Category: fatherhood

Bread-winning and Bread-making: On Being a Provider

Michael at work. (Photo credit: Urban Bay Photography)

Michael at work. (Photo credit: Urban Bay Photography)

If you were to walk through the back door into our mudroom, you would be greeted by a row of deep red onions dangling from green stems, strung across the room like a row of purple Chinese lanterns.

If you were to continue upstairs, into our office, you’d find some usual office-y things (computer, desk, bookshelf), but you would also see a box of fluffy golden chicks gathering under the red glow of a heat lamp, as well as a bucket of pear cider sitting beside a jar of red wine, both in the throes of fermentation.

Before that, before even getting to the back door of the house, you’d have to walk by eight garden beds, several still overflowing with kale, celery, tomatoes (all kinds!), cabbage, squash. The zucchini, green beans, sugar peas, and broccoli have all been torn up by now, their lodgings cleared for a winter crop of beets, lettuce, carrots, onions, and yet more kale, cabbage, and broccoli.

Skirting the garden beds you’ll find a chicken run that extends from a coop in a L-shape along the back fence. Grape vines, now fruit-free, wind themselves through the fence of the run, and, inside, three hens loiter under towering sunflowers, waiting for falling seeds.

Under the edge of our roof, flanking each side of our patio, sit two large barrels that drink the runoff from the gutters; these barrels become engorged in the rainy Oregon winter, and then, in the dry summer, quench the thirst of the garden.

All of this fecundity occurs in the back part of our suburban lot. Much as we’d like to, my husband and I don’t live in the country. We’re suburban homesteaders, working with what we’ve got, often to the perplexity of our neighbors.

I say, “we,” but that really isn’t fair. Aside from occasionally helping with the harvest, collecting eggs, or locking the chicken coop at night, I have done nothing to make all this happen. My husband, Michael, grows the vegetables, raises the chickens, collects the rainwater, brews the cider, cooks the meals, bakes the bread – he even makes our lavender-scented soap – and, since the school year began last week and I returned to full-time work, he does this all while being the primary caretaker of our nine month-old son.

And yet, despite all he contributes to quite literally keeping his family fed and happy, to many Michael does not count as a “provider.” Or, at least, he doesn’t fit what seems to have become the widespread definition of the term.

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I grew up in an evangelical Christian subculture that was cocooned, thanks to geography, within the LDS (Mormon) subculture. In this nesting doll of conservative religions, “provider” was shorthand for the God-ordained duty of the man to work outside the home and make money to support his family. The woman, in contrast, was meant to burrow into domesticity and learn the sacred arts of homemaking. She could work hard in the house – cooking, cleaning, laundering, and feeding and clothing and caring for the children – yet her work did not fall under the canopy of “provision.” She could be a mother, a wife, a homemaker, but not a provider. She might make the bread, but the one who wins it, he “provides.”

I still catch myself assuming that this shorthand is limited to the circles of my upbringing – but now I have come to understand that this is simply not true. The connotative meaning of the word provider is fairly universal in contemporary America, even in the broader, more secular culture that ostensibly has less rigid gender roles.

Take Walter White, my favorite television anti-hero. (Because, let’s be honest, everything I am thinking about these days has some connection to Breaking Bad.) Even the scientific, nonreligious Mr. White roots his identity in this moneymaking notion of provision; his desire to provide for his family in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis drives him to earn the big bucks cooking methamphetamine.

I remember one particular scene from a third-season episode, in which Walter begins to suspect that his meth-cooking ventures might actually cost him his family. Gus Fring, his kingpin boss, knows exactly how to manipulate Walt away from his self-doubt, when he says: “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family. … When you have children, you always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”

This exchange, which proves effective and lures Walt deeper into the drug world, demonstrates the power of the provider label, and also how it is a fundamentally gendered term. Walt’s terrifying (and riveting) characterization is an extreme but potent example of how our cultural ideals and expectations of men are tangled up with post-industrialist, capitalist values.

♦♦♦

There is plenty of irony at work here. If Michael, earned a paycheck by cooking professionally for strangers as a chef, instead of cooking for his family for free, he would be seen as a provider. Similarly, if our income stemmed from his green-thumbed work, he could be considered a farmer instead of a mere gardener. The implication is clear: when domestic work is professionalized, only then can it be seen as masculine.

