raising the bar for men & fathers one essay at a time

Today’s guest blogger, a rad dad in his own right, wrote this review of an anthology edited by two of our rad dad friends, in effect creating a trifecta of rad-dad-ness. I challenge all parents to read this review and this book and become enlightened: Rad Dad, edited by Tomas Moniz and Jeremy Adam Smith

 

totally rad cover

The stereotype of Western parenting is that mothers are the serious, thoughtful parents and fathers the playful, irresponsible ones.  This script for fathering has been played out in films like Mr. Mom and Daddy Day Care and is shown on television in Modern Family and the Simpsons. When fathers are around in movies – they frequently aren’t (Dolphin Tale) –they tend to be violent (This Boy’s Life) or unrealistically demanding (The Great Santini) or drunk (Hoosiers). Alternatively, when mothers fail on the job (Kramer vs. Kramer) we see children suffer and fathers bumble. Likely, there will also be messes in the kitchen!  Such media depictions of fathering do very little to further the collective conversation about men and their relationships with children. Rather, they tend to engage audiences by employing familiar stereotypes that put the audience right into the scene – “I recognize that guy.  Let’s get to the story!” While such stereotypes help engage viewers, they also place limits on our expectations for characters and any deviations from expectation require exposition and explanation for the audience.  The dire need for a new dialogue about fatherhood (and maybe new stereotypes) may be reaching a tipping point with men out of work today at a rate not seen since the Great Depression.

The contributors to the edited book Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontier of Fatherhood answer the call to redefine fatherhood by offering voices and perspectives on fatherhood that are about as traditional as a vegetarian cowboy. The thirty-nine essays contained in the tight 197 pages are grouped chronologically in the life cycle of the father into infancy, childhood and teens.  However, the essays offer perspectives and voices that are far from familiar. Readers meet a sperm donor who grapples with his genetic link to a child he does not parent, a transgender parent coming to terms with gender identity and gender socialization, a self-proclaimed “radical queer tranny vegan anarchist commie”, a former self-involved skateboarder socializing his daughter to be cautious of boys like his former self, and a man challenging himself to confront a neighbor’s domestic violence.  These essays provide readers an opportunity to walk a lifetime in the shoes of another person and are tightly written and short enough that the soles don’t wear out before the next essay begins. We also hear from fathers we’ve met before – men grappling with the transition from cool dude to the shlub being yelled at for crackers from a tyrant in a stroller, new fathers who reflect on their own boyhood relationships with their fathers, a fan of the Star Wars trilogy who muses on the deeper questions in the Lucas film (e.g., whether to explain that Han shot Greedo unprovoked at the Mos Eisley Cantina), and numerous feminist men struggling to raise open-minded children whose brains are hard-wired and socialized to embrace gender as the second-easiest category (after ethnicity) to organize social information about others.

In addition to the essays informed by the age of the child are two sections that have lasting impact: one debating the politics of modern fathering and a collection of interviews with “rad dads.” In these sections the reader is forced to wake up to the reality that parents are either acting with awareness that their actions matter to the future of their children or they are asleep on the job.  Two of the most important essays in the book – well worth the price of admission alone – address the issue of ethnic identity and parenting. The first, written by Shawn Taylor, recounts a benign incident on the playground that deteriorates into a hostile racially charged confrontation.  What begins as an earnest quest by a man to defy the negative stereotypes about fathering among his ethnic group demonstrates how the naivety of the majority propagates negative self-image among the minority.  The second essay by Tomas Moniz recounts the story of a young Latina girl wishing she could be white despite years of socialization to take pride in her cultural heritage.  Both of these essays (and others in the book) challenge the reader to question the status quo, to doubt certainty, to the relish questioning, and most of all to share the stories.

In fact, a common theme binding the essays is asking questions that don’t have answers.  Unlike the stereotypical sitcom father who we’ve seen so often, these essayists are creating themselves as they move forward…maybe even as they type out their experiences.  Because they are searching, they don’t offer a lot of explicit answers.  Many are asking questions so new to the conversation that any approximation of an answer would ring false to both reader and author.  Rather, by asking the questions the authors have fulfilled their obligation to themselves and together create an important discussion.

The editors are skilled at addressing the shortcomings of the discourse on fatherhood and such frank consideration of the field emboldens me to share two shortcomings of the book itself.  First, the authors have collected a remarkably diverse group of contributors – sperm donors, stay-at-home dads, multiracial men, transgender individuals – who offer voices typically unheard.  The diversity of the voices is so apparent that I longed for other fathers on the margins of this discourse who are missing from the book: immigrant fathers, divorced fathers, men who are politically conservative. I have worked with fathers from these three groups and know them to also be complicated and soul-searching, and while their narratives may sound similar, the means to that end tend to differ. For example, fundamentalist Christian families tend to co-sleep and breast feed (like their liberal counterparts) but have chosen to do so because of more traditional leanings. In short, the absence of these perspectives leaves Rad Dad leaning a bit too far to the left when redefining is a national priority. My second criticism is more shallow:  I wanted to laugh more. A criticism of the more advanced mother-doubt literature is the harsh and earnest assault such women levy on themselves. While it is illuminating to read a mother describe her anger and frustration at the isolation of parenting an infant and to hear a man adopt a similar voice, there is also a great deal of humor in parenting that goes along with the embarrassment and frustration. Despite the lack of giggles, I applaud the authors for staring into the eyes of the beast without blinking.

In short, Rad Dad raises the bar for fathers – a challenge that men today are ready to assume.  I’ll conclude with a personal story.  When my first daughter was an infant, I was a stay-at-home dad two days per week.  However, I frequently worked from home.  One day, in fact, I had to present to a group of professionals on a project I’d been tasked to lead.  The lawyers, judges, and non-profit educators I presented to were professionals with a no-nonsense approach to their work. I led the 30-minute presentation with my daughter tightly wrapped against my body in a sling, and she intermittently napped and chewed the corner of her book to a rounded nub. It’s eight years later today and the attendees at that presentation still comment what an “amazing dad” I was to have delivered that presentation while also attending to her needs.  While I originally absorbed that praise with aplomb, I’ve more recently come to realize the hypocrisy. A dad who brings his daughter to work is a hero while a mom might have been questioned about her priorities. Because the bar of success for fathers is set so low it’s easy for many men to step right over without much effort.  The Rad Dad authors claim (and I agree) that men today are ready to meet challenges that aren’t being presented.  After reading Rad Dad, you might feel compelled to help raise that bar yourself.

Jeffrey T. Cookston, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University and the coordinator of the Developmental Psychology graduate program.  When he’s not researching father involvement, he is husband to one, father to two, son to four, and a barrel of monkeys. Follow him on Twitter @jtcookston.

 

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