At the start, I saw participating in infant care as being the most important thing I could do to make my fathering profeminist, and maybe that was correct—it had the merit of being a pretty straightforward mission. I did my best.
And that’s a fundamentally different framework than the one an antifeminist or nonfeminist father brings to fatherhood—for the best of them, fatherhood involves an uncomplicated commitment to breadwinning above all else, which, whatever its shortcomings, is definitely an important role to fulfill; for the worst of them, fatherhood becomes another opportunity to dominate women and expand their egos. On this front, I don’t sell myself, or other profeminist fathers, short: A commitment to care is crucial, and makes a real difference for mothers and children.
I also think a commitment to profeminist fathering leads in a very direct way to supporting profeminist public policies: antidiscrimination policies, subsidized daycare and preschool, universal health care, paid parental leave, and so on. Enacting these policies will provide a nurturing context for our personal decisions and make profeminist fathering more likely to flourish. That’s another difference between a consciously profeminist and a nonfeminist father: There’s a political dimension to your fathering that, I think, must be expressed through voting, activism, writing, and, ultimately, public policy.
4. When have you felt compromised as a profeminist father? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a profeminist father?
At this point, I’m compromised every freaking day; I fail every single day. This is not false modesty. The commitment to infant care was straightforward, though in retrospect I see those halcyon days as a simpler time. As the years have gone by, I’ve fallen further and further short of my ideals, and profeminist fathering has started to look increasingly complicated to me.
I confess that I feel really quite lost when it comes to applying profeminist values to my relationships with my wife and my son as they are right now. From that perspective, this is an awkward time for me to tackle these questions—I’m struggling toward the answers but don’t yet have good ones, and it’s possible that I never will.
5. Do you feel feminism has failed fathers and, if so, how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given fathers?
“Feminism” is, of course, not monolithic.
I would say that individual feminist thinkers and leaders have certainly failed fathers, in the sense that they have behaved as though fathers don’t matter or don’t exist or can only serve a purely oppressive role within the family. Another group of feminists has actually attacked the emergence of caregiving dads—I submit the philosopher Linda Hirshman as an example.
But I would describe those two groups as a minority; I think a majority of feminists can foresee a positive role for fathers and, indeed, desperately want to see fatherhood redefined in a positive and progressive way. I don’t think feminism has offered a well-articulated vision of fatherhood, but that’s OK: It really falls to fathers to redefine fatherhood.
This is the great thing that feminism has given fathers: Its success has triggered culture-wide dialogues among men about what a good father should be and do. Feminists themselves are not always comfortable with these arguments, and certainly there has been much to criticize.
But, as an old New Leftist once said, revolutions don’t happen in velvet boxes. They’re messy, contradictory, sometimes downright revolting—but usually also thrilling and necessary. Women have been rising for over a century, and only recently have men started to really change in response. From that perspective, it’s an exciting time.
This leads me to another thing that has surprised me about fatherhood and feminism: In a perverse way, fatherhood has strengthened my commitment to feminism. By revealing the limits of my good intentions and scope of action, fatherhood has pushed me to seek new answers to feminist questions I thought I had answered in my early twenties, on both personal and political levels.
Fatherhood has also reminded me, in a visceral way, of the inequalities that persist between men and women, and, in particular, the burdens carried by mothers. Those burdens and inequalities shape and poison our most intimate relationships whether we want them to or not.
Here again, feminism is useful for fathers and mothers: It gives us perspective, or it should.
It’s easy to be overcome by day-to-day difficulties and despair of the possibility of changing the balance of power between men and women. But if we lift our eyes and look at the sweep of the past through feminism’s eyes, we can see that the balance of power has changed, on this and many other fronts. History doesn’t stop just because we personally feel stuck. If we look at the lives of the people who came before us, we see that our actions in the present do matter, both our individual choices and the act of speaking out in public.
Finally, returning to question two, fatherhood has changed my relationship with feminism in one other way: If I speak out now, it is with a lot more sadness and less righteousness than I did when I was a college student. At this point, I’ve failed so many times that I can hardly denounce others for their imperfections.
But I still feel like we as fathers need to speak out, even if it’s just to friends or through blogs or zines with a few hundred readers. The alternative is silence—but worse than that, meaninglessness. If I’m going to fail, the failure has to mean something. It has to be recorded (if only for myself), examined, put to use, leveraged, transmuted. Feminism gives us a way to do that, to transform our private pains into social change.
Jeremy Adam Smith is the author of “The Daddy Shift,” co-editor of the new anthology “Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood” and founder of the blog Daddy Dialectic.