It’s been several weeks since I posted anything. I have a good reason: we moved into a new house. After a year of dismal apartment living – cramped space, dilapidated appliances, ignored noise complaints, and lots and lots of bugs – we are now in our own home. Except for crickets in the woods, it is blissfully quiet. We have lots and lots of space. The appliances are new and very fancy. (Our refrigerator beeps if it’s left open.) We’ve even been reunited with the 40% of our stuff that was stashed in a storage unit. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was last night for me to open up boxes of books, feel them in my hands, then place them on shelves. I’m not planning on reading any of them, but after having them stuffed into boxes in the back of a dim storage garage for a year, it was nice to bring them home.
Our daughter, however, seems to be a little on the fence. She’s not explicit about it; if you were to ask her if she liked her new house, she’d probably say yes. There’s a tree swing in the yard that she loves. Her bedroom is pink, and she’s now sleeping in a “big girl bed.” Her books are all unpacked and her daddy’s set up the Netflix so she can watch Curious George when she earns screen time. She likes our neighbor next door and last night we found a collection of quartz geodes the previous owners seemed to have dumped out in the flowerbeds.
But it’s the fourth room she’s had in a little over a year. It’s all new. And, just like last year when we moved into the apartment in a brand new city, she’s acting out. I’d like to think it’s not as bad. After all, her teachers and friends and school and church are all the same. But she goes to sleep in a new bed at night and the car pulls into a different space and the faces of the neighbors are different. Some of her toys are still in boxes. And as she shouted at us in a moment of frustration the other night, “I don’t understand my room!”
I’m not entirely clear what that means, but it seems appropriate. There’s a lot in this world for a four-year-old to not understand. What she did understand, at least until last week, was what her room looked like and where her toys were and how bath time proceeded and even what roads we drove on. Once again, all of that is up in the air, and she is starting over to establish routines and familiarity.
We don’t plan on moving again for a very long time. Maybe ever. My child will hopefully move out eventually, but we plan on her spending a good fourteen years in this house. So I know she’ll get used to it, and when she’s an adult, she will no doubt think of this house in those moments when her memories turn wistfully to her childhood. I wish I could speed up her getting used to the house or, better yet, infect her with the same sense of relief and excitement that her parents feel to be living in such a wonderful place. Transition is hard for anyone, and for a little person, transition is experienced as five or ten times bigger than it is for adults. We’re employing every tactic we know of to reassure her that we are with her, that she is safe, that she can depend on us, that new routines are forming. But a four-year-old lives in a world of emotions and reactions, and she is going to feel out loud whatever she feels.
There’s something to be said about just living out your uncertainty. I wish it was taking more obedient, manageable forms. But I’m trying to admire her emotional honesty. Sometimes I don’t understand the world I live in, either, and that’s scary, particularly when it includes the one place you need to feel safe and familiar. As her parent, I think my job here is twofold. First, I’m trying to make room for her that she can understand. Not rationally, but in her heart. Secondly, I think I just have to keep loving her no matter how maddening her acting out becomes. Come to think of it, those are every parent’s jobs.
As the boxes continue to become unpacked, we will find our home, and so will our daughter. May you also continue to find room in your life that you understand, and find the space to feel your frustration when you don’t understand it.
Last week, The Cut
, the online fashion blog of New York Magazine
, published a piece
by Kat Stoeffel entitled “It Shouldn’t Take Having a Daughter For Men To Care About Feminism.” The hyperlink title was “Stop It, Dad Feminism, You’re Embarrassing Me.” Slate
, my all-time favorite magazine in any print medium, republished this article under the title “The Problem With Dad Feminism” with the hyperlink title “Dad Feminism: Why Having a Daughter Shouldn’t Make Men Care About Feminism.”
If I understand Stoeffel’s complaint, it’s that “dad feminism” – at least as it tends to live on the internet in the form of blogs, tweets, and other online ephemera – is condescending and patronizing. Her primary example is a recent post from the owner of an online hip-hop site who scolded pop star Nicki Minaj for the provocative cover of her latest single. I’m not going to wade into the issues of sexualized pop culture or the vast complexities of society’s objectification of women’s bodies right now. It’s a complex, difficult issue and I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on it. Stoeffel’s problem with this tsk-tsking is that it presents as a “fatherly” attempt to control Minaj’s use of her own body and image in the guise of all that he has learned since having a young daughter. The original title of the post makes the clearest statement of Stoeffel’s complaint, and she restates the thesis in the first paragraph: “[O]ften the writer-dad’s newfound sensitivity is overshadowed by his prior obliviousness: He was apparently unable to empathize with women before one sprung from his loins. Did he take nothing from his other encounters with half of humanity?”
This is dead on. Suddenly deciding that women are people because you want to protect your daughter from other men does not make you a feminist.
One would assume that before you had a daughter, you had a wife or girlfriend. Not to mention a mother. And, one would hope, female friends, coworkers, and neighbors. I completely get this. Talking down to women because you have a daughter is not “Dad Feminism,” it’s “Paternalism.”
(And I think it's fair to say moms do this, too.)
As a man who considers himself a feminist – at least to the degree that it is possible for someone who does not have the lived experience of being a woman to claim the title – I can say that my feminist leanings did not start the day my daughter was born. I’d like to think that I was not previously oblivious to the struggles of women in our culture and whatever sensitivity I have is not completely new. However. Whatever is meant by the term “Dad Feminism,” I can’t help but feel defensive. When I read the term in the article titles, I immediately identified with it, only to be offended to have it suggested that Dad Feminism is an embarrassing problem.
I certainly don’t understand why having a daughter shouldn’t make men care about feminism (although, to be fair, I don’t think Stoeffel suggested this). There are, of course, lots and lots of other things besides having a daughter that should make men care about feminism.
You know, like a desire for justice and equity in the world. Or basic sensitivity to the needs of other human beings. Or, at the least, the selfish recognition that patriarchy is also oppressive to men. But having a daughter should make men more interested in feminism.
Here is where I want to take my stand in defining what I think “Dad Feminism” should be. Having a daughter should make men interested in feminism. So, too, should having a son.
I considered myself a feminist (again, with the caveat that I can only claim that title to a certain degree) before having my daughter, but I consider myself more
feminist now because I am a parent.
I think – I could be wrong, it’s hard to tell for sure – but I think it’s safe to say that I am more of a feminist because I had a child. Caring for and about my child made me more of a feminist. It also made me more of an environmentalist. And more of a pacifist. And more of an LGBTQ ally. And more concerned about racial equality. And economic parity. And educational access.
