Fatherhood in Flux

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Parents rushingThe Rev. Kathleen McTigue is right: the realities of parenting do not mesh well with the features of the classic spiritual journey—“the solitary pilgrimage, the focused weeks of prayer or meditation, the ecstatic chanting in the company of other seekers.”[1] But parenting is a journey, and there is enormous spiritual growth to be had. “This ordinary, unsung path,” writes McTigue, “requires tremendous openness to the unanticipated. It meanders around a thousand turns that feel like detours or dead ends. It requires faith that the spirit does not grow in a straight line nor need traditional forms and practices. Real spiritual growth depends on our willingness to be transformed, and very little transforms us as thoroughly as sharing our lives with children.”[2]

Our ministry theme for June is family. This morning I’d like to lift up parenting as a central task of adults in families and explore Classic familysome spiritual dimensions of parenting in our era. Since today is Father’s Day, I’d like to focus my reflections on fatherhood. And I begin with this caveat: the “golden-age” American image of what a family is—happily married, heterosexual, usually white, middle-class parents, living in a freestanding suburban house with a yard, a white picket fence, a dog chewing a bone, and two-point-something well-adjusted children, maybe a baby on the way—that image of family, if it ever existed, was far more rare than we typically imagine. Today we know families come—and always have—in a seemingly endless variety of configurations. Any time a minister (or anyone) proposes to generalize about any aspect of family life, there’s always a risk that some alternative yet valid perspective will be missed.

That is, it’s difficult to name universal truths about families. Because we spend so much time with our own families—however we understand them; because we become so enmeshed in the challenges, joys and traditions of our own families—we can develop tunnel vision when it comes to understanding how other people experience family. My kids live with married, heterosexual professional parents. They have four supportive grandparents close by. They eat three meals a day. They have three cats. They take a family vacation every summer, usually involving a beach. They spend family time playing games, watching movies, hiking and visiting with aunts, uncles and cousins. This is what family is to them. But they have no idea what it might mean to live with one parent, to be an only child, to live with a grandparent in an in-law apartment, to have two moms or two dads, to have a step-parent, to have half-siblings, to be in foster care, to struggle financially, to spend summers on a farm or at a second home in another country. They have no idea what it might mean to have a live-in maid, chauffeur or chef, or to live in a practicing Muslim, Catholic, Mormon or Jewish family.

There’s always the risk, and the reality, that my experience of being a father will not match someone else’s experience of being a father; or that my experience of having a father will not match someone else’s experience of having a father; or that my experience of being a white, middle class, heterosexual, married, working, Unitarian Universalist father will not adequately speak to the experiences of fathers with different identities fathering under different circumstances. The problem is not that experiences vary—diversity in family life is a beautiful feature of early 21st-century America. The problem is that it is so easy to forget that differences are there at all. There is not one experience of fatherhood, motherhood, parenting, or grand-parenting. There is not one experience of family.

The cast of "Modern Family"

The cast of “Modern Family”

I do think it’s safe and accurate to say fatherhood in our era is in flux,[3] especially when it comes to gender roles. Traditional parenting roles for men and women—once quite distinct—have been slowly converging over the past few decades. A great illustration of this is the online hype surrounding a photo blogger Doyin Richards posted on his website Daddy Doin’ Work[4] last fall. He told the story in a January 8th Huffington Post article: I took time off from my corporate job for baby bonding with my 3-month old daughter. It’s a lot of work being a stay at home parent, but it’s so damn rewarding…. One morning … my[wife] was running late for work and was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get [our three-year old daughter’s] hair done before I had to take her to school. I told her that she could leave and I’d handle it. She countered by saying that doing her hair requires attention and the baby would get upset if I left her alone while I played the role of stylist. Again, I told her that I’d handle it. On the way out she said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

That’s when I put [the baby] in the Ergo, stood [the three-year old] on a stool and worked my hair magic. During the process, I thought, There’s no way my wife will believe me if I don’t take a picture of this.That’s when I set my camera up, put it on a 10-second timer, and took the photo…. After 15 minutes of multitasking, the final result was a nice, tight ponytail for big sister and a happily sleeping baby in the carrier. Mission accomplished. I emailed the photo to her with the caption “Boom.” and we both got a good laugh out of it.[5]

Doyin Richards' famous photo. Boom!

