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,