In short, becoming a parent – having the responsibility of bringing up a young life in this society – has made me more sensitive and concerned about the struggles of all people. It starts with my love for my child who, as genetic chance should have it, was born a girl. And from there it opens up my heart even more to others. Because yes: I see suffering in the world and think, “What if that were my child?” When I read about rape victims dismissed by universities and police, I become incensed. It starts by realizing connecting to that person as someone’s child, then telegraphs to how I would feel if it were my
child, then opens me up to paying attention to the full personhood of human beings who suffer rape, humiliation, and other sexual abuse. The same thing happens when I read about Palestinian children killed when their school is bombed. Or when I hear the dire predictions of climate change on this planet. Or see the abuse heaped on people who are transgendered, or the vast injustices that face non-white Americans, or the impossible burdens of being poor. I don’t want these things for my child, and I don’t want them for anyone’s child. The crazy protective love I have for my child has broken open wider the empathy I feel for other people's suffering.
Yes, it runs the risk of paternalism. I accept that. I will work to keep from being patronizing, of treating people who aren’t my child as if they were my child. But I will not renounce my indebtedness to my daughter for making me more deeply sensitive to the suffering in the world.
You certainly don’t have to be a parent to start caring about injustice; I agree that you should have started that long ago. But for this writer, I wholeheartedly claim that becoming a father has intensified my heart for other people. One day I will turn my child loose into this world and it terrifies me. I am not ashamed to be a Dad Activist in the hopes that this world might be a slightly better place for everyone's children. So please tell me if I am clueless, patronizing, or patriarchal. I’ve never wanted that for myself. But do not scold or patronize me for having my heart opened more deeply because of the fierce love I have for my child. My role as a dad has an awful lot to do with my newfound dedication to bringing change to the world, clumsy as I might sometimes be at it. The work of healing and reconciliation is difficult and I care a great deal about it. I will not be silent when my efforts to engage in this work are dismissed because they come out of my identity as a father.
We bought our daughter her first Bible.
It’s actually kind of not really a Bible. It’s a translation put out by the American Bible Society that is heavy on illustrations and selective on stories, with occasionally heavy-handed theological interpretations at times. (Did God really have a plan for Joseph the whole time? Or did Joseph just think God had a plan?) Whole chunks of the actual Bible are skipped completely. Want to guess how much of Leviticus and Numbers are illustrated for your child? That’s right: zero percent. (Which, honestly, is probably a good call.) So it’s not a real Bible. But it feels like a good start. And we found it used for fifty cents, so there’s the savings to consider.
She is the one who asked for a Bible. We’ve been reading books to her literally since we brought her home from the hospital, so books are a familiar and exciting experience for her. She’s also been going to church and Sunday School for almost the same amount of time. She’s four, and she’s old enough to notice that her church lessons all come from a book called the Bible. So she wanted one for us to read at home.
Our purchase of a Bible, along with intentional reading from it – every night, we read three or four stories to her – coincides with a recent study
published in the journal Cognitive Science
suggesting that kids “from a religious background” have a harder time differentiating between fact and fiction. Three types of stories were told to children: 1) obviously real stories, 2) religiously themed stories featuring divine intervention, and 3) stories without religious themes but still featuring some magically impossible event. “Secular” children distinguished the second and third stories to be fiction, whereas children who “went to church or were enrolled in parochial school” were less likely to describe the second or third stories to be fictional.
The age range of these kids was five- and six-year olds. Which is an odd range to choose from, given that it’s exactly the cusp at which children move from preoperational thinking into concrete operational thought. Or, put another way, this is exactly the age in which children start to question whether Santa Claus is real. The authors of the study seem to think that religion encourages magical thinking among children. Which, each night that I’m reading the Bible to my four-year-old, leads me to a couple of thoughts: A) What is the context in which we tell our children biblical stories? B) Aren’t children magical thinkers anyway? C) Is magical thinking such a terrible thing?
My guess is that “religious” kids means kids who are taught that stories of faith – hell, who am I kidding, if this study took place in America, then we mean stories from the Bible – are literally true. Drawing a strict line in the ground about the factual bases of certain biblical stories probably does get confusing to children. If we teach our children that Jonah was a real person who was actually swallowed by a real whale, then I don’t suppose it would be much more of a leap for that child to believe that Santa Claus really fits in the chimney, or that a prince was actually turned into a frog. Children really aren’t developed enough to distinguish between different types of magical thinking like adults are.
This is because children are magical thinkers by their developmental nature.
If the researchers really wanted to alarm me, they should have done their study with nine- and ten-year-olds. You know why they didn’t? Because kids that age, even kids who believe that the Bible is literally true, know how to distinguish between reality and fantasy. I dare you to go to the most conservative church you can find and ask the ten-year-olds there if real people can do impossible magical things, and they will probably say no. Perhaps a literal biblical education might delay the transition into concrete operational thought, but I hardly believe that the strictest of churches is raising children who cannot differentiate reality from fantasy.
Last of all, I find myself circling back to the question: what’s so bad about magical thinking? Because, let’s face it, we never grow out of that.
I don’t just mean adults who believe the Bible is literal; I mean everyone
relies on some kind of magical thinking. You remember that relationship where you were sure if you worked hard enough you could change the other person? Magical thinking. Do you eat “super foods” in order to cleanse unseen toxins from your system? Magical thinking. Do you ever talk out loud to a loved one who has died? Or think that you have control over what happens to you? Or that your life on this earth has a purpose? Magical thinking, all of it. Do you believe in the power of love? Because, folks, thinking doesn’t get more magical than that.
I could spend a lot of energy parsing the ways that magical thinking could be both negative and positive. There are lots of ways that magical thinking has contributed to pain and suffering; just look at the anti-vaccine movement. There are also ways that magical thinking makes a difference for the better. I daresay that not a little bit of magical thinking inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to believe that a hatefully segregated country could change for the better.
Instead of trying to categorize magical thinking into good and bad types, I’d rather just sit with my daughter in her magical worlds. She isn’t quite old enough to be asking if the stories we read are real. She doesn’t care; they’re books
. She loves the stories and it doesn’t matter to her if they are factual or not; they’re real
in the sense that they are stories she loves. She is old enough to ask about things that happen to us
are real. If I tell her I saw a dragon at work, she’ll ask, “For real?” And I’ll say, “Not for real.” And we’ll laugh. But she doesn’t point to the dragons in her books and say, “Are these real?” They’re real to her in that moment.