Doyin Richards’ famous photo. Boom!

The photo went viral soon after he posted it. He says there were three types of comments: those who think he is the world’s best dad; those who think this is no big deal and he shouldn’t get extra praise; and racists (Richards is black) who assumed he must be a deadbeat if he has time to fix his daughter’s hair, or that the children aren’t actually his because they have lighter skin (his wife is Japanese and White). He identifies with the second group, saying “this is something Dads are supposed to be doing,” and “I am not special in any regard.” That is my response, and I suspect the same would be true of most of you. But it’s worth naming that fathers attending to children in this way are a relatively new phenomenon in the American social landscape. While I’m sure there have always been such fathers, it’s traditionally a mother’s role. Hence Richards’ wife’s quip: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Richards was on paternity leave, which is also a relatively new phenomenon. A June, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, entitled “Why Dads Don’t Take Paternity Leave,” pointed out that 15 % of US companies provide some paid leave for new fathers—and they call that progress. However, even when the benefit exists, many dads elect not to take it. “There’s still a stigma associated with men who put parenting on an equal footing with their jobs…. Most employers still assume that work comes first for men, while women do all the child care…. Many men who openly identify with their parental role at work face pressure or resentment from co-workers…. Men who are active caregivers get teased and insulted at work more than so-called traditional fathers and men without children. Active fathers are seen as distracted and less dedicated to their work—the same perception that harms career prospects for many working mothers…. Such men are accused of being wimpy or henpecked by their wives.”[6]

I go back to Rev. McTigue’s notion that “real spiritual growth depends on our willingness to be transformed.” As fathers become more willing and able to adopt—and excited and passionate about adopting— those aspects of child-rearing traditionally assigned to women, there will be transformation—not just for those men, but for all of us. One of Hilary Clinton’s most significant achievements as Secretary of State was to orient United States foreign policy globally toward the education of girls, arguing that educated mothers are one of the most potent weapons against war, terrorism, violence and extremism. I agree. But imagine also an America in which men play a more immediate and traditionally feminine role in child-rearing? Might that not have a similarly powerful and positive effect on our long-term chances for creating a more just and peaceful world? I, for one, believe that is a transformation worth pursuing and I welcome this blurring of the traditional male and female parenting roles.

But even if roles blur, I wonder to what extent certain parental instincts are more unique to fathers, while others are more unique to mothers. It’s a stereotype, but if men are more aggressive, more prone to use violence, more socialized to see themselves as family leaders, breadwinners and protectors, more distant, more solitary—if fathers feel these things more instinctually and poignantly than mothers—I worry about how these instincts could play out in our era. I worry because I perceive an fearextraordinary level of fear in our society: fear of terrorism, of immigrants, of an assault on gun ownership, of assault weapons, gun violence and mass shootings—70 since the December, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre—fear of the mentally ill, of Big Government, of taxes, of unemployment, of deficits and debt, of Black presidents, of White presidents, of marriage equality, of marijuana, fear of Eric Cantor, of David Brat, of Hilary Clinton, of Islam, of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, of Boko Haram, of Black and Hispanic men, of tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, droughts, wildfires and nor’easters, of global warming, of power outages and water shortages, of genetically modified food, of corporations, of the Koch brothers, of rising college tuitions and sea levels; fear of fathers fixing daughters’ hair—fear upon fear upon fear. Depending on our politics we think some of it is completely justified, and some of it is completely ridiculous. But it’s there. And if there is a deep-seeded, masculine, fatherly instinct to resort to aggression and violence to protect one’s family, in a fearful era, might we not witness an increasingly violent society?

I’m not sure. There are data that suggest we live in the safest, most peaceable era in human history. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker made this argument in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.[7] Maybe despite deep-seeded instincts towards aggression, and despite widespread fear, a more safe and peaceful world is emerging right before our eyes. But that doesn’t feel right—not if you’re an inner city father living in contested gang territory; not if you’re a Midwest father whose hometown was obliterated by a tornado this past winter; not if you’re a father anywhere whose child’s peer was caught bringing a gun to school. We’ve become a fearful nation in an increasingly fearful world—not all the reasons are spurious. This creates a dilemma for American fathers. Do we, out of fear, embrace those more ancient inclinations which include aggression and violence and thereby risk perpetuating violence? Or do we welcome a new set of values for fathers: nurturing spirits, vulnerable hearts , an embrace of difference, a rejection of violence, a capacity to really partner with whoever our partner may be, and a desire and an ability to fix out daughters’ hair? And maybe it isn’t precisely a dilemma. Maybe it isn’t a matter of losing the ancient instincts altogether, because certainly there’s a time and a place for aggression and even violence. Perhaps the flux fathers are in is calling us towards greater balance: aggression tempered by a drive to nurture, distance moderated by an impulse toward closeness and connection, violence only as a last resort, and briefcases whose contents include little girls’ hair brushes. Though some may call such balance weak or cowardly, I call it strong and courageous.