It is no doubt because of these gendered ideals that, when people inquire about Michael’s situation, I catch myself wanting to use terms like “farmer” and “homesteader” rather than the inert “stay-at-home dad,” which makes it sound like Michael just sort of lounges around the couch all day, never leaving the house. Even the acronym, SAHD, is a total downer. Most of these inquirers respond positively to the fact that he is a primary caregiver, but their follow-up questions – “Does he like doing that?” “Does he plan to go back to work soon?” – carry the assumption that, as a man, being at home must feel like an odd fit, a step down.

I recently had a friend remark that men receive undue praise for completing domestic tasks, and I agree with him in part. It is still too often an unexpected surprise when a man stands up to clear the plates at a dinner party instead of his female partner. But something shifts, I think, when that domestic work becomes full-time and completely supersedes a career beyond the home – thus pushing the man beyond the traditional sphere of provision.

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This is not to knock the breadwinners, of course – that happens to be my shtick these days. I’m well aware that my paycheck bankrolls Michael’s backyard homesteading efforts. The work I do is important, and it’s good that our culture recognizes that. The problem is that the work Michael does – which is also the full-time work of millions of women and increasing numbers of men – is viewed as less important, and for those men who choose to do it instead of pursuing a career, it’s seen as compromising their masculinity.

And yet, despite this baggage, I like the word provider. There is something raw and weighty about it, something that captures the essential significance of parenthood. The fundamental role of any parent is to provide for his or her children, whether than means earning an income or growing and preparing food or washing a load of rank diapers. I want to keep the word provider, but somehow detach it from its gendered, monetary roots. I want to reclaim it, to crack it open and fill it with new, expansive meaning that extends beyond the capitalist model connecting manhood to moneymaking and devaluing work traditionally done by women.

Ultimately, despite our cultural conflation of manliness and earning power, both breadwinning and breadmaking are inseparable gestures of provision. The money I earn? Michael makes it count. Michael turns the straw-money into edible, life-giving gold. And this, perhaps, is provision in its purest form.

[This article originally appeared at The Good Men Project.]

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Apparently I Am Destroying Civilization

A recent Pew Research analysis revealed that 40% of U.S. households now have a female breadwinner. As you can see, Lou Dobbs and Friends over at Fox News don’t take this news well:

At first, I felt a little offended by the clip. After all, I am a woman and the breadwinner of my family. But then I realized that they say absolutely nothing about me or my family situation at all. For them, there seem to be only two kinds of families: a nuclear family with a male breadwinner, which is inherently healthy and stable, and dysfunctional families with impoverished single mothers and absent fathers. (You should also watch Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, of all people, take these guys to task on that point, in this epically awesome smackdown.)

The “analysis” of Dobbs and his buddies completely bypasses the salient point, clearly articulated in the PEW findings, that the “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: “5.1 million (37%) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.” The jumbled, fallacy-ridden exchange skates over that distinction straight into apocalypse land, where the family is disintegrating, children are endangered, and men (or at least their balls) are nowhere to be found. There is no room whatsoever in their discussion for a man who chooses to be underemployed or forego employment altogether to be more present at home, because their notion of familial health depends upon a narrow, capitalist conception of masculinity: a man is someone who takes care of his family by making money.

Such assumptions about masculinity are rife in the Fox News clip – men have a “natural” or God-given role to protect, provide, be dominant, etc., and that is interpreted in exclusively economic terms; the definition of the Protector/Provider has become synonymous with earning a paycheck outside the home. Yet these talking heads seem oblivious that what they are defending as the “natural state” of humankind (nuclear family + male breadwinner) is a relatively modern, post-industrial invention.

Their high-pitched anxiety is not about what women are doing, but what men aren’t doing. In the world of Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson there seems to be no space for families or men who choose to “lean out” of the workplace and into the home, who resist the contemporary American myth of material wealth and happiness as correlative.