This is why I love the Bible. The stories of the Bible are real to me. Not literally, factually real. But real in a deeper, more powerful sense. Yes, even a magical
sense. The ways I find myself in the biblical narratives have changed over and over throughout the years of my life, depending on who I am and how I’m growing and changing. That’s why I’ve learned to call the Bible the “living word.” If it were just a book of facts, it wouldn’t be alive. If I have to choose between inanimate data and a little bit of lively magic to determine the meaning in my life, I will choose the magic. Because, come on – who wants to live a life deprived of magic?
It won’t be long before my daughter does start asking of the books we read, “Is this real?” That will include the Bible. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll say, but it will probably be something like, “What do you think?” That’s not a dodge; it’s an invitation to soak in the stories. I don’t fret about the day she questions whether or not the Cat in the Hat exists, and I’m not going to fret about the day she questions whether or not Adam and Eve are real. It’s not that I think these stories are equally important in my life. I haven’t shaped my life around the stories of Dr. Seuss (although that would probably be a life well lived). We all choose the narratives that inform our lives, and there’s a very real communal power in joining together with narratives that are ancient and have informed centuries of people’s lives and movements, for better or worse. I’m glad to pass down the narratives that have informed my life, but if those stories are going to enrich my child’s life, I have to let go of my need to control them. That’s how she reads stories – as beautiful living things that invite her into new and magical worlds, not sets of files to be manipulated and monitored. I consider myself a scientific person. I’m not one for superstition or illusion. I am, however, one for imagination. I’m all for dreaming, for being visionary that extend beyond what I can touch, for embracing whimsy and creativity. These things don’t conflict; most scientists are deeply imaginative, curious people who look high up at the stars or deep into the atoms and wonder. This is the magic invitation of stories: to wonder. Peace, hope, love – these things are magic. When I sit down each night to read with my daughter, whether it’s about taco-loving dragons, or Max sailing in and out of days, or Moses parting the Red Sea, I join my child in wondering about and over the world. I join her in living a magic-filled life.
Here in the Queen City, the thirteenth largest city in America, traffic can sometimes be a problem. All it takes is for one car to stop working properly in a congested area, and it takes thirty minutes to drive to the end of the block. It comes with the territory of living here. Still, it sucks. It also sucks when you’re stuck with your kid in the back after a particularly terrible day at work while it is pouring down the rain. With people honking at you because you happen to be in front of them or beside them. Also, you’re only fifty yards from your home.
This happened a few nights ago. My child weathered it pretty well. She didn’t fuss or cry. She did repeat many, many times, “I want to be home.” But my frustration wasn’t due to her behavior. For once, a four-year-old behaved better than every adult surrounding her.
No one enjoys being stuck in rush hour traffic that is further convoluted due to a fender bender that shuts down two lanes. I get that it’s no fun for anyone. I don’t get taking it out on all the drivers who are not responsible. Why are you honking and yelling at me? Why don’t you pull up next to the drivers of the wrecked cars and the police officers who blocked the lane and yell at them? This ridiculous, terrible behavior does not, I hate to say, bring out the best in me. At one point I lost my temper such that I yelled back at a fellow motorist a terribly profane phrase. Nothing original, but pretty high up there on the obscenity scale.
As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted it. Stupid, I thought. That motorist couldn’t hear me; I had my windows rolled up. But you know who could hear me? The four-year-old in the backseat. I immediately bit my lip and prayed in the pregnant paused that followed that she hadn’t heard it.
“Daddy?” she said after a moment. “Why did you say that?”
“Say what?” Adolescent denial.
Then she repeated it back to me. With impeccable enunciation.
“I didn’t say that,” I said.
“What did you say then?” she asked. A perfectly reasonable question.
My mind raced to try to come up with a sound-alike phrase that would fit the situation. Shucks, fool? Duck poo? Stuck, too? (Why didn’t I just say “Forget you”? Why can’t I hear Cee-Lo when it’s helpful?)
I couldn’t come with anything other than, “Something else.” Something else. Desperately grasping at any way to downplay the situation, suck it dry of any significance that would keep the phrase memorable in her impressionable young mind.
“Why did you say that?” she asked again.
“Daddy is really frustrated and is saying nonsense things,” I managed.
This seemed to satisfy her, and she went back to singing a song about wanting to be home.
Now, along with my fury at being stuck in traffic within eyesight of both other motorists with displaced rage and my own living room, self-loathing crept in. I am a terrible father. I have now taught my four-year-old daughter one of the few remaining phrases in vernacular English that can still elicit gasps of horror and shock. I flashed forward to the day that I would pick her up at daycare – daycare! – and her teacher would say to me softly, “We heard her say something troubling…” and I would have to admit it was all my fault, she learned it from me, because I am a terrible father and it’s only a matter of time before my daughter becomes a stripper in a biker gang.
After some minutes of us idling on the road, her singing a cheerful song about wanting to be home while I stewed in my shame and remorse, traffic began to move. Of course, I was in the lane that was blocked. I put on my signal and attempted to merge, but of course several cars ignored me and passed me. Infuriated again, I opened my mouth to curse. Thankfully, my sense of dishonorable parental failure was overwhelming, and so instead of profanity, I growled at these cars, “You are not kind!”
“Who’s not kind, Daddy?” she asked.
“These cars are not kind because they didn’t let me over,” I explained.
Then a car did let me over. I waved in relief.
“What about that car behind us?” she asked.
“Yes, that car was kind to me.”
Finally, we pulled inside our apartment complex. I stopped by the mailboxes to pick up our mail, rushing out into the rain while my daughter waited in the car. As I gathered up the mail and headed back to the car, several packages stuck under my arm, the rain still pouring down, some guy stopped me.
“Excuse me,” he said, “can you help me open my mailbox?”
I stopped, rain coming down, my annoyance barely contained. Seriously? All I wanted was to get home in out of the rain, get my child inside, and give her some coloring books and toys that would help cover over any imprint of my terrible parenting.
“I can’t get the door open,” the guy said again. It seemed like the quickest way to get him to leave me alone was to open his mailbox for him. He handed his key to me and showed me his mailbox. I put the key in and snapped it open. I had no idea what would be keeping him from doing this task for himself – if he’d been putting the key in the wrong way or turning it the wrong way or not holding his mouth right – but the ease in which it took to open his box just angered me more. You couldn’t figure this out on your own? I thought. You need help opening a damn mailbox? What are you gonna do when you get your mail tomorrow, come to my apartment and knock on the door and ask me to open it again?
