Wednesday, March 16, 2016

What if fathers also viewed fatherhood as their greatest accomplishment?

I was awoken this morning, as so often happens, but a little blonde creature (aka my 5 year old) jumping into my bed and crying out, "Get up! Get up! Get up, Mama!" After wrestling on the bed a bit, I did indeed get up out of bed, and while my boys watched videos on their computer I made my coffee and went through my checking-social-media routine: checking instagram, facebook, and twitter for interesting updates.

It was on twitter that I found this link, tweeted out by my sister. Apparently Beyonce recently said something about how her greatest accomplishment is giving birth to her daughter, and apparently this was controversial. I started reading up more on the story, and had so many thoughts that I knew I had to sit down and write about it.

So, Beyonce said her proudest moment was when she birthed her daughter, that becoming a mother is her biggest accomplishment. That article does bring up an important point:

Our cultural narratives dictate, however, that regardless of how impressive their resumes might be, women are meant to have babies and spend their time happily devoted to them. We expect that all women become mothers and treat child-rearing as if it should be the most fulfilling vocation in the world, to the point that women who don't have children are seen as selfish, cold or brokenThere's excessive pressure on women not only to have children, but to claim their roles as parents as their crowning achievementWhile it is, of course, perfectly fine for Bey and other mothers to cite parenthood as a point of enormous pride (you do you, no shame), it's tough to ignore the cultural context of such a statement. She and women like Clinton set a gold standard for what it looks like to "have it all" in a world that makes doing so damn near impossible. (source)
It can be difficult to tease out individual motives and actions, from greater cultural context. I do see where this author is coming from, and how it is still difficult for a mother to come out and say that she feels more proud of her career than her role as a parent.

That said, I also think this is very important to keep in mind, when we talk about individual choices:
The statement “Every woman’s highest calling is motherhood,” is very different from the statement, “My greatest accomplishment so far in life is becoming a mother.”  The first is proscriptive: it tells women what to do, and how to prioritize their lives, particularly around men, and for men’s benefit.  The second is descriptive: it explains one person’s individual assessment of her own formidable accomplishments. (source)

I am an ardent feminist who has also chosen to be an at-home parent for my two boys, so you can guess where I'm going with all this. It does get complicated when we're trying to differentiate between free personal choice and pressure from society. For such a long time, women were forced into domestic life, able only to care for and work towards our homes and families, viewed as little more than vessels for birthing babies and keeping them out of the menfolks' way. It is so easy, when we finally get to break free from that, to reject and demonize those things we were forced into. As soon as you actually have some other options, it seems like freely choosing the thing we used to be forced into is a step backwards. To move "forwards" we tend to want to break away from anything that used to be traditionally and stereotypically feminine, in part because all those things are tainted and inherently viewed as "lesser than."

But that's where we need to be careful, because that just upholds the patriarchal hierarchy. Feminism and equality aren't about making women be more like men, but about realizing how traditionally feminine roles and acts ave been undervalued by sheer virtue of their association with femininity. It's not femininity that we need to shatter and be done with but the automatic de-valuing of these roles and acts that are absolutely vital and crucial to any functioning society. It's the same reason why girls liking pink and playing with dolls isn't bad in and of itself-- it's when those are the only options, or when girls are ridiculed for wanting "boy toys" (and boys ridiculed for liking pink), that we have major problems.

Women have, and in some ways still feel, so much pressure to view home and family as The Most Important Things Above All. The flip side of this, is that the default for men is to view work and career as their number 1 priority, and family second (they've got a wife at home to mind the kiddoes, right?). Why is that? Why is it that men are only really allowed to care about their kids and families as regrets expressed on their deathbeds? (we all like to pass around the memes about regrets and how no one looks back on their lives wishing they'd spent more time working, but why don't we then apply that to our lives when we have the chance?)

What if fathers also got to view fatherhood as their greatest accomplishment?

Maybe instead of insisting that women should value career more than family, we should allow and encourage men to cherish fatherhood. Maybe the "solution" isn't to devalue family and the role and impact children have on our lives, but to acknowledge that yes for those of us who have children they are really fucking important and affect everything else about our lives from then onwards. Think about the influence our parents have on each of us-- for some it's a good influence, for others it isn't, but it's hard to deny that the way we grew up and the way our parents treated us (or didn't) has an effect on the adults we become. How could that process, of raising another human being, not be important? Why does the bulk of that responsibility still fall mostly on women, rather than being shared around equally? Maybe there is so much more we can do to support all parents, of all genders, to be there for their children rather than having to make a choice between family and career.

There is another important distinction that I got to thinking about, and that is the difference between viewing our children as our "greatest accomplishments" vs viewing our role as parents as such. Part of what's associated with the traditional view of women is that we're meant to live and die for our children, to be wholly devoted to them, and find our meaning and value in our children and how they turn out. THAT I still reject. My children are their own people, and I will not saddle them with the huge responsibility of needing to fulfill me. They are their own people, and free to be and do what they feel called to be and do.

They are separate, in my mind at least, from my role as a parent. My role as a parent is about me and my actions, which is of course intertwined with but still separate from my children as people. Maybe that doesn't make sense. But for example, I do list giving birth, twice, as two of my proudest moments. And my journey as a mother has been the most eye-opening and enlightening journey of my life. I could go on an on about this, but basically I have done so much inner work and grown as a person as a direct result of the challenges and joys I have experienced as a parent. I don't have a career like Beyonce's to juxtapose that to, but I cannot imagine how everything that comes with being a parent wouldn't heavily influence my career if I did. It influences everything.

My feminism is largely about choice and freedom-- freedom from being pigeon-holed by gender stereotypes; freedom from discrimination; freedom from the cultural pressures associated with our genders. Freedom for women (and all genders) to have children, as well as freedom from the expectation that all women should/want to have children (because along with everything I've said here, I also strongly believe in the right not to have kids; there are many other roles and responsibilities that are essential to a functioning society that I may value but don't have any desire or ability to fulfill myself). Freedom to value your family and children above your career, and freedom to choose career over family. And yes, the context in which we make our choices matters-- we don't live our lives in a vacuum, there is context to everything. It's important to acknowledge that not everyone has the same freedom in their choices. It's important to seek out the barriers that stand in the way for some and knock them down. It's important to talk about systemic issues. And also, for the individual that freedom of choice is crucial. It's why I don't think there is a paradox in my being a stay-at-home homeschooling mother and a feminist, or in any mother (or father) valuing their accomplishments as a parent more highly than those of their career.

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