Tag Archives: fatherhood

Resisting fatherhood

Well, that’s a weird statement, isn’t it? I mean, I’m undoubtedly a father and whether I like it or not, I’m going to carry on being one. Resistance, one might say, is futile by definition.

Yes and no. Becoming a father is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Becoming a ‘father’ or a ‘daddy’ in a public, socialised sense is more of a mixed blessing.

‘Dads’ are expected to behave in a certain way to a far greater extent than men who aren’t fathers. Men in general have had their options opened considerably over the last ten years. We can use cosmetics without being laughed at (mostly), cry, express feelings, be vegetarians, artists and many other things without even the Daily Mail raising much of an eyebrow. Sometimes, we’re even allowed to be gay without it being tattooed across our foreheads. Most spectacularly of all, men are even allowed to be intelligent and thoughtful in public with a lynch mob gathering. You can even do some of the former and like sport (easy, now).

Where things still need a little work are the expectations ascribed to ‘dads’ which have remained tied to as similarly rigid a social discourse as that mothers or ‘mummies’ are fastened to. Or fasten themselves to (that’s another story but I commented the other day on Noble Savage’s blog on the infantilisation inherent in the ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ blogging).

I just used the word ‘discourse’ didn’t I? And a blizzard of knowing quote marks.

Lets get the quote marks out of the way first. If I put ‘daddy’ in quote marks, I’m not trying to be sarcastic or ironic. My point is always that you personally might read ‘daddy’ one way but society normally reads it another. And the norm exerts a kind of gravitational pull over you, whether you like it or not. That’s where discourse comes in.

Anything could be considered a discourse: clothes, newspapers, a TV programme, a tattoo, names, laws, forms and corporate policies – they’re all discourses. The one thing they have in common is that in some way they express an ideology, generally the prevailing one. Most perniciously, they often express it most stridently when seemingly in opposition to the ‘normal’ way of seeing things.

Lets take an example. Go to the Times Online. Put ‘Fatherhood’ into their search box. The first link that comes up is a sponsored one for Sainsbury’s parenting club – “Join Our Baby Club for Articles & Advice + a Free Mum & Baby Pack!” That’s the first lesson the discourse of the norm of fatherhood has to teach us – fathers are invisible to most retailers. ‘Mums’ are targeted.  Bit tricky if you’re a single parent and still a bit irritating if you’re part of a couple. The ideological campaign to keep you separate from the business of parenting until the ‘mans’ stuff like football and punching each other comes up has already begun.

The first search return proper is for Damian Whitworth’s article about the Evolution of Fatherhood. “We look at the evoloution of fatherhood and ask if guys are really ready for it.” Note the term ‘guy’ and how embedded in the article’s related links we find ‘Why fathers don’t need a day of gratitude.‘ It’s a thoughtful article but at every point it reinforces the idea that change is ‘thirty years away’. Our children might one day be fathers who can act like…well, mothers, apparently. One writer interviewed describes being ‘crucified’ on Mumsnet for struggling with fatherhood and writing about it. The drift of the piece, as it concludes, is still that being a father is somehow something that remains alienated from parenting proper and that change, real change, is deferred indefinitely.

Now I don’t know about you but we seem to have been discussing changes in the role of the father for decades and yet the most thoughtful media pieces still seem to position it as as far away as ever. The next article listed trumpets that “Many men, it seems, give less thought to starting a family than they do to choosing their next car.” Next up, hysterically, is Tiger Woods in an article from 2008 discussing his discovery of the joys of fatherhood. What’s the message? Well, you can be a great sportsman and an engaged father. But you have to get your cardio in first. The difficulty, apparently, is balancing the demands of family life against those of work (or the other stuff we now know about Tiger. But moving on…)

There’s any number of points one might pull out of this – the inherent conservatism of the model of Tiger Woods and his nuclear family, the continual positioning of men feeling complex emotions about fatherhood as somehow a bit abnormal, the deferral (I keep coming back to that as it seems a key point) of a kind of parenthood which routes around the cliches expected of ‘mummys’ and daddys’.  They’re all vectors from an ideology which requires fatherhood in one box and motherhood in the other. Parenthood doesn’t really exist in this ideology – it functions almost invariably (cf. the Sainsburys ad above) as a synonym for motherhood.

Think I’m exaggerating? Go try the same exercise in the Daily Mail – but read attentively.

Okay, resistance. Wherever there is power, you’ll find resistance (I’m taking that and a lot of the basis for the foregoing from Foucault if you’re curious). Resistance doesn’t mean fighting something or avoiding it. The best kind of resistance to a pesky kind of discourse like being a ‘dad’ is a long, hard, critical look at how one is being positioned and an informed, knowing choice as to the kind of self one wants to be. Discourses are functional, useful even. They accomplish things. They get you through the day (or night). More worryingly, the discourse of ‘mum and baby’ versus ‘dad’ (how many dad welcome packs do you know of? Leaving aside the worrying content of the mummy ones, of course) functions very well in enabling the prevention of equal rights in maternity leave or assuring that people don’t ask too many questions about the continuing deferral of that particular legislation (deferral again). It keeps fathers productive and mothers in their place. It keeps the dangerous idea of ‘parents’ as something more meaningful than a legalism at bay.

So I take a good hard look at being a dad and the social expectations involved in being a dad every day. It’s an act of resistance that keeps me closer to being a father and a parent as opposed to a ‘dad’. It informs how I act at work when someone wants time off to go to a scan or a colleague on a KIT day wants to bring her baby in.

Resistance. It isn’t futile. It’s what we do to stay alive as thinking beings as opposed to geometrical points the forces of discourse act upon.