“Thank you!” he said. “Have a good night!”
I mumbled a “you’re welcome” and ran back to the car, rain dripping down behind my ears. I jumped in and shut the door, started the car, trying hard to keep my frustration from bubbling over.
“Daddy,” my daughter said in the back, “you were kind to that man.”
My hands froze on the steering wheel. “Was I?”
“Yes. You helped him. That was kind of you.”
Tears of shame and disappointment filled my eyes. I hadn’t been feeling any kindness towards that poor man. I helped him, but I was as begrudging as I could be about it. I’ve no doubt that man felt my irritation, as if he were just one more inconvenience to me. I hadn’t been any more kind or compassionate than those cars honking and zipping past me.
I have a lot of shame about my failings as a father. I lose my temper far more than I want. I say things I shouldn’t ever say. Sometimes I’m inconsistent in how I affirm or discipline my child. I let my irritation get the better of me. None of this is helped when my child can ironically, if unintentionally, point out to me how much I’m failing to be the kind of person that I want to teach my child to become. It is a particularly painful humbling when children behave better than the adults around them.
When we finally got inside the apartment, Mommy was there to greet us. The first thing my child told her was that Daddy was kind. “Really?” Mommy said, smiling at me without any knowledge of the darkness that had been brewing in me for the past half hour. She recounted the story of how I had helped a man at the mailbox. She didn’t tell my spouse anything about how angry I was. She didn’t mention the strange word Daddy had used. She didn’t talk about the traffic or the rain or the unkind cars or the simmering rage in Daddy’s hunched shoulders and scowling eyes.
If you know me at all, then you know I’m not going to let myself off the hook for the ways I fall short as a parent. Thankfully, my child seems to be much more gracious than I am. Thirty minutes of watching her father at his worst, and what does she remember? The one nice thing I did for someone else. Perhaps I am too pessimistic about the world, jaded from the years of violent news headlines and fickle friends and the disappointments of an arbitrary universe. Perhaps I am too quick to assume that my child will only absorb the bad things because I have let myself become saturated with bad things. Perhaps I should stop underestimating the durability of kindness.
My child can be unkind. She gets mean sometimes. I still need to be vigilant in keeping her from picking up new ways of being cruel to others. But I should probably give her more credit for her graciousness, kindness, and optimism about other people. I should also probably give myself a little more credit for the small ways I uphold and encourage her to be the sort of person I value. And maybe along the way I will get imprinted to be more kind and gracious and forgiving.
I took my daughter to see her uncle’s grave. She is named after my brother, who died of cancer when he was fifteen. In the last week of his life, he made me promise that I would tell my children about him
. Of course I’ve told my daughter about her uncle, about how she is named after him, about how he died long before she was born. We were in my hometown for the holiday weekend and it just seemed like perhaps she might be old enough now to understand a little better what all of this meant.
I told her we were going to visit the uncle she’d heard about. We pulled into the cemetery, admiring the fountain and duck pond by the entrance. When we got out of the car and she looked around, she asked, “Where are we?” I suppose that being surrounded by gravestones on a hot July afternoon is a striking sight if you’ve never experienced it before.
“This is a graveyard,” I told her. “It’s where we bury people after they die. Their bodies come here and we put them in the ground.” She has asked about death. I think she vaguely understands that dying means you are gone and you don’t come back, but I don’t think she comprehends the concreteness of this. To her, death is what happens in a story when bad guys are removed from the narrative. She does not understand death to be the crushingly final nothingness of loss that all of us one day face.
We walked to my brother’s headstone, a modest flat slab in the ground. She was distracted by the hundreds of flowers all around, picking up a pink plastic petal that had blown off of a display. I pointed to the stone and said, “Your uncle is buried here.” We knelt down and I pointed to the letters of his first name, which nearly match the letters of hers. I started pulling grass back from around the edges of the stone, and she eagerly chipped in. My tears came easily, as they do when I visit his grave, but I had on sunglasses and my daughter didn’t notice. After a minute or two, she ran off to look at flowers. She picked some wild dandelions and brought them to me and her mother.
“Do you want to leave these for your uncle?” I said, laying my dandelion down on the headstone.
This made her upset. “I picked it for you,” she insisted.
“Well, can I leave it here?”
“But it’s yours!”
With some cajoling we convinced her to let us arrange the dandelions on her uncle’s grave, but she seemed hurt that we didn’t want to carry the flowers back to the car with us. She had a point.
I’ve always been really clear that the grave of my brother is not where my brother is. It marks the place where his bones are, but a padded box filled with the bones that once gave his body structure is not my brother. I go to his grave every year (or less) not to visit my brother, but rather to visit some geographical location that is symbolic of all the memories I carry of him. My brother isn’t his grave any more than Jesus is any particular crucifix.
Just driving to the grave evokes memories – “That’s where our friend Matt used to live; that’s where my high school girlfriend lived; there’s our old church; we used to eat at that restaurant all the time.” Before we went to the grave, we met two of my high school friends and their families for lunch at an old landmark deli. In a clever (or perhaps cruel) twist of fate, the deli had some 90’s pop hit station playing music: Counting Crows, 10,000 Maniacs, the Cranberries, Blind Melon. All the music my brother loved.
The recollections of him aren’t really him, either. Of course, what is really him is gone. That’s what death does to us, it erases the essence of who we are from this plane of existence. It removes us from our own narrative. From our loved ones’ narratives, too; but those narratives continue. The cruelest truth of death may be that the narrative doesn’t end with us. It keeps going and we are forced to revise a narrative without someone we love. That is where my brother is: in the ongoing narrative of my life, of the lives of others who loved him. My brother is in the work I do with others, in the ways I love my parents and my spouse, in the hopes I have for my daughter. Clearly, for she carries his name, even though I am under no illusion that she is anything other than her own unique person.
I was reminded of this in her insistence that we take the dandelions with us. Her uncle isn’t at the grave for her any more than he is for me. To her, my brother is with me. Particularly in the stories I tell of him. She knows that is where her name comes from, she knows that I once had a brother. It gives her a little practice at playing with the idea of emptiness and want. She knows what a brother is, but, like me, does not have one. Training wheels for grief: she can roll around the idea that there is something in the world she doesn’t have, watching me carry that burden with (hopefully) some grace and gratitude.