I asked a number of UUS:E fathers to give me their impressions of fatherhood in our era. Across the range of responses I found both a desire to find a place for the more ancient fatherly instincts and an embrace of the transformation that comes with child-rearing even when it demands a departure from tradition. Rob Stolzman shared the story of a friend, an Alaska native, who remembered her dad going moose hunting for the family. “He never told the family that he was planning on going; he would simply begin to take longer and longer walks into the wilderness with his hunting equipment until one day he wouldn’t come back and would be gone for up to a week.  He didn’t need to speak his intent; he would simply follow his routine and then be gone, but his family knew exactly what was happening.  And it made them ecstatic because they knew when he came back he would be bringing fresh moose.” Rob says, “Our schedules revolve around work and school and children’s activities and we try to squeeze more and more in.  I value the picture of a father, or mother, going about his/her solitary duty, without saying a word, and with not only total understanding and acceptance but celebration from his/her family.  It seems like we are often too busy to stop and acknowledge the happiness and excitement of a family member contributing in a routine, solitary and unassuming way.” Thanks Rob!

William George Richardson Hind's "Moose Hunting Winter Manitoba"

William George Richardson Hind’s “Moose Hunting Winter Manitoba”

Glenn Campellone described the changes parenthood has demanded of him: “By far my greatest challenge has been letting go of the traditions and expectations of my own upbringing.” “Some of the issues we faced (and the solutions we chose) caused me to leave my comfort zone and suspend disbelief, which was extremely difficult for me.  I’m not sure my parents or their generation could have or would have even considered some of the decisions we’ve made.

I’ve rethought “my attitudes toward home schooling.  I’ve come to understand that traditional school environments just don’t work for every student.” I’ve come to understand that the traditional path of “high school to college to corporate career to marriage to children isn’t always the path to happiness.” And I’ve come to understand that” your parents’ religion doesn’t have to be your religion.  Roman Catholicism was all we knew, but we knew it wasn’t working for us…. Once again, it was our  children’s desire to have a spiritual home that opened our eyes to other possibilities and led us to UUS:E.” Thanks Glenn!

Knowing there are fathers who can articulate and celebrate a more traditional view of fatherhood and find in it spiritual value and depth to help us respond in healthy, grounded ways to the seeming insanity of today’s world; and knowing there are fathers who can assess how fatherhood has transformed them and opened them up to greater possibility, to nuance, to seeing grey in a world that so often only offers black and white—this gives me confidence that that elusive balance between the old and the new, that elusive balance so essential to meeting fear with hope, that elusive balance so essential to making peace in the world is utterly possible.

Dad-Hair

            Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “The Parents’ Pilgrimage,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 73.

[2] Ibid., p. 74.

[3] For a general review of various aspects of this flux, see: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/12/5-facts-about-todays-fathers/.

[4] See http://daddydoinwork.com/.

[5] Read Richard’s Huffington Post article at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/doyin-richards/i-have-a-dream-picture-like-this_b_4562414.html. And read a recent National Public Radio article on fatherhood that featured Richard’s story at http://www.npr.org/2014/06/12/321218293/white-house-urges-dads-to-join-work-life-balance-conversation.

[6] “Why Dads Don’t Take Paternity Leave,” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2013. See: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324049504578541633708283670. Also, and for the record, a May 2013 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reminds us that only 35% of women work for an employer who offers paid maternity leave, and the United States is one of only four countries globally, and the only high-income country, without a statutory right to paid maternity leave for employees. See: http://www.iwpr.org/publications/pubs/maternity-paternity-and-adoption-leave-in-the-united-states-1.

[7] Listen to / watch Pinker talk about the ideas in BetterAngels at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5X2-i_poNU.