Thursday, August 27, 2009

More Mothers Tied Into Knots

(Note: This blog has a large number of email subscriptions and many readers access it through my Facebook page, which explains why the comments to my posts tend to get spread out over email, Facebook, and the blog itself. Sometimes the comments are so much better than my original posts, that I feel a need to corral some of them into a post of their own.)

The original inspiration for Tuesday’s post, “Mothers Tied Into Knots,” were email dialogs I’ve been engaged in this summer with a pair of a new mothers who are concerned about the job they’re doing as parents. As I was collecting my thoughts, I came across a powerful rant on a site I regularly read, which gave me some new insights into the broader social context about which, as a man, I’d not previously given much thought.

One of the most rewarding parts of my special teaching situation is that I get to know children and their families over the course of multiple years, and it’s not just the kids who grow and change. I’ve watched hundreds of families evolve from being “tied into knots” into confidence. It’s a pattern that repeats itself over and over at Woodland Park. In the beginning there is a tendency for our new parents to focus on me for advice and council, but it’s not long before they discover our school’s real parenting experts: their fellow parents. This is one of the primary, often unacknowledged, strengths of the cooperative model. It's a model with the mantra "It takes a village to raise a child" at its heart.

When I read “Victims of the Mommy Wars” I was at first a little stunned. My entire adult life has been lived in what most people would consider a gender role-reversal with my wife being the high-powered business executive and entrepreneur, while I’ve followed her around the world cooking, taking care of the home, and holding down a series of part-time and freelance jobs. When our daughter Josephine was born, we didn’t even have to discuss who was going to be the stay-at-home parent. Of course it didn’t escape me that I was often the only father involved in our playgroups and preschools, but it always felt like it was only a matter of time before that would change. And from my current perch as a male preschool teacher I’ve seen a slow, but steady increase in the number of fathers fully participating in our cooperative preschool. In fact, we had a Thursday two years ago that featured 7 working parents, only one of whom was a woman. Our Circle Time sounded like a freakin’ men’s chorus -- and I loved it!

From this admittedly narrow (and somewhat idealistic) perspective it looks like parenting is rapidly becoming a gender-neutral activity. But as I watched the comments section of the mommy wars piece fill up, I became aware that the parenting experience is a different animal for many women, than for men.

My high school classmate Rose, a family lawyer in the Portland area, commented on these pressures:

Despite the fact that we now have decades of women who are "doing it all," the housework, household management, child rearing and working, there is still much social pressure on defining women by their parenting skills. If a woman decides that Dad would be the better primary parent in a divorce, she is subject to social criticism about her lack of worth as a person, because of her alleged lack of worth as a mother, without any connection between Dad as primary parent and Mom as a good parent. Social pressure aside, I notice that women are much more likely to have their kids as being their first choice of conversation, whereas men are more likely to talk about their jobs, all other things being equal.

Susan had a different take on the pressures she feels:

. . . as a mom in these times, my own tensions are not caused by the parenting skills I never had the chance to learn from my own tribe, but the question of - Am I succeeding at giving my child every chance to sample every possible activity and interest that catches his eye, and how can I ever do that, since nowadays opportunities for kids are so plentiful? Such issues are the spawn of these rich times we live in. As little as a century ago, life was on the edge. Children worked on the farm. They ate their biscuit and syrup sandwiches cold at lunch, grateful to have food. They wore patched clothes and made their own games in the dirt with sticks. Parents didn’t give a damn about helping their child “find his bliss.” If he was healthy, respectful, and clothed in clean if not new clothes, fine . . . Now we have a society that is vastly rich by comparison. My son doesn't have to do any kind of real work. Instead, his work is practice the fiddle, study maps, play soccer, practice archery, sample ballet, act in a play. And if I can’t find the time in schedule for these things, I have a vague fret that I’m depriving him.

Toby, a Woodland Park parent and parenting blogger, commented on how the media helps strip women of their confidence as parents:

. . . it doesn’t help that most mainstream parenting media hypes up the anxiety with their “Top 10 Things You Think Are Safe That Can Actually Kill Your Baby” articles.

And, finally, P.J., a proud stay-at-home dad and blogger commented on the role of fathers:

I agree with your point that the expectations for fathers in society are different than mothers, hence the reason why we don't outwardly project the same concerns. Despite the generational shift we are experiencing with fathers becoming more involved in our children's lives, we are still not viewed as being capable of nurturing. As a result, less judgment is passed over the roles we play. 

Personally, I don't really care what people think of how my wife and I are raising our son. And I don't much care how other people are raising their children. As long as they love, provide for, and encourage them, that is all that matters .

 . . Books and parents magazines aren't geared towards us because they think we don't care or are too stupid to figure it out. That is fine, the only person’s opinion of how I am doing as a father that matters belongs to my wife. We discuss everything that involves our son and come up with what we both feel is in his best interests. And since I'm the one that stays home with him, it is my job to execute the plan. 

Does that mean it is always the right choice, who knows? Only time will tell.

Lord knows there are parental challenges that fathers are more likely to face than women, but when it comes to these types of societal pressures, I find myself tending to think the situation P.J. describes is the healthier one. It’s probably because I’m a man, and I know it’s much, much easier said than done, but whenever I’m working with a young mother who seems tied into knots, I now realize that I’m subconsciously trying to steer her to the position P.J. states so clearly, “I don’t really care what people think of how my wife and I are raising our son.”

To use a very masculine baseball analogy: P.J.’s is a statement of parental bravado that belies the kind of underlying confidence a coach looks for in his players.

And since baseball analogies don’t work for everyone, I’m very happy that the parents at Woodland Park have those other 40+ experienced and confident parents to talk to when Teacher Tom and his baseball analogies fail them.

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Eternal Lizdom said...

On one hand, I agree with PJ that I don't much care what choices other parents make.

On the other hand, the children they are raising will someday be interacting with my own. So if it is possible to have some community in the parenting realm, it would be beneficial as our children grow into adults and have to deal with being the messes we've created. ;)

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Eternal Lizdom says, my attitude about not caring what people think doesn't mean I'm not interested in interacting with other parents, learning and sharing.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that when I let my 16 month old watch a little TV when I'm trying to straighten up the house or prepare dinner, I see the eyes rolling of parents who are against television consumption of any sort and don't care. That was more my point.

I'd love to have some interaction, but outside of one or two mothers at Gymboree, I'm treated like either a leper or a predator, which is disappointing to say the least. I"m just a dad trying to do my job the best way I know how.

So, maybe as a point of clarification, I'm not interested in the drama. But any parent that wants to talk to me, share ideas and learn from each other, I'm all for it.

Teacher Tom said...

That's certainly how I took it PJ.

I got that same vibe when Josephine and I were in Gymboree 10 years ago, but I persevered and eventually found myself at the center of a great group of (mostly) moms. Part of it is that men in the primary parenting role are still unusual enough that a lot of women don't know what to make of us. My main strategy for befriending mothers was to loop their kids into the games I was playing with my daughter. If you're making someone's child happy, they can't help but like you.