Friday, April 10, 2009

Where's Daddy?

The search for a new mythology of fatherhood

Once upon a time, we thought we knew what it meant to be a father: dads supported the family, typically by going outside the home in order to protect and sustain it (this was the post-1850, post-industrialization, version of the story). This responsibility was the basis of the respect and authority fathers were presumed to command. Of course, not all fathers actually met these responsibilities; some could not, some would not. But whether or not they did, this was the standard both fathers and non-fathers had to live with -- and die with. It could be questioned, but no one thought it could be changed in such a way that any alterations could be thought of as "normal" in any broad or long-term way.

One group of people who were unhappy with this version of the story (though not necessarily the only ones) were those who we have come to know -- and know themselves, beginning almost exactly a hundred years ago -- as feminists. Feminists had a panoply of objections to this story. One obvious objection was the sometimes cavernous gap between the ideal and reality. Another was the way that the ideal itself generated its own problems in terms of saddling people with roles that could feel arbitrary, unnecessary, or simply oppressive.

These objections to the traditional story of fatherhood were part of a larger critique of gender relations that fell under the broad term of "patriarchy." Feminists didn't invent the word, but they gave it a set of valences and a sense of a focused analysis it never had before. And, as part of an ongoing struggle that remains ongoing, they explained that the gender status quo is just that: a mutable set of ideas and circumstances that could, in fact, be changed, resulting in laws (like those granting the right to vote) that ratified those changes.
This challenge to the status quo has become a drama, a story, in its own right, and gained momentum and legitimacy as structural changes in society have resulted in a world where men are not the only ones to work outside the home or earn wages, and men are in fact no longer considered indispensable for raising children -- or sperm donation aside (perhaps a temporary obstacle?), for conceiving them.

Opponents of the traditional version of fatherhood have managed to articulate another version of the story, and while it is not quite as clearly chiseled as the old one, it nevertheless has discernible contours, the essence of which is a notion of fathers as partners in an egalitarian process of raising emancipated children. It is no longer remarkable -- or, at least, it is no longer supposed to be remarkable -- to have Dads who cook, vacuum, change diapers, and function as stay-at-home parents while their spouses or partners (gender-neutral terms are preferable) serve as primary wage-earners. Notwithstanding the fact that this scenario remains exceptional, its social legitimacy is nevertheless an amazing accomplishment. Mythologies -- defined here as widely shared about notions about the way the world should work -- are perhaps the most elusive and yet durable products of a civilization.

Sometimes the feminists who managed to imagine this counter-narrative express dismay and exhaustion at just how hard it has been to bring it to life. They note, correctly, the old story has a powerful grip, and that the new one has failed to gain a secure purchase among father and non-father alike. And they note that the transmission of their story has resulted in sometimes ferocious opposition, opposition that is at times entirely out of proportion to what is, after all, only a story.

Actually, as many of them know, the story they have told is not only powerful, but has gained widespread acceptance even among people who might once have been skeptics. (Sometimes, this acceptance has ironic implications, as many fathers have used the feminist critique of patriarchy for self-indulgent ends. If fatherhood is about anything, we all understand, it is not about self-indulgence, whatever else it may be about.) Relatively few people accept the old version of patriarchy in its entirety, and even some of those who say they do cloak that allegiance in the public square or betray it in private.

Yet as many women and men are beginning to understand, the problem with the new story is not so much what it says but what it doesn't. The vision of fatherhood it seems to offer -- a vision of partnership in which gender roles (as opposed to sexual roles) are interchangeable -- lacks the vitality that can command the kind of loyalty that the old one, for better or worse, always has. One of the complexities feminism has struggled with is the messy reality that women tend to want to be recognized simultaneously both with and without regard to gender; they grapple with feminisms of difference as well as equality. Many men want this too, however vague or contradictory their desires.

One striking recent manifestation of this inchoate longing are the string of recent "bromance" movies that focus on intra-gender male relationships and the difficulties men have in navigating contemporary social life. The troubling implication of so many of these movies is that the only alternative to the cosmopolitan vision of heterosexual partnership -- an alternative that is inevitably temporary -- appears to be a kind of arrested development in which sexual men act as gendered boys. The notion of fatherhood is literally laughable (sometimes embodied in secondary characters or failed fathers of the protagonist), and like those eighteenth and nineteenth century novels for women that ended with marriage, these stories are almost invariably ones in which fatherhood is something that takes place offstage.

It seems like there is a space, a gap, for people -- scholars and artists, men and women -- who might ransack the historical closet and imagine a compelling ensemble of fatherhood that both accepts the realities of post-industrial capitalism, feminism, and the need for a sense of parenting truly rooted in a masculine vision. The fact that we live in a time when reproduction has been untethered from sex has done little to lessen the cultural importance of motherhood. Is it possible can find a way to keep a specifically male notion of fatherhood from becoming extinct? We've deconstructed patriarchy; is it possible to reconstruct a daddy we can live with?

Responses to this query are especially welcome.