It is an ancient and time-honored tradition of fathers to leap out from behind corners and startle their little kids. According to the venerable template, the little one will shriek in faux terror and scamper away in expectation of pursuit.
My son has different ideas.
If my son is startled by something truly unknown, like the low-flying medical helicopter that often passed over our apartment in Michigan, then he will get scared. But if he can identify the source of a perceived threat, then his instinctive reaction is immediate and unrestrained aggression. This has been the case at least as long as he’s been able to walk. If I, or anyone else, tries to startle the little dude, he lowers his head, defiantly bellows his war-cry, and charges.
So when my wife realized that he was slated for several shots at his routine checkup on Friday, I took off work to go to the appointment with her. It’s a good thing I did, because they were short on nurses. It was up to me and my wife to hold the little guy firmly down while the nurse stabbed him three times in the left leg and twice in the right. His sister went outside to hide under a table in the hall.
After the shots were over, his rage—and it was rage—continued unabated. My wife hesitated for a moment, torn between comforting her angry son and her terrified daughter. I quickly told her to see to our daughter, and so she went outside. The nurse, clearly shaken, left to do paperwork. Left alone in the room with my son, I scooped him into my arms and rocked with him on the chair.
He vented his overwhelming anger by alternating between screaming that he hated me and his mom forever, and flailing harmlessly at my arm. I’m not always the most patient father, but I had no problem absorbing the little blows, physical and emotional, while gently and quietly reassuring him that I loved him and there were no more shots.
And here’s the truth: I was jealous of my opportunity to comfort my son. Every time he explicitly stated that he hated me and his mom I felt a momentary surge of gratitude that I wasn’t being singled out.
In the argument about female ordination, I constantly bristle at the assertion that motherhood and fatherhood are equivalent, as though the only two possible options are (1) motherhood is equivalent to the priesthood or (2) motherhood is equivalent to fatherhood. This isn’t a post about female ordination, so I’m going to leave (1) alone. (Fiona Givens has written about female ordination today, however. You can read about that here.) But can I just say, in all frankness, that (2) is really, really silly?
The idea that fatherhood and motherhood are equivalent is one of those ideas that’s so absurd that it’s hard to know what to do when people advance it. At a certain point a proposition becomes so radical that there aren’t really enough connections back to reality to know what to do with it. Other than comics and comedians, there aren’t many folks who even address the issue.
One woman who did address the issue is Karla A. Erickson, who wrote a piece entitled Explaining why, next time, I won’t breastfeed. The full article is behind a paywall now, but this post contains one of the important quotes:
Now it’s a year later, and I don’t breastfeed anymore. But my son still prefers for me to read to him before bedtime, and to wake him up in the morning.
When he is feeling sick or skins his knees, it is me he rushes to for comfort. I did the work and now receive the rewards of being the skin, the smell, the face, the touch that is closest to him — and it is to me he rushes.
Over the years, my husband and I will work to unwind this preliminary advantage, but we could have avoided solidifying it if we had decided to use formula, or to pump and bottle feed our son.
In other words, this woman will not breast feed her next child because of the unfair advantage it gives her in bonding with her child. I can’t say I agree with her response to the inequality between motherhood and fatherhood, but she certainly gets that there is one.
One could argue that this initial advantage can be overcome—that is Erickson’s plan, after all—but I think there is no serious doubting that there is an early advantage. I’m also skeptical of the overall success of this plan. Young men dying on foreign battlefields do not cry for their fathers. It’s always their mothers for whom they call out.
Now, the reason that I opened up with the story about my son is to convey that I understand that gender roles come with a cost. For me, having my son accept my comfort when he was angry and hurt was a momentous occasion because it was so rare. I was jealous of my chance to be the one who held him close.
There are many other ways in which traditional gender roles have a cost for men as well as for women. I have always dreamed of being a writer, and I’m vain enough to think that maybe I would have had the chops to make it by now if I had concentrated on that full-time, but I didn’t make that choice. My faith emphasized that my duty was to provide, and my patriarchal blessing re-affirmed that. I have always chosen the classes to study and the jobs to take based more on what will fulfill that duty and less on what will allow me to reach my own dreams.
There is a word for this. The word is discipline. I say that not to crow about my powers of self-control (which I would guess are just average), but rather to point out that I am disciplined by the concept of gender roles. It is not something I relish. I like my current job quite a lot, but in about a decade of work the overall impression I have had is that essentially no one likes their job. Your peers will tell you that honestly, and over time you begin to realize that when your superiors tell you otherwise they are lying. (Your underlings, should you have any, will obviously not want to talk about this with you.)
