(I constructed the bulk of this post between two and four in the morning while lying next to my sleeping daughter. I had got her up at about one to give her pain relief for the severe pain in her mouth caused by herpes gingivostomatitis. Susie came up to help – an action which I interpreted as ‘trying to take over’, and so got defensive (for which, read passive aggressive), which left her feeling confused, hurt and angry, since she had only come up to help (see beginning of sentence). All of which explains my shame-induced insomnia as I tried to make sense of what had just happened. The following is what I came up with…)
Note: To make this a multimedia blog, I have decided to try to record songs (using only my iMac and the crappy recording software and mic that comes with it) to go with various of my posts, so that you can have music to accompany your reading. The following is the song I wrote to accompany this post.
I once had a conversation with a friend, also a straight male, in which we confessed to each other that we considered it a compliment to be mistaken for gay (something, by the way, that happens to both of us), but a profound insult to be described, treated, or referred to, as ‘a typical man’. If this surprises you then it shouldn’t. In a society that tells men that you can like and respect women or like having sex with them (but not both), it is inevitable that men who like and respect women and like having sex with them would rather be labelled ‘gay’ than ‘misogynist’ in contexts where those are the only two badges available.
Now at this point you are asking yourself, ‘This kind of social observation, incisive as it may be, is surely out of place in what is supposed to be a piece of guilt-provoked introspection?’ To which I humbly ask you to bear with me. I’m afraid that I am even more indirect at three in the morning than I am at other times, especially if my audience consists solely of a sleeping one year old.
My point is that I have always liked and respected women more than men; identified with women more than men. In fact the deeper truth is even more shameful (as if that were possible) I’ve always kind of wanted to be a woman. My mother is, of course, to blame. I have always identified more strongly with her than my father, and wanted to imitate her unusual combination of intelligence, wit and grounded competence. Here, again, you but in to ask what exactly this has to do with acting like a dickhead towards my wife in the wee smalls. We are almost there. But first my fevered brain needs to make another small detour to collect one more piece of the puzzle.
…I once attended a course run by an Argentinian therapist, pastor and psychodrama practitioner called Carlos Raimundo. Carlos believed that to be healthy all of us needed to construct a type of container for ourselves to live in. As adults these containers are like nests woven together from a combination of relationships, contexts, beliefs and ideas, but in the earliest part of our lives the containers are much more tangible (though perhaps carnal is a better word). Our first container is our mother’s womb, and our second container is our mother’s arms (and gaze). While the father (if there is one) acts at this point as a kind of container for both mother and child, ensuring that they have a safe space.
From an evolutionary standpoint this makes some kind of sense. The health and survival of young children is made more likely if they are constantly warmed by the sun of their mother’s gaze (like that image?) as she holds them together with her eyes and scans their bodies for signs of ill health; while the father stands near, his gaze taking in the whole family and also scanning the horizon for woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers.
Now there is a lot to recommend this metaphor, and its picture of the father’s role; his greater distance from the child allows him to be/create a safe container for his family. It also has its dangers though. Now I’ll spare you a lengthy feminist critique of thinly veiled infantilization of the mother in this metaphor, because otherwise we’ll be here all night (literally in my case), but at a simple relational level, a clear danger is that a father who lacks humility or who has unacknowledged envy of the greater level of intimacy shared by mother and child can turn container into containment, trying to coach and control his partner in ultimately quite destructive ways. A father can convince himself (consciously or unconsciously) that his distance from the child puts him in a superior position because it allows greater objectivity and detachment (and we all know how immensely valuable these categories are), allowing him to correct the ‘distortions’ created by the intensity of his partner’s feelings, and attachment and vulnerability to the child.
The reality is that the experience of both parents is actually more similar than dissimilar. Both feel fear, frustration, anger, inadequacy, tiredness, loneliness, lack of control etc etc. But at times you can lose touch with this, or choose to forget it. Anger, envy or discomfort with existing in the dense cloud of fear and unknowing that comes with parenting can lead us to focus on (and magnify) differences, ‘comforting’ ourselves by framing these differences as inferiority (ie him/her) versus superior (me), or projecting across the space created by these differences the emotions that we cannot acknowledge in ourselves. I suspect that in general men tend to project their fear and vulnerability onto their partners and women tend to project their anger and violence (though I have absolutely no evidence with which to back this up).
For someone who strongly (over?)identifies with women it is somewhat humiliating for me to realise that at times, I have been doing exactly this, obsessing over differences, projecting things onto Susie, and undermining her through overt and veiled criticism. It is even more galling to realise that part of the reason why I am doing this is exactly because of the level of identification that I have with women. Just as I have always kind of wanted to be a woman, now I kind of want to be a mother, or to be more exact, some kind of Super Parent who encompasses the best of both genders. I want it all.
Rather than accepting the unique strengths and limitations of being a father, I have spent way too much time envying or denying the uniqueness of the attachment and attunement to Tilly that Susie has. Rather than accepting my own frailty, uncertainty and anxiety as a new parent, I project them onto Susie. All the while, losing touch with the crucial fact that ultimately the experience of being a parent irrespective of gender is much more same same than different. In other words, it turns out that I am a Super Parent after all…and so is Susie. (Even though it made me gag to write it, I decided to include this last sentence just in case this post ever gets picked up by an American Parenting magazine.)
(At this point I finally fell asleep. In the comments section, please feel free to share at which point in the post you did).
Final Note – I promise that this blog isn’t going to turn into a weekly parental confessional. In fact, in my next blog I’m planning to share some ideas I’ve had about environmentally responsible parenting: like, for example, the way Susie and I are trying to reduce both our contribution to landfill and our electricity costs by using soiled nappies as roof insulation.