Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Parenting is Not a "Thing"

The title of this post was my first confused attempt last week at expressing what I think is one of the more important things I've learned about parenting as I have done it.

I was having dinner with a friend I don't get to interact with very much any more when I was down in Toronto last Friday. She is a few months away from having her first kid, so the conversation turned to children and to parenting. There was a lot of interesting stuff that came up, but I want to focus on this one particular point, in large part because it should've been fairly easy for me to communicate, because it has been at least implicitly present for quite some time in my thinking and in things I have written. However, it actually ended up being fairly tricky for me, and often writing about things helps me clarify what I think so that it becomes easier for me to communicate about them verbally in a clear and concise manner in later conversations, so that's what I'm going to do. The basic idea is that it has been my observation that parenting gets treated as a discrete sphere of human activity, a separate thing if you will, but that is not terribly accurate and perhaps even actively harmful.

Part of the difficulty in communication came because this way of trying to communicate my point actually captures two related but discrete things and, particularly given the context of the broader conversation in which this occurred, which was largely focused on various things related to gender, my conversation partner quite naturally understood me to be talking about issues related to gender socialization. By this I mean the fact that people socialized into masculinity tend to have greater expectations about a right to time that we consider our own than people socialized into femininity, and this can result in men not responding well to demands for our participation in caring labour that impinge upon these feelings of entitlement. We also grow up without much encouragement to integrate caring labour of various sorts into our lives as a whole, so at least some men -- particularly those in households with traditional heterosexual social organization around the division of labour -- can get away with seeing parenting as something that happens between, say, 7:30 and 8:30 pm rather than something that should be expected to radically reshape our entire lives.

Speaking personally, I don't think I was ever under the delusion that having a kid would have a limited, sequestered impact on me, because the deal had been all along that I would stay home with it for a significant period. Still, fully integrating that into my gut-level expectations and into my and our practice was neither quick nor easy. There was most dramatically not a balance in caring labour in the first nine months of L's life. This had to do in part with presence or absence of the equipment for nursing, but I could definitely have done a much better and faster job of getting with the program. At that point, though, I actually took on the role of being L's primary caregiver during weekdays, and things have generally been balanced at a functional level since then, though each of us were at times jealous of the kind of time that the other had that was not primarily devoted to care provision -- that is, I was jealous of my partner having regular, sizeable blocks of prime work time during the day because I felt absolutely starved for such a thing, and she felt jealous of me having time that was more broken up and less easily useable for sustained work but that was more fleixbly available for non-work activities that could serve in the preservation of sanity. And though we have largely been successful in maintaining that practical balance of the labour of caring, I know that I still deal on an ongoing basis with feelings of entitlement to "my" time.

All of which is to say, there are very important gendered aspects of expectations and (once the blessed event occurs) practices with respect to parenting, some of which have to do with masculine expectations that the impact of having a baby might be quarantined into a tidy corner of our lives. Actually organizing our lives to fulfill those expectations of quarantine can only be an expression and reproduction of gendered relations of power, so obviously it is something we need to overcome.

However, as important as that is, it isn't what I had in mind when I first made the point. What I meant is likely experienced in gendered ways, as is almost everything, but I have observed it happening in a variety of ways that are not particularly associated with masculinity. In particular, I was basing my point on observations about discourse related to parenting, both informal discourse in settings dominated by the identity "mom" and in mainstream written discourse about parenting, and in comparing that to my own ongoing wrestling with questions of how to be a parent.

My basic observation is that it is very common to talk about parenting in a way that kind of dissociates it from the rest of life. I don't mean this in the sense above of having delusions about the sort of impact that having kids will have on your life, but rather the idea that asking questions to guide our parenting practice is somehow naturally separated from thinking critically about what we do more generally and the context in which we do it. Parenting is generally something we learn to do as we do it as adults, so there is greater incentive to engage in talking and thinking about choices and practices and ethics and all sorts of things like that. However, this almost invariably happens in ways that fail to see how choices and practices and ethics about parenting are integrated into choices and practices and ethics about our lives more generally, and that, in my experience, it is very hard to come up with good answers about the former in the absence of asking good questions about the latter.

One implication of this is that we often fail to appreciate the ways in which our everyday practices shape our children even in the face of deliberate choices we make that we hope to have an opposite impact. For example, it is easy to underestimate the ways in which thus-far unprocessed nonsense that we still carry with us related to our own gender socialization gets passed on through the little things we do unconsciously every day, even in the face of more explicit things we might try to do to counter patriarchal gender socialization.

It also means we tend to ask questions insufficiently broadly. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote about parental media regulation when it comes to kids (my thinking may have evolved since then but it still says some useful stuff, I think). That's an issue where a lot of the supposed range in different approaches to parenting have to do with substituting different items on a checklist that will be permitted or not, depending on whether our orientation is more conservative or more liberal, but I have very seldom encountered situations in which parents or mainstream written parenting resources recognize that making good choices around their kids and media consumption is really integrated into the larger issue of our own understanding of what the media is, how it works, and how we relate to it. Also largely neglected are questions about the extent to which it is really a positive thing to have a policing relationship with our kids and to what extent we want to have other sorts of engagement with them on issues around media consumption.

Sexuality is another prime example -- both myself and my primary partner were far, far more powerfully shaped by the "hidden curriculum" of what we learned about sexuality from our parents than anything they might have explicitly told us on the subject, and I think that is pretty common. Yet often when you see or hear discourse about parenting and sexuality it has to do with what you tell them and when in a very simplistic way, or how to deal with potentially awkward explicit questions from children of various ages. There is seldom any discussion of the ways in which the current place that you are at in your own sexual journey relates to how you are able to parent around this issue, or about the ways in which the sexual and relationship practices that you model have an impact on your kids. And beyond a few simplistic moral platitudes, in discourse about parenting there is seldom any explicit critical discussion of sexuality in a broader social context. Yet how on earth can we fool ourselves into thinking that anything we say about parenting and sexuality will be remotely useful if we don't deal with these things?

I suspect that this shape for parenting discourse also has to do with the ways in which talking about our lives tend to be so privatized in broader discourse -- we learn to talk about ourselves in very individualistic ways, and it can be quite difficult to recognize our integration into a social landscape in how we talk, particularly if the conversation is intended as casual and informal.

Anyway, it wasn't until I was actively parenting myself that I really appreciated the ways in which we tend to treat parenting as a discrete set of activities in how we discuss our choices and approaches, rather than seeing parenting as just one more arena in which our larger understandings of how to act in the world receive their expression. And I think what makes it so hard to communicate is the very fact of its expression in the discourse that we fall into around parenting, both in written material and in how we talk casually.

I still don't feel like I'm expressing what I mean entirely effectively, but it is a start.

1 comment:

Gabriel said...

Thought provoking stuff on parenting...I like your blog and I feel we share sufficient common ground for a link to each others blogs to be mutually beneficial.If you agree to link then please contact me at 'An Unrepentant Communist'

on the commments page of the current post,and I will immediately link your blog to mine.Looking forward to hearing from you.
Gabriel in County Kerry Ireland