HeatherN believes dads are important, but that there is no one ideal way to raise children.
So recently at GMP I’ve been reading a few articles talking about why fathers are so important in a child’s life. We’ve got Life in the Man Deserts, which claims that because single-mother families are more likely to be living in poverty, it means that a lack of a male role model is what causes this. There’s What is the Dad Difference?, which mostly posits that because a foetus is never physically connected to a man’s body, this makes the father the first truly separate other that a baby comes into contact with. Thus, a baby and a father share a special relationship that is inherently different to the relationship between mother and baby. There are a lot of other articles out there, not just at GMP, about the unique qualities of dads and the dangers of raising a child without one. However, I think they’re all kind of missing the point.
So, when talking to people about fatherhood in the past, I’ve been accused of privileging motherhood, of disregarding the unique parenting techniques fathers bring to the table, and of hating men already. And, since I’m a lesbian who never actually wants kids, I’ve also been told that I couldn’t ever understand because when all is said and done, I’ll never be a father myself.
My counter to that, I suppose, is that though I won’t ever be a father (or a parent), I do have a father. Actually, I’ve got a really great father. My life would, quite literally, not be the same without him. And that takes me to the point of this article. What I mean when I say “my life would not be the same without him,” is that my life wouldn’t be the same without my dad, specifically. If I had a different father, my life would be quite different and I’d have missed out on all the unique character traits that make my dad the kind of father he is. So far, so simple.
However, it’s not as though my dad makes up half of all the required characteristics in raising a good child. My dad and mom together didn’t provide me with every possible parenting technique and virtue. They are two people who are unique individuals and who, together, raised me and my sister in a unique household. My dad didn’t bring half of the necessary parenting skills to the house because he’s male. He brought all the parenting skills he has to the house because he’s him; male, a police officer, jazz musician, white, college educated, so on and so forth. All of these things are traits which, collectively, make up the individual who is my dad.
All of these aspects of my dad’s identity and personality influenced my dad’s parenting and my childhood in some way. Yet you don’t hear people talking about the crisis of families who are raised with a lack of jazz influence, for example. And that’s a crying shame because a childhood without jazz is one I’d not wish on my worst enemy. Seriously, though, when it comes to parenting we’ve privileged the gender of the parents over every other identity parents might have. We’ve forgotten that parents are individual people, not cookie cutter gender machines imparting gendered knowledge onto their children.
I think a lot of the misunderstanding comes from a lot of collective worrying about the “best” parental configuration when raising children. But really, it’s all kind of ridiculous. There is huge variety in the way humans raise their children, both historically and geographically. In China, the Mosuo people are all raised primarily by their mothers. Their fathers don’t even live in the same household; sometimes children don’t know who their fathers are. On the other end of fatherhood involvement, there are the Aka people in Africa, who will actually use their own nipples as a sort of pacifier for a distressed baby. And then, I suppose the rest of the world could be said to fall somewhere in between. So which is “best?” Well, neither, really. They’re just different.
To be fair, the Mosuo and Aka people are completely different cultures. Whenever I hear about the ‘father crisis’ or “man deserts,” I’m usually hearing about it in the context of western culture. In the west there is great fear about what happens to a family without a father, and the mainstream answer tends to be to re-establish the nuclear family as supreme. For one thing, this completely ignores the ways in which men who aren’t a child’s father can contribute to raising that child. Uncles, cousins, grandfathers, etc., can all play a huge role in a child’s life.
What’s more, the suggested solution (incentives to maintain a nuclear family) fail to recognise the ways in which privileging nuclear families hinders fathers’ roles. Most obviously, a traditional nuclear family is contingent on the man working outside the household, and thus less involved in parenting. It goes beyond that, though. Consider, for a moment, a situation in which two parents are no longer involved romantically but still live together and parent together. In a traditional nuclear family structure, this is basically just an unsatisfying marriage. Outside of that structure, though, this can be a great solution to the problem of how to parent a child after a relationship breaks up.
At the moment it is a given that if people who are in a romantic relationship separate, they will end up living in separate homes. Why? Outside of any sort of abusive situation, if the two people have children together, why couldn’t they live in the same home as parents, but live separate romantic lives? This wouldn’t work for everyone, obviously. And it would take a hell of a lot of communication and negotiating in order for it to be successful. It is possible, though. Not only is it possible, it’s already happening. It’s called cohabitative parenting.
The question you might have is what happens if one (or both) of the parents then end up in long-term romantic relationships? Well, their partners could move in, of course. Why is three (or four) parents considered worse than two? Practically, the problem with that is the very possessive way in which we consider families and households. If you’re going to live in a house in which two people are biological parents and two people are the partners of those biological parents, you’ll have to give up a hell of a lot of possessive control. Or at the least, negotiate all these different power dynamics so that it works out.
So, such an arrangement obviously wouldn’t be the best choice for everyone. But then, that’s the whole point; no family structure is going to ever work for everyone. And no family structure is the “ideal” or the best way to raise children.