Thanks for your patience during last week’s hiatus. We’re starting off this week with a reading on fatherhood and fidelity, and then I’ll be catching up on some of your excellent comments for response roundups.
We spent our Father’s Day with pancakes, visits to the playground, and lengthy discussion of cast iron pan seasoning techniques. I also got to read two excellent essays about fatherhood, which draw on different references, but rhyme in their central argument.
First, from Matt Dinan’s “It’s Time for Some Dad Theory” at The Bulwark:
My kids—if I can even use the possessive—are a part of me, but I cannot see them if I reduce them to my own reflection. Parenthood entails limitless closeness; all parents see more of their very young children than their kids can see of themselves. Being a dad, though, means perceiving this intimacy from a distance and working to make it outwardly manifest through awkward, conscious effort. This dialectical relationship resembles good thinking, which brings us to the first moment of Dad Theory. Dads guard against losing themselves in particularity, on one hand, and losing themselves in abstraction, on the other. Being a dad means being neither too attached to one’s own concerns to see things clearly, nor too impressed by speculation to see the messiness of real life. To practice Dad Theory is to negotiate with the known unknowns—and to trust that love is a stable point you can use to navigate through ambiguity to reach something solid and sure.
Dinan is discussing the complicated connection between parent and child. For a mother, it begins as a physical connection; blood vessels tangled so close together that a mother’s body can feed her child. For dads, the connection is real, but more physically attenuated. A mother chooses how to respond to an undeniable connection; a father decides how to foster and grow his own bond.
And then, from the excellent Alexi Sargeant, whose virtues as a father I can personally vouch for, in “Men of Fidelity” at Plough:
The proper use of vows of fidelity is to bind oneself to particular loves: committing to love another person not only with a general charitable disposition but with the specificity of deliberately weaving your lives together. We are finite beings, and there are infinite things in the universe worthy of affection, attention, and care. Instead of trying to embrace, say, every woman in the world (the approach of Zeus and other mythical men on the make), the husband embraces the world in the person of one woman.
With children, too, we have the opportunity, in loving particular people, to express our orientation towards the broader universe. Abstractions like posterity, legacy, and the future become incarnated in tiny human beings we get to care for and raise. This responsibility requires a deliberate choice on the part of fathers, distinct from the relationship mothers share with their offspring. The father does not begin with a physical connection to the child he has begotten. A man’s connection to his offspring is less immediate and visceral – he can, as a simple matter of biology, walk away without anything needing to be severed. The father must make the choice to not walk away, to be there, to develop a connection with his child that deepens day-by-day. It is the choice to embrace and nurture a future we cannot control.
At Other Feminisms, I talk a lot about how to respond to the reproductive asymmetry that leaves mothers obviously tied to their children, both before and after birth. (I’m writing this in the window between nursing sessions for my 4-month-old.) It’s one of the clearest ways that natural dependence places unique demands on women—demands which our broader society falls short of helping us meet.
I can default to appealing to the relationship of mother and child, but it isn’t the pattern for all our relationships of dependence. I appreciate these two essays on fatherhood as a way of exploring what it means to respond to other relationships of dependency and need.
Well, there's a other piece of it too. There are things that you don't think you're opting in to because, for you, it's unthinkable to not do them - even if other people don't do them.
I don't feel like I'm "opting in" to feeding my daughter, because for me it's unthinkable to let her go hungry when we have plenty. But some people do let their kids go hungry despite having plenty. I'm grateful to my family and the people of the milleiu where I was formed because that's unthinkable to me largely because of their influence.
A lot of times when I thank my husband for doing a thing I think of as "opt in" he shrugs like it's just a normal part of life. He doesn't think of his tasks as "opt in" but as just what you do as part of normal life.
There's a part if me that doesn't like calling fatherhood an "opt in" thing. It shouldn't be. It should be unthinkable for fathers to abandon their families or to refuse to participate in them. It's unthinkable for all the men in my (extended) family.
I read somewhere - and I can't remember where - that our tradition of wives taking their husbands' names came from an idea of husbands accepting responsibility. To put it negatively, if Mrs. Smith and the Smith children are destitute, society has shame and stigma for Mr. Smith.
Opting in is maybe the definition of love. As sponsors in various ways through the years of engaged couples preparing for Catholic marriage, my husband and I always talk about how love is a decision, not a feeling. The decision to love, to opt in, to choose the other over and over every single day, is what keeps marriages together. Perhaps it's also what keeps parents and children in relationship once adult children move out. I don't know yet, as three of my four are young adults still living at home and the fourth is not yet an adult, but I suspect there are some strong parallels to marriage in choosing them, deciding to love them, over and over, after they live on their own.