reality. And, let’s not forget the many single dads, gay dads, and the increasing number of stay-at-home dads who do not fit into traditional ideas about masculinity.
Behson has also noted that when fathers are entitled to paid paternity leave, they take it. Sadly, as Behson has also discussed, studies have revealed that 75% of the fathers took one week or less off following the birth of a child and 16% did not take off any time following the birth of a child. Presumably, this is because men “naturally” want to be at work. Indeed, there is still a stigma for men who take paternity leave.
Aaron Gouveia has written poignantly about the fact that paid paternity leave saved his family. In particular, he states that paid paternity leave allowed him to take care of his wife, supervise his older child’s transition from only child to big brother and he was free to bond with his baby. As he puts it, “paternity leave allowed [him] to be an active participant in parenting, as opposed to a bystander.”
MenCare, a global fatherhood campaign, just released its 2016 Report on the State of America’s Fathers and it gets to the heart of why everything I’ve been discussing matters. The report explains that “Fatherhood is now central to high-profile national conversations on gender equality, work-life balance, economic inequality, and underlying questions of what it means to be a man in America today.” It stresses that “Today’s parents of all genders both want and need to combine caregiver and breadwinner identities in new ways, but many of our policies obstruct those desires and needs.” Among other things, the report concludes that we must: 1) Encourage men to enter professions involving early childhood, health and caregiving heretofore seen as women’s professions; 2) Teach all children about the importance and value of being caregivers; 3) Pass a national policy guaranteeing paid leave of equal length for mothers and fathers after a birth or adoption; and 4) Push for supportive workplaces.
Another recent study tells us that American parents (of all genders) face the largest happiness shortfall compared to people who don’t have children. Not surprising to those of us who are parents, policies that make it less stressful and less costly to combine child rearing with paid work beyond a child’s first few months, like flexible schedules, subsidized childcare and policies that gave money to parents in the form of a child allowance or monthly payments, “seem to be the ones that really matter.” in impacting the happiness gap.
Also significant, MenCare has found that engaging men as involved fathers “can lead to improved maternal and child health, stronger and more equitable partner relations, a reduction in violence against women and children, and lifelong benefits for daughters and sons.” Involved fathers increase children’s academic achievement, social skills, happiness and self-esteem, and reduces their depression and behavioral problems. A separate study found that when dads cook breakfast, give baths, go grocery shopping and do other household chores, daughters will aim higher and never scale down their ambitions. Further, MenCare found dads involvement as caregivers improves our intimate relationships and enhances our quality of life by increasing our own self-esteem and community connectedness. In sum, there is no question that paid family leave, equal pay, access to childcare, paid sick days, and questioning gender roles overall are not “women’s issues” but men’s issues and ultimately “family issues.”
Finally, I want to end with the importance of fatherhood and community. As you have heard throughout my talk, I reference the work of other dad-writers because we are part of a community. Some of us know each other only online through our writings and a FaceBook group to which we all belong. But make no mistake: Having an online group of dads is invaluable. Many of us also belong to a local chapter of City Dads Group, a nationwide community for fathers now found in 23 cities which was started by Lance Somerfeld and Matt Schneider in 2008 when they were stay at home dads and could find no support groups for themselves. Through this group we are able to meet other fathers to learn, vent, have fun and lean on each other. In a recent interview, Somerfeld and Schneider described the modern dad as someone who is trying their best and is tuned into the family in a new way. They said that while every family steps up in a different way “we are all just trying to raise our kids to be happy and healthy.” For me, and I think for all of us, a feminist analysis of fatherhood and parenting is crucial to the happiness we seek for ourselves and for our children.