Maybe we shouldn’t have left the dandelions on the headstone. We could have honored my daughter’s gift to us as her parents, as the source of stories and growth and protection. Those of us who have suffered loss certainly want to honor our predecessors who taught us how to live. I want to pass these things down to my child, and to her children after her. But I don’t think those who went before us are the only ones who teach us to live. After all, the narrative doesn’t end with us.
Our daughter is spending all of this week with her Grammy and Pappy in Tennessee. Last night, while we Facetimed with her, she gave us this sweet little interaction:
(sad face) Mommy, Daddy, I miss you. Are you coming soon? I have to go play! Bye-bye! (runs off)
Typical crazy schizoid toddler reaction? Maybe. Or maybe it’s one of the most adult things she’s done. I contend that maturity means being able to hold two or more conflicting feelings, attitudes, or experiences without the need to resolve or explain them. Comfort and familiarity with ambiguity is a rather grown-up trait, being able to affirm “yes” and “no” at the same time. I appreciate that my child can, to some degree, hold the mixed feelings of both missing her parents and being delighted that she has so much time to play with her grandparents (and without us).
If parenthood has taught me anything, it’s how to similarly hold conflicting, contradictory attitudes at the same time. For instance, I have had basically the exact same reaction to her being in Tennessee: Wow, I really miss my daughter! Also, I am so thrilled that I have the entire night to myself! I wish that she were here with us and I am so glad she is not here with us. All adults find their way to embracing the various paradoxes of this life; you certainly don’t have to have children. But that sure has helped me develop this trait.
Other contradictions I have learned to embrace as a parent:
I wish my child had a sibling so she could experience those parts of life that only come with having another playmate/enemy living with you. And absolutely none percent of me wants there to be another baby in my home.
I really want her to learn to play by herself and not need my attention all the time. I also love it when she wants my attention.
I hate Curious George, but I love reading and/or watching Curious George with my daughter.
I can’t stand the thought of being one of those parents who is too invested in his child, but I kind of am that parent and am pretty much fine with it.
Other parents annoy the hell out of me when they talk on and on about their child, but I don’t want to hang out with them if they don’t.
I love every single thing about my child, except all those things that drive me nuts.
For instance, I’m thrilled that we are raising an independent, strong-willed girl. And also it is completely infuriating when she is independent and strong-willed.
Not a day goes by that I don’t want my old childless life back, but I would never in a million years want my life to be different than it is now.
Come to think of it, maybe living comfortably within contradictions isn’t something you have to grow into. Maybe we’re born with that; maybe my child’s simultaneous feelings of homesickness and joy at being away are the more natural state of being. Maybe we struggle to get rid of that as we age, desperately trying to land on a single thing and stick with it in the name of consistency, or safety, or clarity, or integration. Maybe maturity means reclaiming our comfort with paradox, of returning to a more innocent, fluid approach to the world. Maybe mental health is about saying yes and no at the same time. Maybe a strict adherence to singularity is what ultimately makes us crazy.
Or maybe it’s children that make us crazy. Whetevs. Sanity is great and I sure work for it, but I also love the craziness of having a four-year-old run roughshod over my life.
Last night, I witnessed a tragedy in our kitchen. Spoonman. May a flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.
For her birthday several weeks ago, she received a “Souper Action Figure Spoon” from one of my colleagues. She reported that her children loved to eat with it and, sure enough, so did my child. We affectionately named him Spoonman, partly in honor of the Soundgarden song, but also partly because he is a man with a spoon for a head. In the past few weeks, my child has usually asked at breakfast or dinner if Spoonman was clean so that she could use him to eat.
Yesterday, Spoonman went missing. He could not be found at breakfast, and there was no time to search for him. By dinner time, we had forgotten about him. (We had spaghetti, which is more of a fork meal, at least for a four-year-old.) Cleaning up and washing the dishes, I dumped uneaten noodles down the garbage disposal and flipped the switch. A terrible sound of grinding and cracking filled the room, and I quickly turned off the disposal and water to see what had gotten caught. I reached in and pulled out a single purple arm.
“Uh oh,” I said.
“What is it?” my spouse asked. She and my daughter were looking at me from the dinner table with concern.
Looking tenderly at Curly Fries, I said, “I’m so sorry.”
She hopped down from her chair, came rushing into the kitchen, and saw the single arm lying on the kitchen counter. For just a sliver of a second I saw a quiet look of recognition slip over her face. And then in an instant she exploded into weeping, her fingers flying up to her face, her body bent over with the force of her wails. “No no no!” she sobbed, tears pouring from her eyes, her face scrunched into a grimace. “He was brand new! He was just brand new!”
Her mother came over, knelt beside her, held her close. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
“Fix him, Daddy!” she beseeched me. “Please, just fix him! Put him back together!”
I dug another few pieces out of the disposal. A split torso, a severed black foot, the head of a spoon. “I can’t fix him,” I said softly.
At the gruesome sight of these pieces spread out on the counter, she fell to the floor. “Brand new!” she kept crying. “He was brand new!”
As a hospital chaplain, this was a familiar scene. I’ve seen many a family frantically rushing into the emergency department, following up a vague and ominous call from the hospital. Standing in the doorway, they see me, then look past me and catch just a single glimpse of the loved one’s lifeless form. They collapse into tears, wailing and pleading and weeping as I try to provide them support and care. Granted, the stakes in my kitchen last night were undeniably much lower than those hospital scenes of heartbreak and loss. But the reaction was identical.
It was such a familiar emotional display to me, in fact, that I started to cry, too. Of course, like all parents do when their child has a toy break, we began to promise that we’d get another one. But that statement was as efficacious to her as if I’d suggested to a shocked and grieving widow that she could find a new husband. She only cried harder.
I’ve seen my child cry about a lot of things. I’ve seen her cry over broken and lost toys before. But this scene was viscerally painful for me. I’ve walked with a lot of bereaved families in some of the most tragic circumstances that they had ever faced. I’ve seen a lot of people break down at the inexorably terrible news that their lives have been forever changed. I’ve heard the heartrending howls of lovers and children and parents suddenly pushed into the deep end of loss. Every one of those families’ losses has affected me. I carry their grief with tenderness and care and I count myself as blessed to help them hold the love and loss as the one who found himself in a position of showing them a small piece of love and care.
Last night I got just the tiniest glimpse of what it would look like if it were my own child. It was terrifying. I know it was just a spoon and it was just our kitchen, but for a moment it felt to me much bigger and scarier and awful. I don’t mean to suggest that my child experienced a similar loss as those families grieving loved ones. I do, however, mean to suggest that she had a similar emotional reaction. On a much smaller scale, my child experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of something she loved, and her emotional response mirrored the typical patterns of human loss that I’ve witnessed so many times. In that moment, I was telegraphed forward to some tragic possible future, when my own child might be one of those families in the hospital, responding to the loss of a friend, a lover, or perhaps even me.
