Friday, September 13, 2013

I Dare You to Define Normal: Families

This all started when my partner J and I and our Miss M. started talking about hypothetical children. If she were given a child, we’d have a share of the parenting, along with our girlpartner Z. If we were to put custody on paper, it would be two moms, one dad, and me, good ol’ Unky JJ, at a 30/30/30/10% split. We’d buy another house or two on our street and raise the child communally. If J and Z had the baby, then there would be one mom, one dad, Unky JJ, and Aunty M, at a 40/40/10/10% split, also communally child-rearing. This arrangement seems perfectly normal for us, and Miss M used to live on a commune, where all of the children slept in their parent’s space but were raised by everyone.
Here’s some more normal: We have a friend who lives with the mother of his child and her wife and they raise their four kids (one biological, three adopted by various combinations of adults) communally. Two of J’s cousin’s babies are being raised by their great gramma and gramma. I’m close to a single father with two teenage boys, another with a daughter in college, and another with an 8-year-old daughter with a Calvin-level imagination . Two white lesbians I know are about to adopt an African-American toddler. Another friend has three kids being raised by her, her husband and her husband’s boyfriend. Oh, and the eldest still sees her dad and stepmom all the time.
Want some other normals? We know several straight couples who are long-term married with 1-3 three kids, raising them with little or no outside support, and a couple with three kids who’ve been together so long everyone thinks they are married. Also in our circle of friends and acquaintances are childless-by-choice people who take care of everyone else’s kids in time of need, and the mom and dad with two biological kids who have taken in enough strays to field a football team. When I lived in southern California, multiple generations of Asian families living in a single home/multiplex was pretty common. Still is.
Unfortunately, our legal and educational systems have not caught up with the true normals. Too much is structured around the mom-and-dad, or the single mother. When it’s time for a classroom party or fundraiser, call on the Moms, even when the Dads are jumping up and down to participate. Notice the exclusionary language? No words for caretakers, adults, kid’s adults, keepers, or wranglers, and I’ll bet very few schools have alternative names for caretaking grownups outside of the traditional structure (mom, dad, stepparent, partner (in the more enlightened areas), gramma, grampa, uncle, aunt, brother, sister). A kid brings something homemade to school or daycare? Chances are, praise for help will go to the mom (unless it’s mechanical). A man takes a girl to dance class? He’d better clear out quick, lest someone think he’s a “perv”.
Male caretakers get especially short shrift in the shifting normal. When they do something totally average in child care, it’s treated as though they have done something heroic (although I must say some of the clever ways to make ponytails are indeed amazing). When they are the only man in the room at a Mommy and Me event, because there is no Mommy and there are few Daddy and Me events, they are not, shall we say, embraced, at least not at first.
I’ve talked to a few single and/or stay-or-home dads who’ve been quite disgusted at how condescending people are to them, or how people assume they don’t know what they are doing and offer advice on everything from car seats to diapers, or people who boldly ask why they don’t have a job. If it were me, I’d probably be tempted to tell them that I’ve gotten the child to age 4, thank you – I’m doing ok, and I like raising my child.
I wonder if part of the fear of two men raising a child less about sexual orientation and more about the fear of, “If one man is incapable, two will be worse.”
The norms of child-rearing are constantly shifting, and vary between cultures and regions. That’s kind of a “duh!” statement.  And I think that when that “otherness” comes to their neighborhood or school, people get nervous, even when it’s something as seemingly straightforward as men and women getting equal family leave when a child is born (fairly common in Europe). Here, a man taking time off when a baby arrives is risking not only his career, but his status among his peers. It’s just not “normal”.
But really, what is normal anymore?

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