Megan Cottrell interviews author Janine MacBeth of Blood Orange Press about the absent father in children’s books
What’s your favorite children’s book?
Picture it in your mind. Leaf through the pages. Enjoy the pictures. Now, answer one question.
If it’s like most children’s books, dad is nowhere to be found. Mom might make an appearance, or grandma. Maybe even grandpa. Of course, a lot of children’s books don’t have parents at all, but just an adventure for kids or cutesy cartoon animals as characters. But if you’re like me, it’s hard to find dad in your favorite children’s book, or any children’s book for that matter.
Janine MacBeth had the same problem. It especially bothered her because “dad” was such a big character in the lives of her two boys. Janine and her husband, Lome, have worked to share parenting equally since her sons were born. But that even split wasn’t reflected in the books she read her children. Also noticably abset were positive images of men of color.
So MacBeth started a kickstarter campaign to raise money to write her own book about engaged fatherhood. In just 32 days, she raised nearly $12,000 to get the book going and these days, sells copies from her home business, Blood Orange Press. I talked with Janine about how her family divvies up the work of parenting and why its so important that today’s dads have books that represent them.
1) Tells about your family.
My husband and I are a heterosexual couple, both multiracial. Our sons are 2 and 5 years old. We both work full time. At first it was a bit challenging getting our routine down – maybe it wasn’t challenging to get the routine down so much as the routine itself was challenging. Out of the house early in the morning, multiple drop offs, busy day at work, pick ups from pre-school, daycare, and the bus stop, home preparing dinner by 6:30pm, then launching into the night time routine, and preparing for the next day. Not too different from many households these days, I imagine. It was more challenging before, when they were smaller. Now that our little ones are emerging out of babyhood, it smoothes out more, day by day.
2) How do you and your husband share the work of parenting?
I feel really lucky that my husband Lome and I can parent together as a team – over these past few years, we’ve lined up our parenting expectations so we’re working from the same values. We’re in agreement on the boundaries and freedoms we want for the boys, so the opportunities and discipline are lining up, too. It’s an ongoing process, but the boys know what to expect from us, and Lome and I can tag team affection, play, and discipline when one of us is low on gas, or needs a break. The boys run to us equally for comfort, love, and affection.
The ways we share the weight and joys of parenting also transfer to a shared workload that keeps things functioning pretty smooth at Home. My husband’s got a great brain for systems and efficiency, and I’ve gotten better at harnessing the vast potential of even a 10 minute chunk of time.
To tell you the truth, if we were to count it out with penny jars, Lome likely does more housework than I do – he’s become a great cook, folds laundry while watching movies after the kids go down, and doesn’t mind things like doing dishes or mopping the floor (things I’m not too fond of). During the bulk of that time I’m either tending the kids, or working on book projects.
The thing that makes it sparkle for me is that I never feel alone in the home or kid duties. Feeling alone in these responsibilities can be demoralizing and feel absolutely frustrating, and so even though it may seem a bit cheesey, that feeling of teamwork has become so important to me. Even if we’re not doing exactly the same thing (like cleaning or playing with the boys), it’s clear that we’re doing things for the family, and in that sense we’re doing them together.
3) What made you want to write “Oh, Oh Baby Boy”?
I was absolutely inspired by the love and involvement I witnessed in my husband’s parenting style. Especially during post-partum, when I was hyper-aware of the disenfranchising realities of motherhood – I mean, traditional gender norms really hold us back. Amidst the intensity of the disillusionment of motherhood, I watched my husband’s dedication to our babies, and it lifted me up. Beyond the thoughtfulness and proactive way he cared for the boys, I could feel that his involvement was rooted in a love and commitment to me as a mother and partner; a commitment to my wellbeing. That experience was really powerful for me.
I’ve seen and experienced a few of our friends who parent this way as well, and sadly even in families I would consider progressive, I sometimes don’t see it as much as I’d like to. It’s all too easy for fathers to fall into traditional gender norms and not think of the care, morale and well being of their kids and partners as responsibility number one. I really believe that all moms should be supported, and that none should feel alone in their parenting.
I thought that a book like this could both celebrate “dads doing it right,” and provide some gentle ideas and examples of things dads could do more of, like housework, taking care of the kids, and being affectionate. Who knows, perhaps books like these can prevent the hands-off dad persona by catching young boys early, and showing them options. I’m definitely a fan of positive reinforcement.
Oh yes, and finally I think it’s important that my husband is a man of color being compassionate and engaged. There are far too many negative images of men of color and fathers of color in mainstream media. I really wanted to honor the dignity and potential that fatherhood offers. This type of fatherhood is not race-specific.
4) How do you feel fathers are typically portrayed in children’s literature?
Hmm… I hate to say it, but I don’t notice fathers much in kids’ books. When I do, they’re not usually the dads I’d welcome into my home. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the old school consciousness from past generations when dads were less present at home – more absent because of their role as the home’s “only breadwinner.” Things are changing. More than ever, moms are working outside the home co-breadwinning (or being the sole wage earner), and more than ever before dads are staying home to care for the kids and keep the gears of Home turning. It’s not enough anymore for dads to be depicted as add-ons, “guests,” overgrown kids, or comic relief in children’s books. This just isn’t the reality anymore, and it’s missing the opportunity to present a positive vision for growth.
5) What is “engaged fatherhood” and why does it matter?
For me, engaged fatherhood is when parents are fully involved parents and don’t compartmentalize their roles according to traditional gender norms – instead both (or all) parents do everything, because everyone is responsible for this kid, for this family. It’s an undying commitment to the wellbeing of one’s children, and to the wellbeing of their childrens’ mother, whether or not they’re romantically involved. It stems from the understanding that the well-being of the kids is reliant on the well-being of the mother and their father figure. It’s a collective effort – engaged fatherhood doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not a term I had heard anywhere, it just made sense to explain the principles behind Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!. Also, for me there’s a layer of consciousness on it – engaged fatherhood implies the awareness and the intention to build gender equity as opposed to gender equality.
6) What do you hope families will gain from reading your book?
I hope families who already live this vision will be affirmed. I hope my friends who want their partners to be more involved will have an example, a tool to communicate and make change in their own homes. I hope baby boys will grow up to be compassionate men, and maybe even engaged fathers themselves one day.
—check out Megan’s review of Oh, Oh Baby Boy