I know, this is some heavy shit to get into over a spoon. But I do think this is the kind of heartbreak we open ourselves up to as parents. Or, for that matter, as people who love other people. We worry and we hurt and we fear for those we love. We get these flashes sometimes of how much we love someone through the flashing realization that if something happened to them it would devastate us. We feel the suffering of others as if it were our own, and the stronger our love, the more overwhelming the sharing of their suffering.
I believe, as a chaplain and a caregiver and person who wants to maximize the output of love in the universe, that this empathy to suffering makes us better at loving other people. As I stood over her, trying to reassure her to no avail that we could easily buy another Spoonman, I let the crazy association with a grieving family take over. Fighting back my own tears, I knelt down beside her, the crushed pieces of her beloved spoon action figure in my hand. “Do you want to say goodbye?” I said, my other arm around her, holding her tight.
“He was brand new,” she whimpered.
“I know,” I said. “I’m so sorry this happened. I wish I could fix him for you. I can see how sad you feel.”
I kissed her and let her cry until she said, “Goodbye, Spoonman.”
Of course, a replacement Spoonman is already on its way. (And thanks to Amazon Prime shipping, his miraculous resurrection will be faster than the three-day standard.) What loving parent wouldn’t instantly fix his child’s suffering? If the disposal hadn’t mangled and broken the plastic into pieces, I’d have glued him back together for an even quicker fix. I’m already looking forward to her reaction when she gets Spoonman 2 in the mail. One day, however, I know I won’t be able to fix it for her. My fierce love for her will fight that day tooth and nail. But when it comes, I want to be there for her to hold her suffering with her, to kiss her and wish with her that the world could be a little different. And when the day comes that I can’t be there for her, when she suffers losing me, then I want her to have learned that grief is the privilege that accompanies love. I’m so grateful that I am the person entrusted to love and care for her, no matter how much it may one day hurt.
Anytime someone on American Idol
or The Voice
or whatever current popular TV show featuring “regular” young people who are seeking to achieve their dream of being a pop artist for a few months tells the camera with complete sincerity that they have been singing ever since they were a little kid, I think: BFD, man. Everyone
has been singing since they were a little kid. Little kids love to sing. Singing as a little kid doesn’t make you a pop star phenomenon; it makes you a human being
. Perhaps pop stars are better at it than the rest of us, but they didn’t start any earlier. All kids love to sing. This is one of my favorite things that my child does: singing.
Pop star is not high up on the list of things she’s likely to become in her lifetime (although I’d put it higher on the list than, say, a Republican senator or New York Times
editor). This is why children singing is so adorable and awesome: my child is not concerned about how she sounds or whether anyone thinks she is any good. If she auditioned for Simon Cowell, she would laugh at his disdain and sing louder. Singing is fun, it’s loud, it’s expressive, and you can do it anywhere. It’s the perfect activity.
There are so many popular children’s songs for this very reason. My daughter has her favorites: “Wheels On the Bus” is still a favorite
of hers, as is “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” She has a few she’s learned from our favorite children’s music composer, Sandra Boynton
. She also loves “Rocky Top” and has nearly every verse memorized, which is, of course, the single greatest achievement any Tennessee parent could hope for their four-year-old. On top of all these songs, which my child will sing with abandon, enthusiasm, and a complete lack of accuracy, my child loves to sing original compositions.
Her most recent, an impromptu composition she sang for me at my request, went something like this: Jesus is working Jesus is working Working, working, working Jesus is working
Simple and direct, yet with many possible interpretations, it has deeply spiritual connotations as well as whiffs of earthly sweat and toil. (Call me for the rights, Jack White!) Other song topics have been butterflies, sunshine, knowledge, Daddy cleaning dishes after dinner, and a nonsense word called “Luhnyah.” These songs could comprise either the next Ke$ha record or the next Bjork record, just depends on the arrangements. Occasionally she will Glee
-fully mash her songs into a single medley, so that you get one whole song about Jesus and butterflies and sunshine and knowledge. (Now it’s an India.Arie record.) Singing is such a beautiful gift.
It’s amazing to watch your infant child begin to discover the use of her voice for the purpose of talking, but singing is an art. Singing is discovering not just that you can communicate, but that you have a musical instrument in your very body. It’s freeing and embodying and empowering.
It’s a completely unique experience, and yet doing it with others creates a powerful sense of community and belonging. The Psalmist wrote, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise” (98:4). Children do this intuitively and guilelessly. It makes me happy and jealous at the same time.
When do we stop singing as we grow up? I know that many of us don’t; you don’t have to be a pop star to love to sing. We have church choirs and community choruses and family gatherings around a piano. I know plenty of adults who sing, some professionally and amazingly well. But I don’t know lots of adults who sing with the kind of reckless abandon as children. When do we get so concerned about how well we sing? About whether we sing the right songs, or sing the correct lyrics, or sing songs at all? When do we become self-conscious, saving our songs only for socially sanctioned settings? Why are we not singing literally all the time? My child is. Children understand the primal significance of singing. Sadness, joy, excitement, nonsense: nothing conveys these things as beautifully as singing a song. I hope I can take singing lessons from my child, learning to loosen all those inhibitions and judgments that keep me from breaking out into song at work or in the grocery aisle or in the shower. It’s not impressive to hear someone explain their love of music by saying they sang all the time as a little kid. What’s impressive is if you are still singing as a little kid once you’re grown.
Earlier this week, rocking my daughter before bed, she said, “Tell me a story.”
“The one about the dinosaur?”
“No, a different one.”
She shrugged. “Anything. You pick.”
I was not in my most creative frame of mind and was having trouble coming up with something. So I went with the story most familiar to my heart, the story that filled my childhood and helped to teach me the basic moral understandings of the universe.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
I recounted for her how the gallant Princess Leia of Alderaan is captured by the nefarious Darth Vader, but is able to send a message with the plucky droids C-3PO and R2-D2 who escape and land on a desert planet called Tatooine. There they are captured by Jawas before being bought by an earnest farmboy named Luke Skywalker. R2-D2 sets off alone into the wilderness to fulfill his promise to Princess Leia to find Ob-Wan Kenobi, and Luke sets off in search of the little droid.
“We have to stop there,” I told her, noticing how late it was getting.
