My first memory of actually being a real, not potential father, was watching as they pulled my son out of his mom’s abdomen (I’d gotten a quick glimpse of what THAT looked like, someone’s internal organs that is, which I never hope to glimpse again). I’ll never forget the look of startlement and outrage on my son’s face as he was held up for us to see, umbilical cord still attached, clearly disgruntled at being ripped out of what must have been a pretty pleasant (up until the last few hours anyway) somnolence. As I saw this most utterly amazing thing happen in front of me, I remember two very distinct reactions: one, was: “wow, this is the most utterly amazing thing I’ve ever seen!”; and the second was: “I have no idea what the F–K I’m supposed to do now!”
And that’s the thing, and point of this diary – we were very well prepared for everything leading up to the birth: we’d dutifully read “What to Expect When You’re etc.”; we’d been through the childbirth classes and practiced our breathing (none of which we used during the actual labor); I had a pretty good idea of how we’d gotten there, the physiology of fetal development; we’d stopped drinking and smoking and eaten lots of whole grains and even bean sprouts; and so on. And it’s clear that even for low-income and not-quite-so-low-but-pretty-low income people like us, there’s an available infrastructure (relatively speaking) for getting people through labor and birth. In contrast, there was almost NO infrastructure for getting people through what happens afterwards – you know, like, how to raise the little people once they leave the hospital. For us, both 30 at the time, it was almost pure improvisation. We had no money; I was a member of an HMO that I once heard someone describe as being staffed by veterinarians, and I was lucky to get that; our parents were thousands of miles away (not just geographically speaking); Spock basically told us that every symptom our baby had for anything was most likely a sign of a fatal condition, parenting magazines merely taught us that we were incompetent and should put our child up for adoption by fabulous stay-at-home moms who can turn dirty diapers into beautiful wind chimes. And we, though poor, had the resources of college educations and middle class upbringing to actually, if we did some work, find out what we needed to know.
Now, it’s almost fifteen years later, I’ve had a new kid with my new hopefully-not-future-ex-wife, and in terms of the infrastructure for giving guidance and help to parents, it’s still virtually absent. In short, just as with the rest of our society these days, as a parent you’re basically on your own. There’s so much you have to really work to get an answer to: are these vaccinations safe? how do I find out about pre-schools? How do I know what’s a good one and what’s a bad one? how do I get my kid into the good elementary school in the district? is it good for my kid to listen to the music he’s listening to? what do I do if I think he’s hanging out with drug dealers? what’s a proper bedtime? what do I do if she’s not getting along with her teacher? what does “matriculation” mean? should I let him wear his pants below his butt? And these are the easy questions. What about the hard ones? How do I tell my kids I’ve lost my job? What do I do about the health insurance I can’t afford anymore? What if my kid’s school has been taken over by drug dealers? What do I do after we’re evicted? How do I explain Food Stamps? How do I explain the divorce? What position should I take on custody? How do I get a restraining order against my brother-in-law who’s been molesting my kids? And so on.
Not only do we live in a “bowling alone” society, we live in a parenting alone society, despite all the bleating of the wingnuts and other right-wing morons. We feel adrift in a flood of negative influences: not just the basic negativity of the increasing economic insecurity in which most of the middle/working and low-income classes find ourselves, but also pernicious cultural influences. I personally feel that my children are incessantly bombarded, on a minute-by-minute basis, with messages of greed, violence, drugs, empty sex, misogyny, selfishness, irresponsibility and more. And I think a huge number of parents are so desperate for help and guidance and protection from these influences that they’ll accept it from anywhere they can get it, whether it’s Dr. Phil or the bleating wingnut on the radio or the TV.
I think progressives need an answer to this. Progressives need a clearly articulated, easily digestible, family policy that addresses the parenting alone problem. This means we need to address more than just the basics, because of course guaranteeing health care, housing, decent education, retirement security would go a long way towards helping. But parents want answers to some of their other questions too, including the ones about cultural issues, and so far the only ones offering them in a seemingly coherent manner, using huge megaphones of course, is the right. So what would a progressive family policy look like? First, obviously, the left family policy on the big issues already exists (or should exist): universal health care, affordable housing, quality education, retirement security. One of the many ways to frame these things can and should be as efforts to nurture and protect families. Second, we should give thought to what an infrastructure of family support might look like: a federally funded corps of family guidance counselors or parents’ advocates in the schools? Required parenting education as part of the marriage license process (in some states you have to go through couples counseling before you get divorced – why not counseling before you get married?)[and of course this doesn’t address non-married parents or the 49 non-equal marriage states]? A “parenting extension service” like the Agricultural Extension Service?
Third, I believe (and this may be controversial) that society is entitled to protect itself to some degree from the cultural influences that may threaten its idea of the common good, and I think parents are desperate for some protection against the crappy values that are being taught everywhere, from the TV, movies and video games, to corporate influences in the schools, to music. So what could a progressive policy on these issues be? Labeling on CD’s and video games? Others? Frankly, I’d love to hear ideas on this.
So those are my thoughts on (the day before) Father’s Day. Not only do I thank the powers that be that I’ve been lucky enough to have two truly excellent sons (although the 14-year old is pushing the envelope on the meaning of the term “excellent” these days), but I also thank the powers that be that despite my abysmal lack of understanding about how to do this fathering thing, I haven’t inadvertently let them starve or crushed their spirits. Of course there’s still time. But it sure would be nice if we had a society where a guy could get some help now and then, don’t you think?