Wednesday, February 22, 2006

the mamas and the papas

Recently, I read an article about involved fathers. Apparently, this was such an exciting topic that some freelancer sold the concept to a paper. Big frigging deal. Yes, deadbeat dads are a national problem, and why oh why is funding being cut from the agencies who find them? More to the point, involved dads aren't news - there are lots of daddies quietly and lovingly spending time with their children. Not enough, I grant you, but more interesting to the media than the number of dads playing their paternal role is the concept that they aren't, couldn't and why would you ever trust them to get it right?

Consider this item, from the mommyshop, described as follows: " Our Daddy Diaper Duty is the perfect gift for dads and grand-dads, because it has all the "tools" needed to handle changing that perfect new baby. Contents include: Protective goggles, nose clip, face mask, rubber gloves, baby powder, Dr Boudreaux's Butt Paste, anti-bacterial wipes, baby wipes, 2 disposable size one diapers, and monogrammed canvas tool belt (reads 'Daddy Diaper Duty')."

Face mask? Goggles? Tool belt? Why not just paint a picture of a man out of his depth? I find this item funny, because it panders to the stereotype of the Mr. Mom, but I would never give it to my partner, veteran of almost as many diapers as moi.

Consider also this irritated post: 'How Not To Market'. How gullible are we, exactly? Is an involved dad an automatic easy target, as if there are only two paternal options - uninvolved or easy target. On a side note, I'm with this guy - don't try and sell me something because otherwise my kid won't get into Harvard (which would probably be a good thing), or because otherwise they'll get broken, misshapen, or picked last for dodgeball. Oh, please. Now you are just ticking me off.

The stereotype of the incapable father is funny and, face it, here to stay. And it sells nicely. But lost in the humor and the marketplace is the guy who spends Sunday with the kids not because it's his job, or because he's helping out (quick tip: guys, if you are 'helping,' then you are not a full partner in the task at hand), but because they are his kiddos, and he loves them. The fact that the wife gets then to sleep in/go to the gym/breathe and is subsequently a happier and less scary person is just gravy.

If this were politics, I'd be suspicious: is the stereotype just a way of setting low expectations? Dads are incapable, therefore a competent father is a triumphant figure? Equally standard is the maternal gripe about double standards, irritable because a father with his child is admired, sweet, even attractive, while a woman with her child is just plain vanilla. Biochemistry plays a certain role, roping women into the maternal state, but there are two, poorly known bits of evidence against the theory that women, and only women, are wired to parent.

Dr. James McKenna, a researcher specializing in sleep, has long since noted that the sleep patterns of a nursing mother-child dyad will come to match, so that the mother shifts into a lighter sleep state alongside (and even slightly ahead of) an infant, so that when the baby is waking and ready to nurse, the mother is not rousing her befuddled self from a deep sleep. What Dr. McKenna noted, however, is that a father who shares a bed with his baby will come to do the same thing. Hmm.

But men still can't lactate! After the actual gestation and delivery of the child, lactation comes to be the ultimate distinction between the parents, should the family eschew formula. Well, gentlement, I hate to point this out, but yes, you can. Not only can men lactate, but their nipples can provide comfort to a baby wanting to comfort-nurse. Do you need a breast to suckle? It seems not.

Having these two bits of information has not noticeably changed the parenting dynamics in our home, with the possible exception that the semi-guilty, semi-triumphant, 'if only I could nurse him' has faded from our conversation. But then again, I know very few fathers as deeply involved as my partner, for all that I cannot persuade him to read parenting books.

Consider: if love were more powerful than humor, then what would the stereotype be? In the meantime, I invite you to look at the world of daddy blogs. Go, daddy, go!

Editor's note: magid (see comments) offers a really good link. I agree with Jeremy about the "heaven and hell of parenting." Yesterday, I went to a class on alternative methods for discipline. We were all asked to list our kids and share something positive about our parenting. I introduced myself as the parent of X and Y, and said that my older son is both my hero and my nightmare. Immediately, I was fixed with a glare by the moderator. Wha? Is this a class on parenting, or on parenting myths? People, if you can't take the rollercoaster, get out of the gene pool, because nobody can push your buttons like your kids. To misquote Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting, "Forget rocket science or brain surgery. When we want to make the point that something isn't really all that difficult, we ought to say, "Hey, it's not parenting...""


magid said...

Synchronicity: I just read an article by a father who's a primary care-giver.

Abdur-Rahim said...

I didn't like Schwarznegger in Junior and I don't like men lactating.