When I go back and read our letters these past few weeks about parenting and gender roles, I realize again how difficult these topics are. This afternoon, I was researching well-known feminist Alice Walker and reading up on her complete estrangement from her daughter, Rebecca. When Rebecca Walker talks about how neglected she was growing up because her mom was away writing feminist books, my heart just sank.
It is not supposed to look like this, I kept thinking to myself. The point is not to sacrifice our children to our work, or deny the important responsibilities of motherhood. When I read about Rebecca’s story, I practically hear the smug voices of several well-known Christian patriarch’s saying, “I told you so.”
I cannot deny the importance of Alice Walker’s contributions to literature, racial equality, and women’s rights. I also cannot help but deeply grieve that her work seemed to be at the cost of her relationship with her own daughter. It should not be this way, I just kept thinking. I don’t want to believe that women are forced to choose their families or their work.
Reading about Alice, I started to wonder about the children of famous men we revere, who contributed so greatly to democratic society, and yet we would know little of whether they were good fathers. Were Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington good dads? (I am not sure if that information is even recorded.) And would we really care for that matter? Probably not. It is taken for granted that men are valued for different purposes than for women. If they advanced the greater society, it does not really matter to the history books how many children they had with their slaves or how many mistresses they had in France.
Like you said in your last letter, it has been assumed that men (at least the ones with the economic resources) will live their lives according to their “particular potentialities and interests.” Women, on the other hand, tend to be socialized to find their self-fulfillment as mothers and wives. And, I think it is important here to say that I know women who choose to be home full-time, love their choice, and are fulfilled in their choice. They have made economic sacrifices, but it is worth it to them. Their job is as difficult (and likely more so) than any other job and yet rarely receives the honor and appreciation it deserves. (Except perhaps in some church cultures I know, where I have heard effusive praise for stay-at-home moms, as though this choice is clearly the ideal for all truly godly women. But that is another letter!)
I guess the point I am making here is that these choices in our lives about work and parenting should come from an understanding of one’s own sense of self, situation, and calling, not a predestined expectation based on one’s gender.
What Has to Change
As you said (and I fully agree), gender stereotypes harm both women and men. If men are not expected to be fully relational and nurturing beings, if women do not have more choice in their work and family lives, then both are denied something important about being human.
In your last letter, you got me thinking about how much would really have to change for men and women to co-parent in our society. If we are to create a culture where men and women are seen as equally capable of caring for children, businesses will have to better understand the importance of family life, the government will have to set laws for paternity leave, and most of us would have to change our attitudes about masculinity.
Letha, I loved that link you gave about the research being done in Denmark concerning the importance of gender equality and greater involvement of fathers in childcare. In the article “Men too are competent caregivers,” I found this excerpt particularly helpful:
“When it comes to long-term involvement in the lives of their children, men are confronted with the same contradictions between the demands of work and family life as women – men, however come at this issue “from the other side” so to speak, approaching the family from the perspective of the workplace. Here the man is met with a multitude of barriers: from society, from their workplace culture, and from traditional masculine culture. These obstacles are of an economic, cultural, and psychological nature.”
Rethinking Masculinity as a Key Next Step?
When I spend time thinking about this current historical moment, Letha, I often wonder what the next steps are for feminists. What is the unifying vision? (And should there be one?) Throughout the waves of feminism (and here I apply the term retroactively), women leaders have focused on the abolition of slavery, prison reform, suffrage, access to birth control and reproductive rights, equal pay, racial equality, domestic violence, rape crisis centers, Title IX, etc. But now in 2008, with so much left still to be done, I am not sure that 3rd wave feminists have a clear step laid out for what is next. This is a large question, and I would really like to take a whole other letter to go into more of my thoughts on it, but for now, I ask it alongside our current conversation on parenting and care-giving. I am coming to believe that rethinking parenting—asking for men to be more involved, and supporting them in that as an entire society—is a key next step for gender equality and the goals of feminists. I think that to assume that men are equally relational, and can therefore equally parent, actually touches on something even deeper in our understanding of men, women, and the effects of patriarchy.
A few years back, when I read Carol Gilligan’s book, The Birth of Pleasure, I was first introduced to the idea that patriarchy harms men by assaulting and dismissing the more relational, emotional, intuitive parts of a man. Patriarchy is about maintaining hierarchy and dominance, and when boys are “initiated” into it at a young age, a deep relational sacrifice is often made (or so Gilligan argues). She talks about her work with young boys who are sensitive and highly attuned to relational and emotional dynamics. Yet, when these same boys enter school, a kind of “patriarchal initiation” takes place. Emotional attunement is often seen as a sign of vulnerability and weakness for boys; they learn to stuff that part of themselves. But the really interesting thing about Gilligan’s research is her work with the fathers of these boys.
She writes of the joy the fathers initially have in their sons’ openness and relational capacities, but at the same time, these fathers also see the vulnerability in those qualities and want to protect them (pg. 71). She goes on to write this of the fathers:
“The pleasure they know with their sons evokes memories of themselves at time before a loss they experienced. Men’s conflicts around intimacies are tied to a history that these fathers are coming to remember as they see it repeating in front of their eyes, being played over again from the beginning….Closeness and tenderness with their sons will bring them back into association with parts of themselves that they have hidden. The pain of remembering is that it brings them face-to-face with a loss that was behind them but now is in front of them as they step into a river again with their sons.” (Gilligan, Carol. The Birth of Pleasure. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. p. 71.)
Being connected to their sons meant being connected to themselves, too. Watching their sons endure the pain of initiation into patriarchy was an opportunity for the fathers to grieve deep wounds in their own souls. But for many of these fathers, the memories and grieving of their own loss was too painful. Watching the vulnerability of their sons was also too painful. It seemed easier to “protect” their sons and teach them to fulfill the expectations of masculinity that require being emotionally “tough” and on-top and essentially disconnected from relationship.
I wonder what would happen in the healing of men’s hearts if they were given permission and expected to see themselves as equally capable of nurturing, emoting, care-giving, and parenting. Perhaps, there would be a profound invitation in that new expectation of masculinity. I think for feminism to continue to stay vital in my generation and foster truer partnerships, it must somehow communicate to men what is at stake— not just for women, but for the wholeness of their own lives, too.
What might John McCain have been like if his father and grandfather had not spent so much of their lives away, serving the military as decorated admirals? What part has the absence of fathers played in the development of both Barak Obama and John McCain? Questions to ponder certainly.