Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Is It A Happy Father's Day When the Lesbian Father Out-Mothers the BioMother?

In this past Sunday's Modern Love column in the New York Times, Amy Sohn writes about her reactions to her husband's stay-at-home dad-ness. This is a topic that, in its own variation, comes up at our house quite a bit. I sometimes (somewhat unwillingly, rarely purposefully) "out-mom" BioMom.

Sohn writes "[A]fter we married and began to talk about having children, I realized that a child could have a side benefit for our relationship. If Charles took care of the baby full time, he would be providing care that would otherwise cost at least $25,000 a year. . . He wouldn't have to take on the small jobs he hated, like landscaping and carpentry, and I could stop griping about the credit card bills. We wouldn't have to leave our child with a stranger, and I could feel secure knowing that she would be in the care of her loving father. In this radical-feminist vision, I was little more than a vessel for the baby."


"As I began to realize that I liked being a mom, Charles started to see that he needed to be more than just a dad...Besides, I found myself thinking, if Charles and I split the child care on the days we don't have the sitter, then the baby will never love him more."


"Our arrangement, of course, has all the stresses of traditional marriage roles, even if we're reversed. Like the archetypal working father, I constantly feel the pressure of being the primary breadwinner and worry that one day my work will dry up, we'll have to sell our apartment and leave the city, and it will be my fault. But the upside of my financial burden is that I never feel guilty about working. . . And I've stopped worrying that my daughter will love Charles more. The other day while she was toddling around the living room, she accidentally knocked a wooden chair down hard on to her foot. I rushed to comfort her . . . and she said, 'Daddy.' I handed her over and watched as he stroked her head, kissed it and told her she was O.K. . . . A year ago I would have seethed with jealousy. But as a mother of a toddler I know that her preferences change and it has little if nothing to do with me. As Charles sat in the armchair and held her, I watched from the floor. Then I reached for her again, and this time she came."

BioMom have faced similar issues as I (a little over a year ago) slid into the primary caretaker role for Seven and, mainly, Big (as he is in need of much more primary caretaking). Like Sohn and her husband, it made sense for us at the time for various reasons; I could easily take a year off of work, my work involved a regular, weekly commute that involved two nights spent away (from which we were both anxious to see a hiatus), she earned more money, etc. etc. So, reading this was all fine and dandy for me at least until I got to this quote:

"At the time I was seeing a 92-year-old Austrian psychoanalyst, and whenever I expressed concern about the financial inequity of my relationship, he would shake his head and say, 'For the relationship to survive, you must be the woman, not the man.'"

We've thought about this too. For our relationship to survive, must I be the Baba and she the Mama?

Sure, the changes involved sacrifices that were unexpected: while her career vamped up, mine has been put somewhat on hold and Big comes running to me--often pushing BioMom aside--when he is hurt or in need. What I don't think we expected were the reverberations of the reversal of gender roles that we had never truly consciously adopted.

Sure, she falls a little on the more femme side and I fall a little on the more butch side. We joke about the butch-femme continuum (see this blog entry from last year, ironically, when I first embarked on what I then called Stay-At-Home-Babadom). Here's an excerpt:

In fact, BioMom and I have our own 'butch-femme' scale with 10 being "highly feminine" and 1 being "highly butchy" and we will rank each other's actions or outfits based on a) our subjective determination and b) our desires for any particular event! On average though, I'd say I'm about a 4 and she's about a 6. We have speculated that sustainable relationships usually aggregate to a 10 on this scale. In other words, if the individual's butch/femme scale is much below 10 (say, two "3" butches) or much higher than 10 (say two "7" femmes) would not engender a sustainable gender-balance and would, therefore, be doomed to failure.

It turns out that this shift in our professional and personal lives (me halting work temporarily, she gearing back up in a heretofore unprecedented manner) has resulted in many unexpected consequences. I, for example, have unexpecedly fallen in love with being a SAHB. But, this has had some repercussions on our household's delicate gender balance. How does one, for example feel butchy, or masculine (an identity one has carried throughout life and that permeates all of their socio-psychological persona) after spending a day changing diapers, attending all-female baby classes and singing songs like "the wheels on the bus" and "bumpin' up and down in my little red wagon?" And, in the reverse, how are one's partner's feelings altered by this shift? Especially when she has kicked her career into high gear?

So here I am, a year into the reverse of Sohn's story, the stay-at-home-Baba who unexpectedly out-mom's the BioMom. Have we (like Sohn's) fulfilled the radical feminist vision?

I think that through this blog I am beginning to see strains of several "big questions" that I have about life as a SAHB and our kids. One of these questions really gets at the differences between GLBT families and their heterosexual counterparts, indeed, if there really are any. This strain is just another mirrored facet on that disc-ball that is that BIG QUESTION. In being a Stay-At-Home-Baba, are we fulfilling the radical feminist vision that Sohn talks about? Or am I just another woman who stays at home with her toddler (for the most part)? Are there consequences to what I'll call the "reverse specialization" that Sohn struggles with when we're dealing with same-sex couples? In short, do lesbians "do" gender?

