A Thought Adventure

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

8. The Parental Inequality

Although we live at a time when the gender roles are in flux and many young fathers are taking care of their babies, we still don’t think that fatherliness, or the ability to act in a fatherly way, is as important in children's lives as motherliness. Do we quite know what we mean by it? Before 1970 (when fathers in the US were finally allowed in delivery rooms) only a minority of the research on parental bonding took fathers into account. And when manuals for fathers started to come out a few decades ago, they often began by asserting that there really exists such a thing as a paternal role.

I see this devaluation of fatherhood, or what I call parental inequality, as one of the worst examples of reverse sexism, or misandry. To not acknowledge that the father’s role in his children‘s lives is as indispensable as the mother's is to injure men’s sense of self just as much as the sex discrimination injures women’s. Because it not only cheats men of a large chunk of their manhood (and thus of an important source of genuine, innate strength), it denies them the full range of their humanness.

Human versus animal parenthood
I suggest it’s ignorance about who we are as a species that’s created a phenomenon as absurd as the parental inequality. Ever since Darwin we’ve been eager to show that humans are animals like all other species, and rightly so. But this has also meant overlooking and failing to draw conclusions from the differences that do exist between us and the rest--one of the starkest of which is our unusually long childhood. Animal species don’t need much parental teaching because most of their behavior follows innate behavior patterns. In our species, by contrast, which lacks such patterns and requires more time to reach maturity, the raising of the young makes considerable demands on parental guidance. It clearly indicates that our species needs a very different kind of parenting.

For a clue to why we have such an unbalanced view of parenthood let’s take a look at the way we define masculinity and femininity respectively. In a worldwide survey of how disparate cultures interpret these concepts, anthropologist David D. Gilmore found that all of them see femininity as a biological given that needs neither tests nor proofs. Although women are judged by sexual standards (and can be punished for inappropriate behavior), their right to a gender identity is rarely questioned.

Masculinity, by contrast, is everywhere a culturally determined attribute--and not something the male is born with. To become a ‘true’ or ‘real’ man, he must build up certain qualities which are much the same everywhere (like toughness, courage, combativeness) and so entrenched in men as to make up what Gilmore calls a "deep structure of masculinity.“ And to succeed in this endeavor a man has to go through rituals, or trials, of skill and endurance sanctioned by his culture.

For example, if a boy among the Masai, an East African cattle-herding tribe, cries out or so much as blinks an eye during the bloody circumcision rites, "he is ashamed for life as unworthy of manhood, and his entire lineage is shamed as a nursery of weaklings."

The male disadvantage
We see here that the sexes derive their identities--and with it their standing in society--from very different grounds: hers is innate, his must be earned. To gain a secure place in the world, it's enough for a woman to be born female and a prospective mother; (in some preliterate cultures also a baby girl is called 'mother'). But a man's place is always precarious: it has to be won, and once it's won it must be maintained--or it may be lost.

What the existence of such an egregious male handicap says to me is that the antediluvian superstition about female superiority remains in force. The idea that only a woman's worth (or stature or citizenship in the community) is seen as innate, and not a man's, seems to me so obvious a remnant of a female-oriented, or matriarchal, ideology that it’s downright ludicrous. A sign that--even if we no longer believe in it--enough of female magic stays around to make us end up with seriously skewed gender definitions.

How does it affect a man to know that being born male and a prospective father isn’t enough to earn him the right to be called a man? To have to go in pursuit of the social recognition that’s given woman in the cradle? And how does this in turn affect the methods men choose to attain the necessary balance of power between the sexes (and also between themselves and other men)? These are questions we need to ponder if we’re ever going to get to the bottom of sexism.

For instance, what can men’s reaction have been once they became aware of this discrimination against their sex (i.e., at the time in evolution when we'd developed consciousness)? I can’t help wondering if it wasn’t a bit like my nephew’s when, at the age of five, he was told that babies come out of their mother's belly. "NO!" he screamed at the top of his lungs while frantically jumping up and down. "Girls come out of their mother's belly and boys come out of their DADDY'S belly!”

There has to be some justice, right? To me this primitive reaction speaks volumes, not about ‘womb envy,’ but about something I consider so elemental in us humans that I call it part of the survival instinct: the need to know that who I am in myself, at tabula rasa, is worth exactly as much as who anybody else is in him-or-herself. It’s precisely because this basic need was never met in men that they contracted their inferiority complex. And the reason the complex survives is that they've chosen to deny it.

In a most fundamental respect, therefore, men are the second sex. But they have themselves to blame. For if they had faced their complex and discovered its origin in pure ignorance, and if they had gone on to assert the equal importance of their paternal role, then they wouldn't have had to take the circuitous route of oppressing women to affirm male power.

I‘ve declared that women have as much influence as men in society and are as responsible as men for its sexist bias. But how can women’s traditional power in the inner workings of society (mostly amounting to running the home) be even comparable, much less equal, to men’s vast power in the outer workings of society (which amounts to running the affairs of society as a whole--political, economic, legal)? For a closer look at the different powers, see next post.

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