Setting the bar low

23 09 2010

I was thinking this morning about Michael Chabon’s book, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, which I mentioned that I listened to recently in audiobook format. What prompted the thought were the compelling articles in response to the Newsweek “Man Up!” piece about how we need to “reimagine masculinity.”

In Chabon’s book, one of initial chapters involves a trip he took with his kids to the grocery store. Standing there in the checkout lane, a woman in rainbow-colored leggings comes up and comments on what a good father he is. Of course, he didn’t really do anything to merit it, as he was simply standing there not beating nor overtly neglecting his children. None of them were on fire or anything, so apparently that meant he was attentive enough to ensure that their chances of survival at the grocery store and their very well-being were well within acceptable parameters. Otherwise, not a big deal.

Chabon goes on to point out how it’s painfully clear that women don’t do that to each other in the store. They don’t go about congratulating each other on what a good mom they are simply for pushing a cart around. Good parenting is more about waking up in the middle of the night and worrying about your kids, about their development, their learning, their happiness, and all of the things they need to become fully-functioning, well-adjusted little grownups. His wife may have scheduled 3 doctor’s appointments, changed 12 diapers, nursed a flu sick kid back to health, and helped carve from scratch out of a block of wood a scale replica of the Statue of Liberty for a kid’s social science project all while performing an emergency tracheotomy with a drinking straw and a pen knife and nobody would say a word. That’s what’s expected of mothers. Dads, however, just have to not kill their offspring and they’re already well ahead of the curve.

I’ve experienced this a lot myself with my own kids. All their lives, aside from the last couple months while we’ve both been between jobs, I’ve been the one doing most of the day-to-day caretaking. I’ve gotten tons of compliments on fathering, both from family and strangers, most of the time for doing nothing in particular to deserve it (though, here and there, I think I’ve pulled off something pretty good and if you look in the aggregate, I’ve done better than just not kill them).

Chabon concludes by saying a simple “fuck you” to the lady with the rainbow-colored leggings and I, for one, think she had it coming. It was one of the highlights of the book for me. Men deserve recognition for being good fathers by virtue of having earned such a distinction, just as a mother would.

What prompted my thinking about that particular chapter in the book was this comment in a response piece by Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory:

Their argument is essentially that we need to encourage men to take active caretaking roles at home and at work. This means putting more emphasis on the importance of fatherhood and recasting so-called nurturing professions so that they no longer seem the sole domain of women. Another way of saying all that? Men need feminism. They are talking, after all, about equal opportunity and expectations, and greater freedom from restrictive gender roles — that’s the fundamental aim of feminism, as I understand it.

In this comment, she points out correctly the move that needs to happen. The authors of the original article think men should more often embrace the role of caretaker and Clark-Flory seems to recognize that the way to this is not just to toss more men into the role all willy-nilly, but to address the role and the social stigma that these professions are somehow less than masculine. How we get there is a different matter entirely, but I believe it involves focusing on full-fledged participation in and underscoring men’s obligation to having a healthy, happy and successful family as reflecting back on their masculinity. Men may not always be the breadwinner, which if we’re being honest is a pretty important but ultimately easy part of the family-raising  job, but they can still be responsible for the family as a whole unit. It goes beyond the mere financial, in other words.

Where I differ is the suggestion that men need feminism. “Greater freedom restrictive gender roles” is one one of the fundamental aims of feminism and is the most appropriate and laudable one for this, but it’s not the only aim of feminism, either. If you can ever express a complex philosophy/discipline like feminism in so few words, it’s sure to be not totally on the mark. For instance, I do think that a continued focus on equality is important for all genders (masculine, feminine, gay, straight, you name it), but I also think that a men’s discipline should focus on men as inherently different from women. It may never be exactly equal, but there is a difference between how I work in the family and how my wife does. There are inherently masculine approaches to problems (just as there are inherently feminine ones). Men don’t need to watch the View. They don’t need to decorate with fluffy pillows or watch design shows (inside joke). They can teach a kid to suck it up instead of crying and can be rougher. They can teach a sense of competitiveness, assertiveness and even healthy aggression that flies in the face of the whole “it only matters if everyone has fun,” “everyone’s a winner,” touchy-feely crap they get everywhere else. I’m not saying women can’t fill that dynamic either, but I think there are differences and we should be okay with that. See where I’m going? We need to take credit and even, dare I say it, pride in some of those masculine approaches, even when they appear to be (or perhaps because they are) not in the mainstream, more traditional, outmoded and sometimes even reactionary.

Jon Hamm endorsing John Ham

Image via Wikipedia

I’m also not sold on the idea of heralding all of the writing in mainstream media as the “New Macho.” I’m uncomfortable with packaging shit up like that, but I understand that that’s all part of what sells magazines. I suppose that talking about Jon Hamm’s Mad Men fashion is a part of the discussion, too. It just doesn’t really get to the point, isn’t as important and shouldn’t be treated as the main thing. There’s more at stake than just clothes. If there is suddenly a rejection of the “metrosexual” (and I never met anyone who fit that role exactly, but whatever), then let’s not fall into the same level of discourse as we did last go around. There are real things to talk about here that matter more than clothes.