P.S. I’m doing a walk for the Joseph Salmon Trust with a bunch of other bloggers. More about this on my  Just giving page,


Straight Into Darkness – Dudelet, Balka and me

Dudelet and I have been having one or two issues lately. Actually, supermum’s had one or two strained moments with dudelet this week, as has little elf. To be honest, I think we’re all taking chunks out of each other on a regular basis. The flat is too small, the neighbours are regularly complaining about the noise of the children running around above their heads (and as luck would have it, they seem to be constantly working from home) and my search for a new job, the deus ex machina supposed to engineer an escape from both small flat and increasingly anally retentive neighbours, keeps running into rejections or deadends. There’s a bit of an atmosphere, a sense of ‘between stations’ and children pick up on that sort of thing.

More disturbingly, dudelet’s had a few sleepwalking incidents, something classically associated with stressed children. Little elf seems relatively untouched but her insistence on doing everything herself and ‘owning’ particular bits of floor or furniture, or the whole of our bed is driving the other three of us to distraction.

So supermum took LE swimming this morning whilst dudelet and I stayed behind. I initially banned TV – we were going to find more creative outlets – and we built railway tracks, raided the freezer, made smoothies and drew. Then dudelet, who refused to countenance leaving the house, went into pester overdrive to at least play on the GameCube. After some debate, we struck a deal. He’d get to play Zelda for 45 minutes then we’d pack up and head for the Tate Modern where he’d spend an equal amount of time trekking round the exhibition of my choice.

And that’s exactly what we did.

I wanted to see the Van Doesburg exhibition but before that, we tackled the current big installation in the cavernous space of the Turbine Hall – Miroslaw Balka’s monstrous steel box of darkness, 13 metres high and 30 metres long.

Dudelet wanted to see it (he loves the big exhibits and Louise Bourgeois’ Maman is a touchstone for both of us) but was scared – it literally feels like one is walking into a wall of darkness. So I carried him and we slowly walked up the ramp into the immense steel box, a giant’s freight container. To me, it was nowhere near as scary as it might have been. It was too crowded and after a while, one could make out white shirts or scarfs hovering like after-images in the blackout. But the sense of lost or incalculable space was intense. I couldn’t see or sense where the darkness ended in walls and the ceiling might as well have been a night sky devoid of stars or light pollution. We were at the bottom of a huge well, surrounded by other blinded, shuffling, giggling denizens. I moved forward slowly, dudelet in one arm with his legs wrapped around my waist whispering a running commentary, and my other arm stretched out ready to encounter a wall or The Other. When I finally met the end of the box, I almost jumped. The wall was velvelty, almost warm. Dudelet could see a faint crack of light from an imperfect seal to our right so we made our way south untill I met another wall with the same faint shock at the unexpetedly soft texture I encountered. Then we turned east, looking back the way we came. The illusion vanished instantly. It was a dull light but all the people entering the open end of the box were silhouetted against it. Dudelet let me put him down and we made our way out.

It’s a piece of art that references many things – the cattle cars and gas chambers of the Holocaust, the simply unknown – but on a crowded Saturday afternoon, it offers more simple lessons about the tricksiness of the spatial and how my beautiful boy still trusts me enough, despite all the shouting and strife of the last couple of weeks, to let me carry him into darkness and out again.

Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Travels With His Son, Peter Carey, 2005

Peter Carey is the twice Booker prize winning author of ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ amongst others. ‘Wrong About Japan’ is a slim book – 140 pages with a largish font and a lot of pictures – book about a trip to Tokyo he took with his manga-mad son. Carey seemed to have had three motivations – to try and understand the ‘Japanness’ of the anime and manga such as Mobile Suit Gundam or My Friend Totoro, to bond a little with a boy who’d seemingly vanished into the murky fog of impending teendom and to test out his own rather literal projections of post/pre-apocalyptic angst onto the films and manga he’d begun to explore through his son.

Why should we read it?

Because Carey is a great writer taking a holiday front the serious business of penning the Great Australian Novel. And because it’s always refreshing to read about the great and the good dismally failing to communicate with their teenagers. He makes a twelve year old boy sit through FOUR HOURS of kabuki plays. He drags him along to visit a swordmaker where he no doubt embarrasses the poor boy yet further with a stream of over-cooked questions about the ‘spirituality’ of swordmaking. The swordsmith listens patiently then deadpans, “You’ve obviously been reading a lot of American books…”

Carey is refreshingly unstinting in documenting his failures and his son witnesses him mildly humiliate himself to a parade of amine’s aristocracy, from the director of Blood: The Last Vampire to the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam. He’s also touchingly concerned about protecting his clearly more streetwise son – who at least knows a Yakuza when he sees one – from the seamier side of Asakuza and the like. It climaxes in a memorable surprise encounter with Miyazaki himself, the auteur of Spirited Away where both father and son finally achieve something of the communion each is looking for.

And the downside?

It’s plainly a bit of a potboiler and it’s too short. You sense that Cary is barely scratching the surface of both his experience of attempting to engage with the essence of “Japaneseness” – doomed to failure, as he frequently admits – and his even bumpier ride into the concerns and headspace of his son. The latter was a story I felt that he particularly underplayed, wimping out on delivering what could have been a powerful exploration of a wholly different kind of journey in favour of yet another piece of reportage about thoroughly over-exposed ‘exotic’ Japan.

The low down?

It’s an entertaining diversion which tantalising offers quite a bit more which it doesn’t quite deliver on. An extended magazine article, perhaps. One for fellow dads and Japanophiles to take on a (shortish) train journey.