I’d like to add another talking man-head to the conversation — one perhaps worth listening to — who sees the domestic sphere radically different than Dobbs et al: Wendell Berry. Just this week, I read his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” – an essay that ambitiously tackles a range of Big Ideas, from technology to capitalism to the sexual revolution. He raises enough fodder for twenty blog posts, easily, but I want to discuss the section in which he advocates the need for men and women to revalue the domestic sphere:

“There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. … This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery [or house-husbandry!] of carpentry and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture, and even of woodlot management and wood-cutting. It may also involve a “cottage industry” of some kind, such as a small literary enterprise. […]

I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything better to do than to make one’s marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that “employment outside the home” is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women. It is clear to me from my experience as a teacher, for example, that children need an ordinary daily association with both parents. They need to see their parents at work; they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents. It does not matter so much that this working together should be what is called “quality time,” but it matters a great deal that the work done should have the dignity of economic value.”

Berry is describing a fundamental shift in values here, where domesticity becomes central, rather than tangential, to the identity of both men and women, and the work of home-making and child-rearing is given comparable “dignity” to outside work that rakes in the dough. Of course many people, myself included, find their job outside the home to be very meaningful and satisfying, but I agree with Berry that employment within the home is significantly undervalued in our society, and that needs to change.

In my reading of Berry, it doesn’t matter who makes the money; the money is not ear-marked as “his” or “hers.” The prominence of the “breadwinner” role is displaced by what one might call the “breadmakers,” husbands and wives who both work to make their home stable, loving, productive — whether or not they are also employed beyond the home.

julian in grass

Backyard baby.

A couple of days ago, Michael and I began talking about the possibility of him continuing to be a stay-at-home dad. We were sitting outside on our back patio, steaks on the grill, baby wiggling on a blanket on the grass, a light wind blowing through with the promise of summer. It was an idyllic moment, and I happened to be paying attention – enough to feel overwhelmingly grateful.

Then, a thought occurred to me: if Michael and I were both working full-time, this moment wouldn’t be happening. He probably wouldn’t be home yet, and I’d be throwing something easy and boring together for dinner (my culinary skills are stunted at best). We’d have only a small window of time together before putting the baby down for the night. The fresh greens on my plate and the abundant backyard garden around us wouldn’t exist, because Michael wouldn’t have time to maintain them. Our life would be significantly different than it is now and has been for months.

It has always been the plan for Michael to start applying for teaching jobs again and go back to work in the fall. But suddenly I feel the need to ask, why? Why mess with something that seems to be working for us?

Of course, it’s not easy to shirk societal values. It’s scary to choose the option that gives us minimal savings, less financial security, less status. And it’s certainly Michael who is making the more subversive choice, who will have to routinely and awkwardly field the question, “So, what do you do?” The myths about masculinity so apparent in the Fox clip are arguably more intact than cultural myths about femininity. We’re accustomed to the mother who works outside the home, but not the father who chooses to work only within it – a reality acknowledged by the Pew Research findings:

While the vast majority of Americans (79%) reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles, the new Pew Research survey finds that the public still sees mothers and fathers in a different light when it comes to evaluating the best work-family balance for children. About half (51%) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.

Of course, Michael and I are privileged in the sense that living on one income is a viable option for us. According to the Pew Study, the median family income of married female breadwinners is $80,000 annually; I make just over half of that, but that is still enough to get by on, if we choose to live simply and forego middle class luxuries like eating out, going on vacation, owning a second car, and buying new clothes, cable TV, magazine subscriptions, etc.

leaning out

John & Michael: Dudes leaning out

I know that Michael and I aren’t the only ones wrestling with these decisions. I have many friends who are choosing to “lean out” – and some of them are men. My friend who sent me the Fox News clip, John Meindersee II, recently made the choice to work part-time in the service industry in order to be more present to his family and to invest in his “cottage industry” of designing board game apps. No doubt he could be making more money working full-time in the financial sector, where he’s worked before, but he and his wife, Caity, are deliberately choosing to live by a different set of values.

And just yesterday, coincidentally, one of my favorite bloggers, Deja Earley, wrote about her family’s decision to leave her husband’s job behind and relocate across the country in order to pursue a more flexible, family-centered vision of The Good Life – even though this puts them in a more precarious position financially.

We are all new parents, we all have small babies, and we are all circling around the same questions: How to be more present to our children and loved ones? How to make a home? How to live a full life?

