Feminism and the Immersed Parent

09/11/2009 By Shawn Burns

It sounds strange to some people when I say I’m a feminist. To them all feminists have one thing in common: fem-ness. But feminism is a to-philosophy rather than a from-philosophy: it aims toward parity and equality rather than emerging from inherent traits. In fact, it is a from-philosophy that feminism is a reaction against: the philosophy that biological differences are relevant in non-biological spheres.

Sarcastically stated, feminism is “the radical idea that women are people.” (Kramarae and Treichler) More generally, the goal of feminism is to approach the world as though biological differences are irrelevant where they ought to be irrelevant, and to resist the urge to introduce them into discussions where they don’t belong. This means not assuming that girls aren’t “built” for math, or business, or aggression, or rationality. It means not using irrelevant biological facts as predictors of intellect or behaviour. The end result of a feminist approach to the world is a world where gender equality has just happened, because no one carries with them any irrational, irrelevant beliefs about gender. It is not as much a demand for equality as a demand for rationality, and equality is the payoff.

A lot of contemporary, nth-wave feminist effort is being exerted against the structure that still seems to maintain the classic gender roles in families: increased attention is paid to women in the workplace, maternity leave, breast-feeding, pumping, flex-time, health-care and pre-natal care, tele-commuting, all with the intent of achieving for women what men have seem to have gained effortlessly: input into the economic and social structures that impact their own lives, because it is those structures that make the housewife ideal so powerful, and it is that ideal that does so much harm to the effort to dismiss biological differences in areas where those differences are irrelevant.

With this effort comes a severe line: Men must recognize the changes that need to occur; reorganize themselves so that they no longer even unconsciously relegate women to roles based on details of gender; and accept different roles themselves.

One of these roles men must accept, the most important and the most foundational, is the role of Immersed Parent. Anecdotally and historically fathers have not been Immersed Parents as a rule; the primary caregiver, by dint of being primary was immersed while the other parent was a little removed. Fathers today are being asked, and are asking, to be immersed just as, classically, mothers have been. Not every father is being asked to become a primary caregiver, an at-home dad, or even to come up with a complicated scheme to ensure that the parenting responsibilities are divided utterly equitably. But I think every father is being asked, now, to be Immersed in his fatherhood. Because with this immersion comes a respect for a role that women have traditionally maintained, and a different perspective on the social and economic conditions affecting that role.

An Immersed Parent is surrounded by his parenting, un-detached, un-removed, un-distanced, and un-afraid. An immersed parent doesn’t have to know every detail of his child’s day, but will consider that day important to the active development of the child. An immersed parent doesn’t have to be the one doing the cooking or the cleaning, but will care that the child is receiving good nutrition and living in a clean environment. An immersed parent doesn’t have to be the one singing lullabies at night, but cares that the child sleeps well. An immersed parent doesn’t have to be the one to attend school board and PTA meetings, but cares about the quality of education the child receives. An immersed parent doesn’t have to be at home all the time, but cares about what happens at home in his absence. An immersed parent makes decisions, informed decisions, and active decisions, with his partner about raising the child. An Immersed Parent can parent. An Immersed Parent is never a baby-sitter to his children.

Part of the job is already being done as fathers step into at-home roles and immerse themselves very successfully. But here they face resistance from not only other men, who resist the changing roles and the infection of the workplace with domesticity. They also face a peculiar sort of resistance from women. Some women view at-home dads in a spectacularly evil light, as sexual prowlers hoping to seduce neighbourhood moms. But even more insidious is the casual assumption that men are buffoons when placed in a domestic role. This assumption, and the dismissal of male competence in the home and with the children, does more, I think, to deter men from stepping into those roles on their own than any pressure from male peers.

And here is the heart of this piece: I want you, ladies, to stop writing about how hilariously incompetent your husband was that day when you left him with the kids. I want you to stop writing about how pissed off you were that he couldn’t even make toast for the kids and let you sleep in for an extra half hour on the weekend. Even if it’s true the telling of stories like that, and the seeking out of like-minded women who can shake their heads ruefully with you, is a magnificent obstacle to the increase in Immersed Fathers. It is subtle misandry, misogyny’s dance partner, and it is an obstacle to the very balance and equality that would help you to never feel that kind of superiority, disappointment, and anger ever again. It is an obstacle to the creation of a class of men who collaborate with you to change social and economic structures that will result in gender equality and improved work-life balance. Think about the converse situation, in which men would congregate to laugh about the sad attempts of the newly “liberated” women to operate in a man’s world. Did it, does it, happen? Yes, I’m certain of it. But it is not something to be tolerated, and it is certainly not something to be lauded.

This ought to be something any woman who considers herself even remotely feminist should embrace. But it’s difficult, because people are so confessional in their writings and these are genuine feelings. Shouldn’t we encourage the expression of genuine feelings? Imagine the converse, again: should we encourage misogynistic expressions if they represent the genuine feelings of the misogynist? I think the answer is no. We ought not commiserate in either misogyny or misandry. But surely it isn’t really misandry, especially if the man himself will admit his own incompetence at home, right? The parallel to the housewife who is just convinced, golly-gee, that she has no head for numbers ought to be obvious, and damning in reply. If you want to change the world you have to want to change your own world, the small one around you, and that starts with respecting men as Fathers, writ-large, even if as an individual father they do kind of a terrible job. Respecting the Father, I think, means not undermining the Immersed Father by polluting the dialogue with tales of bumbling, embarrassing, incompetence. If your husband needs help or training in parenting then help him, but don’t shame him as a parent.

Fish out of water stories are funny. But just as the workplace does not need to be structured solely according to male needs and input, neither does parenthood need to be defined according to what mom would do. If a father is participating, immersing himself in his fatherhood, then he is going to change the way the family is organized, just as having women in the workforce in large numbers has changed the way businesses operate by accommodating both their needs and input. This change is just change. A father will change the structure of domestic life according to his needs and interests. You may not like it, but before you condemn it and resist it wonder about changes in the workplace that men may not have liked at first, and perhaps still don’t. The benefits of those changes are not always obvious to our raw hearts and closed minds.

There are lots of definitions of feminism out there, but here’s a new one for you: Feminism is the radical notion that fathers are parents.