I think my experience is very common to Mormon men of my generation. As more and more women enter the labor pool, the increase in supply has an easily predicted impact on wages: they fall. This means that a Mormon man trying to support a family at a typical standard of living has to work much harder in comparison to other men (whose wives are likely to also be working) then he would have in decades prior. While many women in the Church feel increased desire to take advantages of the new opportunities open to women in our economy, men feel the strain as well in having to find ways to outcompete their peers. This pressure on men is exacerbated by the fact that Mormon men are also more likely to have children earlier in their careers and to want to be present as fathers. The fact that the overall decline of marriage means that more and more men are feeling a decrease in pressure at the same time, leading to a prolonged adolescence where low-effort jobs provide enough money for rent, food, and computer games, is just salt in the wound.
None of this should be read as anything remotely like attempting to one-up the challenges that women face in their traditional roles. My point is not at all “men have it worse.” My point is basically “everyone has it bad.” Gender roles are hard.
And yet I still believe in them.
I believe because I think that the messy biological aspects to our mortal existence are probably not superfluous. I believe that, as we are created in God’s image, the biological differences that underlay gender roles are probably there for a reason. No matter the process, the Creation is clearly an intentional act in terms of its final form. I realize that some people like to stress the idea gender(cultural) and sex (biological) are independent, but I agree with Camille Paglia: the rare variations to the rule merely prove the rule that, across both time and cultures, women tend to be nurturing caregivers and men tend to be physical providers and protectors. I think too often we devalue the roles women play in our society because we are prudes when it comes to biology. Anything that isn’t as clinically sterile as a new cell phone repels our modern society, which is why so much pornography infantilizes women.
I believe because I think that we are too quick, in our modern American society, to try and atomize the individual. On both the left and the right, individual liberties have become such a strident clarion call that it seems as though we’re deaf to the notion of community. I believe that gender roles are hard because they are primarily about duty and obligation as opposed to self-actualization and liberty, but that sometimes duty is what we need to flourish as interdependent members of a society.
I believe because our leaders teach gender essentialism consistently from the pulpit and in official pronouncements. Obviously leaders are fallible—sometimes even on serious issues—but I still give a lot of weight especially to messages that seem central over an extended period of time. I believe because I think that gender roles can serve to make society safer for the vulnerable. Men, as the overwhelming aggressors in acts of physical and sexual violence, ought to live by a stricter standard and be subject to higher scrutiny. And, quite frankly, I believe because there’s something beautiful about complementarity.
None of this should be taken to mean that I think that any particular culture has a perfect lock on exactly what the gender roles ought to be. I think that the specifics have to be fluid as general, abstract principles are worked out in the context of particular socio-economic realities. I also believe strongly that there are now and always will be exceptions to the rule, that we ought not to judgmentally apply our own personal standards to those around us. I was, once again, inspired by Paglia’s assessment that LGBT people have always existed at the fringe of society, where the prophets and poets reside. I believe the underlying principle that we can celebrate traditional gender roles without oppressing those who fall outside them, is true.
I don’t think that any specific couple has a lock on the perfect gender roles, either. I believe in gender roles as a matrix for growth and a paradigm for arranging the way we approach marriage, but not as a straight-jacket of do’s and don’t's. Every marriage will face its own challenges and opportunities, just as every man and woman is going to deviate from gender norms based on their own individual personality and history. I’m not sure what the idea for my wife and I is, but I do know that we’re far from the stereotype. We don’t have enough kids, for one thing (just the two so far), and she’s getting her PhD in computer science for another. We’re figuring it out.
I think that as technology advances we will increasingly have the option of neutering our society and leaving gender roles behind. Erickson talked about no longer breastfeeding, and that’s possible because we can produce high-quality synthetic formulas now. But, as my wife pointed out, “What about that original 9-month advantage?” Well, the use of surrogates can level the playing field between a mother and father already (make a stranger carry the child to term, and then remove her from the picture), and one day we will invariably develop artificial wombs, whereupon pregnancy would become optional for everyone (or at least everyone who can afford them).
When that day comes, will it really be such a good idea? Or have we, somewhere along the line, outpaced biological constraints before learning the wisdom that our Creator placed within them? Is there a risk of forgetting who we are and abandoning our discipline before we have learned wisdom?