Monday, April 26, 2010

Parenting While Feminist

I posted this entry to Feministing's Community section today.

I once dated a woman who had two kids from a previous marriage, both boys. My relationship with men of any age is often challenging, so it was a new experience to be in the constant company of two young men. The older of the two reacted to what had been an emotionally wrenching divorce by adopting the poise and demeanor of a leader. He acted far more maturely than his fourteen years might have lead one to believe and I often saw him as something close to an contemporary. Suffice to say that he and I got along well. His younger brother, however, was a different story altogether. He was definitely all of twelve but also wild, rambunctious, unruly, loud, a discipline problem, and a constant challenge to his mother. Yet, in my company it was clear he wished to impress me and that he craved both my attention and my approval. The ways by which he tried to achieve both of them were frequently inappropriate, of course, but I at least gathered that he desired my attention above anyone else's.

It's funny how relationships work out in reality. When we started dating, my then-partner told me in no uncertain terms that I was not going to be a step-parent. My reservations going in were not that I doubted what she said, but I had learned from past experience that children in their innocence often fail to understand the intentions and arrangements of adults. Having dated a woman with kids once before, I knew that children did not draw sharp distinctions between that which constitutes a parental figure and that which does not. Children live in the moment and when I happened to be in the midst of their moment, I was seen as an adult and thus an authority figure who happened to in a relationship with their mother.

Though I currently don't plan to be a father ever, I will say that when children are around one is forever careful to censor oneself and to be on one's best behavior at all times. This is not always a bad situation upon which to find oneself, especially since I'm often ashamed to think about the vast amount of hurtful things I say during the course of a single day.

I'd like to share one particular anecdote with you that made a lasting impression on me. It might seem prosaic at first, but it turned out to be remarkably powerful. In short, before I bought an electric toothbrush, I used a more classic design. Once I'd finished brushing my teeth, I made a habit of placing my toothbrush on the edge of the basin with the bristles pointed downward, so that they could drain into the sink. Someone told me it's more sanitary this way and so I'd done it in similar fashion for years. One evening a week or so after we'd started dating, I entered the bathroom late one night and noticed that my brush wasn't the only one in this particular position. The youngest had, you see, placed his toothbrush in the identical position to mine, and took care to place it right next to my own.

I began to cry. What I was seeing before me was love personified. This kid, who I often thought of as a hopeless case, who regularly exhausted me with his bad behavior and his crude jokes, and who reminded me regularly of everything I had hated about being a boy---he really looked up to me, even idolized me. It was at this point that I put two and two together and posited a guess about the cause of his conduct. I recognized that he had always lacked a positive male role model and this explained why he was forever acting out.

Though part of me was very touched, part of me also felt exceptionally uncomfortable. In the course of my life, when other men have found me inspiring or have thought of me as a role model, I am forced to confront the tortured contradictions about how I perceive masculinity and how it relates back to me. Conflicted, ambivalent, and confused might be the best ways to describe my feelings about being a man. In the person of a child, I had observed firsthand an embryonic incarnation of that which I had come to despise about Patriarchy. My hatred of Patriarchy was a hatred that worked on several levels: hatred of the abuse, hatred of not ever feeling suitably or acceptably masculine during my own boyhood, hatred of a system which did not understand the choices I made, and hatred of the unwritten rules that all were supposed to follow.

And yet, I had been given a gesture of unconditional love, and from another man, no less.

I felt as though somehow as though I failed this child, as though my own damage did him no favors, and yet he loved me for myself as I was. The experience took each and every one of my prior assumptions and turned them completely upside down. The relationship later ended, but the memory has never left me.

Still, I'm in no hurry to be a father and know I would always have to constantly fight these same feelings if I did. These days, I wonder about all the boys out there starved for a worthwhile male role model or at least a decent guy upon which to base and check their own decisions, and I really question my frustration at the latest awful thing some man or group of men has done.

I'm good at judging. I'm not always so good at understanding.

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