So maybe the talking heads are right. Maybe the social order is being undermined – not because there are more female breadwinners, but because some young families are abandoning the paradigm of the breadwinner altogether. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down

Last week I wrote an article for The Atlantic about feminism’s PR problem. Within a day or two, a rundown of my article popped up on The Spearhead, a publication with ties to the MRA (men’s rights activist) movement.  (If you’re unfamiliar with MRAs, feel free to read several different takes from The Good Men Projecthere and here and here.)

misogyny —> sad face.

The MRA movement has a fairly significant online presence and their antifeminism tends to manifest as blatant, hateful misogyny on the so-called “manosphere.” The Spearhead article itself, to be fair, is pretty straightforward and neutral in tone. While the author clearly hates feminism, he takes no potshots at me personally, even discussing his own parallel discomfort with the MRA label, which was interesting to read.

The comment thread, however, quickly derailed into an ad feminem feeding frenzy, exhibiting the woman-hating rhetoric that is so characteristic of the men’s rights movement.

I came across all this for the first time while breastfeeding Julian to sleep—he is a leisurely eater at night, so I sometimes resort to perusing the web on my iPhone. Being in this peaceful, banal setting made it all the more bizarre to suddenly stumble upon a slew of hateful words about me from a bunch of strangers. Here is a sampling, for your viewing pleasure (warning — strong language ahead):

Seriously, what type of mangina would want to marry a woman like this?

Never underestimate the cunning of women. To see women as children, unlikely to accept responsibility, is wise.

She’s an attention whore.

PR problem? Honey, you ain’t seen a thing, yet. Wait ’till MGTOW [Men Going Their Own Way – an MRA separatist movement] starts to really bite, and all those cock carousel riders with their worthless “wimmen’s studies” degrees not only can’t find a beta to wife them up, but thanks to the economy they can’t find a job, either… It will only hurt more in the years to come. Squeal, you pigs, squeal…

Most men now know what a bunch male hating parasites women have always been … Seriously women, you didnt know have to burn your underwear to let us know how useless women are …

[Her students] are just sissies who have to put on their big girl panties. They are only seeking attention because once they left high school and got into the real world, they suddenly find out they can’t always have it all and their own way.

My take is that she’s just another fucked up idiot.

One commenter appeared oddly fascinated with me personally and linked to this blog for more fodder. He quoted extensive excerpts from my most recent entry, imposing a bizarre narrative onto the snapshot of my life I discussed. My husband became “Mikey, the poor schlub,” a “beta schmuck” who I married, because I couldn’t keep around an “Alpha bad-boy.” He attempts to paint me simultaneously as a feminist extremist and a right-wing religious “Churchian” who would pal around with the likes of Mark Driscoll and Glenn Stanton. (I’m sure Driscoll would be surprised hear that we are compatriots!) When I step back, it is actually fascinating to see him flounder to bring these two facile stereotypes into anything resembling a coherent narrative.

Initially—I’ll be honest—I was thrown off-balance after reading all this venom targeted toward me. I felt particularly disconcerted by the blog invasion, as if some weirdo with a grudge had broken into my house and taken a big shit on my couch. Of course, it was completely naïve for me to harbor the illusion (even subconsciously) that my blog is a private, personal space – it might be personal, but it’s online and open to any reader, including my charming MRA fanbase, and it’s been good for me to realize the full ramifications of that.

As I read these comments, my feeling of disorientation soon gave way to righteous indignation. I could feel my passion for feminism being rekindled, an irony that amused me. Like Dostoevsky’s underground man, the malicious MRA types are often their own worst enemies. Their very existence fans the flames of what they most despise (feminism), while their overt hatred keeps them mostly on the fringes of culture, in an online “underground.”

manginas

manginas, plotting

That night, some of my dear friends and colleagues, who happen to be men, came over to hang out with Michael and me (sorry, guys, but being my friends probably means you are “manginas,” too). We spent a good portion of the evening brainstorming an epic blog entry that would skewer the MRAs! and rally the troops against sexism! We came up with some great ideas, and I sat down tonight intending to write that post.