“No!” she insisted, her eyes wide. “What happens to Princess Leia?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
She reluctantly agreed to go to bed. As her mother tucked her in, I heard her recount the story: “Princess Leia was locked up by Darth Vader and couldn’t escape. And the one robot was knocked over by the little creatures who talked like this: ‘Yimee yimee!’ And then Luke drove the other robot into the desert in his car.”
My spouse came out of her room and asked me, “Did you tell her about Star Wars?”
The next morning, the very first out of my daughter’s mouth when she saw me: “Tell me the next part about Princess Leia.”
All week, in fact, she has been asking me for “the next part.” I have the movie memorized; I literally can recount it scene for scene and nearly line for line. I was born a year after the first Star Wars film was released and I cannot remember a time in my life that I didn’t know its story. I remember my parents taking me to see The Empire Strikes Back at a drive-in movie theater, although that memory seems suspect since I would have been only two years old when it was released. But the Star Wars characters have been a part of my life since I can remember. I had the action figures; I had the picture books accompanied by 45 records that required me to turn the page every time R2-D2 chirped; I even slept with a stuffed Ewok at night. There are plenty of other stories that have had profound impacts on my life – books like Where The Wild Things Are, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Prayer For Owen Meany; movies like The Godfather, Forrest Gump, any Pixar movie; TV shows like The X-Files and The Wire. But all of those held sway over particular periods of my life. But there are only two stories that have had a consistent lasting effect over every moment of my life, having existed in my consciousness since I was born and every moment since: Star Wars and the Bible.
We’ve now started to have the conversation about how old a child should be before letting them watch Star Wars for the first time. I know that I was well aware of the stories before I was her age, although the only time I distinctly remember watching any of the first movies and truly understanding the stories was when Return of the Jedi was released. I was five years old and my father took me to see it in the theater and I remember feeling as if I were coming in to the last chapter of a story I already subconsciously knew. I didn’t directly remember how Han Solo had gotten frozen in carbonite, but I understood he needed rescuing and had the faintest of mental images of him surrounded by orange and purple as Leia and Chewbacca looked on helplessly. Is my child any less ready to watch these films than I was at her age? It’s not any scarier than other movies she’s watched – Monsters Inc. has plenty of scary moments, and she loves that movie. It’s perhaps more violent than the movies she’s used to watching, but I’m of the opinion that children are far more aware of violence and death than we give them credit for. (See: Grimm’s fairy tales.)
I’ve decided, for now, not to show her the movies. Not because I think she’s not ready for them, but because I want to preserve the power of myth that resides in the oral tradition. Much has been made about the Joseph Campbell mythical hero quest arc that George Lucas so deftly utilized (or stole) to craft his epic space opera. The story of Star Wars has, in effect, been told for centuries in the epics of Gilgamesh, the Arabian Nights, Greek mythology, and the folklore of King Arthur. This powerful “monomyth” of the noble journey, or the struggle for what is right, of the transformative influence of fellow travelers and friends in a protagonist’s bildungsroman; this is, in effect, the story of humankind. These are archetypes that inform and order our experience of the universe. These stories are everywhere. In many ways, we cannot not tell this story to our children, from the stories of the Bible to The Cat In the Hat. Asking whether or not my child is ready for the story is ridiculously redundant. Not only does she already know the story, she’s already retelling it.
The reason that Generation Xers hated the Star Wars prequels isn’t just because they were bad movies. I believe they were inferior to the first three, but the first three aren’t exactly cinematic masterpieces. There’s plenty of awkward dialogue, wooden acting, and pandering optimism (I don’t care about Lucas’ revisionism: Han shot first!). The reason our hatred of the prequels was so visceral is that they exposed to us that movies are smaller than the myths. We didn’t see the first movies as critical adults in a theater; we saw them as children absorbing stories of life. We didn’t care that Mark Hamill is maybe not the best actor, or that Chewbacca has only one facial expression, or that it is a little too convenient that Luke just happens to crash within one mile of a Jedi master who has devoted his existence to not being found. And if you just responded to that last sentence by explaining away all three of those things in your head, then you are proving my point – they don’t matter when faced with the larger implications of the myth. The myth is deeper than the story.
This is true of all myths. It’s true of the Bible – who cares where Cain and Abel’s children came from? Who cares how Jonah could survive inside a whale’s belly? Who cares about the biological implications of virgin birth or bodily resurrection? If you’re hung up on those details, then that’s like dismissing all of Star Wars because the space battles depict the astrophysical impossibility of sound in a vacuum.
It’s just as true as the more localized, personal family stories we tell ourselves and our children. My daughter has heard stories of her namesake, her uncle. She’s heard these stories from her mother – who never met my brother. That’s a ridiculously small detail when compared to the larger mythical import of the story: that my child understand there are people in her family who came before her that left an impact on the people who love her and that, through her, will continue to impact the world.
A myth is always greater than the medium in which it is told. That’s why people of my generation sat through The Phantom Menace with an increasing sense of despair: we were grown and no longer able to separate ourselves from the critical examination of the conventions of cinema. My child does not have that problem yet, and I don’t want to rush it. I will continue to tell her the stories of Star Wars, just as we tell her the stories of the Bible and of our own family histories, so that she can absorb them without having images and meanings imposed and contrived. We will show them to her for sure; maybe in another year or two. In the meantime, I’m treasuring that Star Wars is an intimate experience between the two of us. When she does watch the films, she’ll watch them as stories that she heard from her father, which will infuse them with a deeper import. Just as the stories of the Bible are best told in the context of a community of faith, so do I want the stories we tell her to be connected intimately with the people that love her.
Stories outlive their tellers, and in doing so they take on a new life. They change as we change, often more. They convey our faith, our beliefs, our values, our very selves to those who come after us. They are our most treasured gifts to our children because they are pieces of ourselves that go with them. I believe there is something sacred at work when, in a few quiet moments between me and my child, she says, “What happens next?”
Editorial note: I am a Euro-American, upper-middle-class, cisgendered man. As such, I have blind spots when it comes to the experiences of others. Some of those blind spots may be on display in this post, but given both the nature of this blog and the commitment to critical self-reflection that I lay out below, it seemed that not addressing these issues would be a glaring omission. I would rather risk exposing my blind spots by joining the conversation than hide them by remaining silent.