What can gender roles do for us?
Gender roles can act like other social institutions as a behavioral short-cut. Instead of negotiating each task, each moment of the day, it is just easier when you know who will do what. Economists would say that gender roles decrease "transactions costs" in the sense that new negotiations are not necessary for each task: Are you mowing the lawn today? No! I thought you were going to. I changed the poopy diaper and emptied the dishwasher. Isn't that worth a lawn mow?
Why shouldn't lesbians take advantage of this shorthand, ending some of the mundanity of the everyday negotiations?

How can gender roles against us?
Of course, gender roles hurt us as a society when they become immutable. When they dictate that women can't become firefighters or high-security prison guards and men nurses, regardless of their abilities.

Do lesbians "do" gender?

The fact is that GLBT people have grown up in a society with gender roles (let's face it, while gender roles are immutable, changing over space and time, they still exist and while they can evolve in the course of a single generation, they are powerful and imposing). They/we soak them in like the rest of us.

Furthermore, as stated, "doing" gender can sometimes actually be efficient.

However, what's fun about creating families that fall outside of the societal norms, is that you can pick and choose which societal norms suit you. You can choose to reject all of them, or you can choose to not reinvent the wheel in other cases. (Of course, at some level, this is making lemonaid out of lemons. It'd be a helluva lot easier to just be able to get married and have all that legal stuff taken care of, voila!)

I am very interested in the interplay between how couples (het and homo) "do" gender, how they divide labor in the household (and by that I mean not only the mundane every-day chores as well as the public/private split. That is, how do couples make decisions about careers, breadwinning, and (when kids are involved) child rearing/stay-at-home-ness. Are decisions purposeful? Do they match or reject societal cues? Or is there economic logic behind the decisions that focuses on efficiency over equity? If so, in the case of a lesbian household, is it possible to create an efficient division of labor?

In a couple of papers (here and here) I have explored the idea that lesbian and gay households are not as politically correct as they may seem to the casual observer. Most research indicates that lesbian households tend to be more equal than are households of heterosexual couplings and there is some theory to back up that observation. Because social institutions don't generally support glbt unions, we have less protection in the event that our relationships dissolve. What this translates into is that we (as glbt partners) may be unwilling to, for example, become stay-at-home parents (i.e. strictly specialize labor such that one person becomes the breadwinner while the other performs non-wage labor in the home) because they have no legal recourse in the event of "divorce". Sure, we can proxy some legal amenities, but this is more costly (both money and time-wise) and it doesn't cover everything. But in a small sample of qualitative interviews, I found that some lesbians in some places actually did gender in the way that hetero couples did. And, although my sample was not big enough yet to show this, I suspect that had I interviewed enough couples with kids, this effect would be exaggerated.

As it turns out, I'm not sure the gender continuum is adequate. At least not for this butch-turned-SAHB. Masculinity and feminininity are not either-or's in any one person. We can be both high masculinity and high femininity. For us, the gender-role-short-cut wasn't clear cut and now we find ourselves again, paving a new path along a road less travelled.


Polly said...

Loved this! Loved it the first time, with the simple photo at the top, love the "Telltale Signs of Stay-At-Home Babahood" even more!

I wanted to say something the first time I read this, then got pulled away by either kid1 or kid2, can't remember which.

Then back again later. I want to comment more intelligently than to simply say: THANK YOU! And a litany of fascinating questions and proposals.

Alas, I have so little discretionary time these days (i.e.: even now I am playing hookey from cleaning up post-dinner! eek!) But thank you.

With any luck I'll be back again.

And also: don't know if you celebrate it, but HAPPY BABA'S DAY TO YOU, sister!

giddings said...

Thanks LD!
Yeah -- a co-volunteer at Seven's school saw me that day and said something to the effect of -- "I have to get this picture for you so that you can send it to everyone who knew you in a previous life!"

As it turns out, it'll be perfect for my 20th HS reunion.

Happy Baba's day to you too!

Based on your "Proclamation", we've adopted Baba's day here as well, so thank you.

José Solano said...

Hi, I'm curious if lesbians see any need for male father figures in raising children in their households, particularly when raising boys. Is there any research on this that you are aware of.


giddings said...

Hi Jose --
absolutely. We feel that it is of great importance to have really nice, great men in our kids' lives. This really isn't, however, different than how most people should raise their kids in any situation though, isn't it? I mean, even kids of heterosexual parents need more than their dad in their life, don't they?

But beyond that, yes, there is research on this and yes, kids of glbt parents turn out okay. Better than okay.

See, for example, the recent research from the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (link on my blogroll).