Thursday, January 17, 2013
The Behavior I Intend to Change Is
Last February, I blogged here about fatherhood. It's time for an update. In that post, I mentioned the "daddy-daughter dance" at my daughter's school, which caused a young friend, the daughter of two moms, to leave school in tears. I am happy to report that my young friend requested a meeting with the school principal and shared her thoughts. The principal promised that the dance would be structured differently this year, and to a certain extent it is. This year, it has been renamed the "Sweetheart" dance. "Daughters" are invited, along with a parent/care-giver of their choice.
I am not so happy to report that further conversations about the fact that so long as a dance is girls-only it continues to perpetuate gender stereotypes AND THAT IS NOT OK were less welcome. Yesterday I lived out the recurring bad dream of many of us who once attended school: I walked into a school cafeteria filled with peers who did not want me sitting at their table. Having co-signed a letter to the PTO thanking them for their inclusion of diverse families but asking them to reconsider limiting the event to girls, I attended the meeting along with several co-signers in order to continue the conversation. After I talked about Title IX and the harm that comes to boys and girls alike due to the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, even fewer of them wanted me at their table. Although I have more self-confidence now than I did in high school, at that point part of me really wanted to grab some friends and go out for a pizza bagel. In fairness, although several of the mothers present shook their heads at me in irritated disbelief, others suggested that we work together to address the matter. The Assistant Principal said that change has to come slowly, which I thought was kind of silly since the dance has only been held for two years.
What struck me about the meeting was how quickly the PTO attendees and administration alike were willing to stop excluding diverse families and how reluctant many of them were to address gender stereotyping. It led me to the sad realization that Americans of my generation are willing to welcome single-sex marriage because in itself it poses no significant challenge to long-standing gender norms. If you open the dance to girls with two moms, you can continue to celebrate girls as princesses who are to be valued as sweethearts. You can also switch the "mother-son Cubs game" to a caregiver/son outing without questioning boys' commitment to professionalized sports and ritualized aggression. But if you encourage boys to value the arts as much as professionalized sports. . . . well, I don't really know what will happen (although I suspect it would involve a significant reorganization of values and commitments), and neither does the PTO (who are smart enough to have the same suspicions).
Did I mention that everyone at the meeting, with the exception of the male Assistant Principal, was a mother? As my post a year ago suggested, the demands we make of fathers qua fathers are pretty low. They certainly do not include unrewarding tasks such as baking hundreds of cupcakes, decorating the gym, and spending Wednesday mornings listening to the viewpoints of working women who have not volunteered this year because they are too busy earning salaries, traveling to conferences in foreign cities, and enjoying the esteem of peers in venues beyond the school cafeteria. When I apologized for needing to leave the meeting early to get to work, one mother wistfully commented "it would be nice to be going to work." Let it not be ignored that the flourishing of our children depends also on the work, the real work, done by her and others who dedicate themselves to the raising of children and the maintenance of institutions in which that flourishing can happen. As the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative essay contest reminds us once a year, there's a lot of behavior that needs to change.