The trending Twitter hashtag this week has been #YesAllWomen
, a thread response to #NotAllMen
, which is itself a response to reports this weekend of a mass shooting in California by a deranged young man who, in a YouTube testimonial, expressed rage at women for rejecting him. So just to recount that back-track of social media: A crazy misogynist man who feels angry at women for not having sex with him goes on a rampage and kills six people. Men start responding defensively on social media, saying that not all men are psychopathic monsters. Women respond by saying that such reactions are not helpful because misogyny and sexism are everywhere, following with example after example. Men then respond again either with horrified shock (“I had no idea!”) or further defensiveness (“This is reverse sexism!”). This is the crazy twisted world we live in.
I have a four-year-old daughter. In the midst of all this sudden attention to sexism and misogyny, I am given another opportunity to ask myself: Am I raising my daughter with any sexist assumptions, attitudes, or values? Is there anything I might be doing that would instill in her the belief that women are somehow less than men? The answer is easy: of course I am.
I don’t want to, Lord knows. I’m trying really hard not
to. But I can’t help it; it’s everywhere. There’s just no escaping it. I grew up with it. Not that my parents were shockingly sexist or anything; I actually think they were rather progressive. But they
grew up with it, and their parents grew up with it. And besides, unless your family comes from an isolated island completely disconnected from the rest of civilization (in which case you would not be reading blogs), then you have been raised in a larger cultural context. Which, by the way, is completely and totally sexism-ridden. (And racism, and classism, and heteronormativity…)
It feels terrible to notice all the ways I participate in the “isms” or our culture. But every single one of us does. You can’t avoid it; if you exist within our society, then you are participating in systems of oppression.
That’s just a cold hard fact. Have you watched an episode of The Bachelor
or Toddlers and Tiaras
? Then you’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever made a joke about women with PMS or men not asking for directions? You’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever critiqued the looks of Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice? You’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever referred to something as a “boys’ toy” or a “girls’ toy”? You’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever remained silent
while other people did these things? Congratulations, you’ve participated in sexism.
There’s simply no escaping it, and anyone who says, “Hey, I’m not like that,” is renouncing their responsibility and tacitly participating in the perpetuation of systems of oppression. I know, it sucks. I assure you, I’m no less guilty than you or anyone else. And it’s often a guilt by forced association. I work for a corporation where women make up 80% of the workforce, but only 40% of executive leadership. What should I do, quit my job? Go work for a more progressive company? Because 40% female executive leadership is probably ahead of the curve. It sucks, I know. It’s painful to realize that you are participating in the problem, even if you don’t want to or are trying really hard not to.
Think of it in terms of the following illustration (apologies to the Apostle Paul).
You are a healthy stomach in the body of a person with lung cancer. Now, perhaps your functioning is unaffected by the cancer in the lungs. But you can’t exactly say to the lungs, “This is not my problem; I
don’t have cancer.” Cancer in the lungs will eventually affect the stomach, if only by eventually killing the whole body. Likewise, the stomach can’t say, “I’m not doing chemo; I
don’t have cancer.” Does it suck for the otherwise healthy stomach that it has to endure the ravages of chemo because of tumors in the lungs? Yes, it does. Is it fair? No, it isn’t. But if the whole body elects not to receive treatment because most of the cells are healthy, then the eventual outcome is going to be disastrous.
Misogyny – and racism, classism, heteronormativity, and every other metric of oppression – is a cancer in our society. It is a cancer that our society was born with. You may not be actively oppressing women; you may not have a deep-seated belief that women are inferior objects; you may not be a violent rapist. But misogyny is woven into the fabric of our culture just as surely as democracy. (And who were the first people in America to enjoy the democratic process? Hmm…) Every single one of us participates in sexism just as every part of a body participates in cancer. But in this case, those of us who have the luxury to ignore that there is sexism because we don’t directly suffer from it – or, as we are often called, “men” – participate more readily because it’s easy for us to remain blind and ignorant.
Women can be sexist, too; I remember the woman who told me when we were expecting our daughter that I should want a boy because boys were better children. It’s men, however, who participate more fully in the patterns of sexism, either by actively perpetuating their own privilege and dominance, or by choosing to remain clueless and uninvolved. It’s a luxury to be capable of detachment from the suffering of others; and even if done naively, detachment from suffering allows that suffering to continue.
So how on earth am I to be a father and raise a daughter? I’ve processed this before in other posts (like here
). As much as I want to raise a child immune to the ugly realities of sexism and misogyny, it is impossible. I mean, I can’t even buy her clothes
without perpetuating stereotypes. She’s only four, and she’s already gotten healthy doses of it. Just this week, she saw a line of children’s bicycles. I asked her if she wanted a bike and which ones she liked.
“I like all the girls’ bikes,” she answered.
My first thought was What the hell? Who taught her that?
My second thought was, That can’t be true – one of these bikes is a Spiderman bike, and she loves Spiderman.
So I said, “What about the Spiderman bike?”
Then I thought Wait – I just this second taught her that the Spiderman bike wasn’t a girls’ bike.
She glanced at the Spiderman bike and then, looking down at her feet, she said sheepishly, “I like them all.” As if she should be ashamed for liking boys’ bikes. And then I wanted to cry. (I didn’t, of course, because I learned how to be masculine.)
There it was, folks: sexism shining through the very fabric of our existence. Mostly a benign and harmless interaction, maybe. But those little moments add up. So what am I supposed to do? How do I raise a child in this mess?
My child, by nature of being something other than a heterosexual male, is not going to have the luxury to ignore this stuff the same way I have. My goal, however, is to continue to raise a child who pays attention with sensitivity and responsibility. What makes me – or anyone – culpable for participating in a system of oppression is the choice made in response to the recognition that such a system exists.
Men (or women) who respond to misogyny by saying, “I’m not like that,” are making a choice to disassociate themselves from the responsibility to act. I know it feels safe and comforting to make that choice, but it’s complicity. My child will have less privilege in ignoring these systems of oppression than I did simply because she was born with a vagina. But she’ll still be raised in a middle-class Euro-American family with tons of unquestioned privilege. I want her to learn to question them, to shoulder the personal responsibility to look for injustice and reflect critically on the ways that she participates in those systems. Even – God help me – to critically examine the ways that I have unwittingly perpetuated sexist attitudes and handed down oppressive beliefs. I want her to be better than this world. That starts by raising her to be better than me.
In the meantime, I want to raise the bar for what that looks like as much as I can. That means constantly examining the ways I am sexist, classist, racist, heteronormative, or otherwise blind to the privilege I wield without a second thought. Does it matter to me what all men are like? Not really. It matters what I am like, because it matters to me what kind of world my child will inherit.