Now that I’m here, however, I’m finding myself writing in another direction. While perusing various MRA articles and blogs over the past couple of days, I’ve come across some of the stories of these men, which typically involve broken marriages and families being torn apart, like, for example, the story of W.F. Price, the guy who wrote The Spearhead piece (who, again, wasn’t malicious toward me, although he does lapse into misogynist rhetoric elsewhere). For some of these men, perhaps many of them, their rage springs from deep pain. Feminism, painted in broad, clumsy strokes, gives them an adversary, something they can blame, something that can explain the implosion of their personal lives. And apparently, for many, the rage goes beyond feminism to womankind writ large.

But as I read these stories, my anger dissipated. I treasure my son’s close bond with his father; I can fathom the agony of being separated from one’s children and, not knowing whether these separations are justified or not, this gives me a point of connection with these men – one they would no doubt deny, but one that’s nonetheless hard for me to overlook. I began to realize that their nasty comments aren’t really about me at all. They have no idea who I am or how I really view the world. I was just their rhetorical punching bag of the moment, some faceless feminist on which to project their own fury and pain.

As I’ve processed this through writing, the power of the hate-fueled words has vanished. I don’t feel the need to skewer the MRAs – instead, I mostly just want to leave them alone, to let them stew in their manosphere and blow off steam. And another part of me wishes I could somehow dialogue with them, if I could find one or two willing to actually talk to me. I’m not trying to justify or exonerate the displays of misogynist words or attitudes, or play into the woman-bashing victim mentality. I’m just trying to remember that human beings are complex, and although it would be very easy for me to impose my own simplistic narrative onto all MRAs, and to attempt to dehumanize them, I don’t want to return the favor. Weird as it may sound, I want to humanize them. I want to see them as people.

More than that, I don’t want to unwittingly play a part in their “war of the sexes” script. Increasingly I am convinced that a primary hurdle to gender equality is the pervasive, entrenched notion that gender is a “zero sum game,” that men and women are perpetually at odds, that if one is winning the other is losing, that if one has power, the other is a victim. The “men’s rights” mentality feeds this dynamic, as do some of the more divisive and vitriolic camps of feminism  – which, by the way, is a fragmented rather than monolithic entity.

For me, feminism has never been about tearing men down. I first encountered feminism in the classroom of a male professor, and I’ve always known men who are proud feminists. Moreover, the two most precious beings in my life happen to be male. I want my son to live in a world where he is encouraged and allowed to reach his full potential; I just don’t believe that has to happen at the expense of girls and women.

Sometimes the best reminder of something is to encounter its inverse, to be shown its absence. My little foray into the MRA world has, somewhat paradoxically, given me a renewed sense of gratitude for the men in my life. While it’s important to be aware that this sort of blatant hatred of exists, it is also nice to be reminded that that’s not where I live; those aren’t the men that I know.

The men I know are real men. Strong and good men. Men who love and respect the women in their lives, and who are loved and respected in return. And they certainly don’t fit the facile “beta-male” straw man the MRAs love to construct. The men in my life are a diverse bunch: some are atheists and skeptics, some are conservative Christians and Mormons, some have high-powered careers, some are at-home dads, some are wealthy, most are not; introverts, extroverts, pacifists, sports fanatics, fathers, husbands, bachelors, gay men, straight men, liberals, republicans, vegans, hunters – these are not cookie cutter men. But there is one trait they do share: these men aren’t threatened by women’s success; their sense of identity and power is not dependent upon mastery or dominance. They don’t hide out on the Internet and take potshots at mommy bloggers.

Their masculinity is not so precarious, so fragile, that they must tear down women to feel like men.

I won’t let these bastards grind me down, because, honestly, they are doing a good job of grinding themselves down. And the good men in my life overshadow them.

Even if some MRAs find this blog post and, reading it through their misogynist filters, proceed to throw Molotov cocktails in the comments – that’s okay. Because I get to shut my laptop and revel in a life that is filled with love. An ordinary life, but one with an undercurrent of quiet joy. When I finish this post I will go into the bedroom to nurse my baby boy, to enter a perfect moment that is played over again each night. Right now, he’s sleeping next to his father, and I will get to curl up between their warm bodies and sleep, too. And that reality is something that no online thread can touch.

fatherhood is beautiful.

good men.