I’m sitting in a restaurant feeding my 7 month old some kind of Japanese appetizer from chopsticks and I hear the comments from several tables over…
Now I’m out at the library reading to my 4 year old and I notice the eyes and the whispers…
Now I’m playing in the snow with my 6 year old at the bus stop, waiting and I see the heads turn in cars driving past and the smiles. The smiles not directed at a child in the throws of joy only one unfettered by life’s weight can experience…
And now I’m lying in bed next to my wife. We’re an hour or so into a conversation punctuated by tears, by screams, by sighs. Then comes the illumination. The identification of the source (if not the main stream then at the very least a massive tributary) of so much hurt, pain, anger.
The looks, the comments, the adoration, all these come my way because of who I am. Not who I am in the particular, but who I am in general. A man.
It seems that cultural mythologies die hard. Myths are far more than simply quaint tales of pre-scientific understanding. They are foundational stories told to create and sustain civilization. Mircea Eliade writes:
the foremost function of myth is to reveal the exemplary models for all human rites and all significant human activity—diet or marriage, work or education, art or wisdom.1
We have a cultural myth about fathers that just won’t die. He’s either the well-meaning, but blundering idiot or the hard, distant man who puts work above all. In either one he works while the wife stays home and cares for domestic duties. Quite obviously these are caricatures, two extremes that bookend more moderate positions lying within, but that conversation is for another post.
What I want to focus on is the emotional damage done by these myths on women.2 Because of these myths and the realities they create I get praise for doing things my wife would not. I receive adoration where she would, perhaps, acknowledgment. Due only to my genetic makeup and temporal location I am seen as the ‘amazing dad’3 for doing only those things that in my estimation any good, loving parent would do.
Please don’t call me a feminist. To do so only perpetuates the catechetal force of the American Father Myth.4
Please call me a human being.
I work from home. My wife is a teacher and artist. We both take care of the kids. We both take care of domestic duties. How do we divide them? We ask the really hard question of, “Can you?” “Sure can,” is the usual answer. And when it isn’t we adjust accordingly. There is no gendered divide as to who does what work. I am a human being because I believe that the kind of praise I receive for how I parent ought to be lavished on my wife in the same quantities and degrees. I am a human being because I don’t think lower expectations are cause for lavished praise.
Perhaps it is a function of the communities to which I belong that I run into this sort of judgment. Maybe my experience is an outlier to what is happening in the larger view. It is possible, but I doubt it.
To see the look in her eyes as she tells me that for just once she would love to feel the same recognition and approval for her work as a mother as I do for being a father tears me apart. It also enrages me that what I do is considered out of the ordinary. The myth destroys us both.
I will never stop supporting my wife in her work. It is my joy to work the late nights and in the seams between the feeding, the cleaning, the playing, the disciplining, to see her explode into her giftings and abilities. Just as it is her joy to encourage my continued growth in work and talents and to support me in carving out physical and mental space from these four walls when I need it.
The myth needs to die. Even as most of us tacitly agree, our actions and attitudes perpetuate it. Only when we stop being surprised by things that a mother or father does because of their gender will its cultural grip begin to fail.
Would you join me in being human?
- Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, p. 8
- I am by no means a woman. I am writing as an outsider, simply attempting to put into words what I saw and heard from my wife.
- I have heard this phrase more times than I care to admit.
- In no way am I undermining or devaluing the need that women have had to rise up under the mantle of feminism to right the wrongs of patriarchy. I am simply making a statement as to how I see this term being used around me.