Years ago, 14 of them in fact, my husband took our infant son on one of their regular long walks so I could sleep for an hour or two. Stopping at the grocery store, our baby, swaddled in a carrier, started to cry. A woman approached and said, “Oooh, you tiny baby. Where is your mother? You are too little to be so far from her.”
It still stings for my husband and me. That baby’s mother was exactly where she should have been, as was his dad. My husband’s not the only one among his friends who has been privy to a comment like that.
These parent-gender roles are part of what’s behind Jordan Shapiro’s new book, “Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad.”
Don’t let the title throw you, those who cover their ears the moment that “F” word shows up.
This book is about how to be a better parent, how to truly make space for your kids and, yes, how to redefine your role as a father as our society evolves past the old tropes of masculinity and the doofus dad. Here is our Q&A edited for length and clarity.
What was the impetus behind this book. Why write it? Why is your message urgent?
I always wanted to do it. I wanted to do a book about feminism for men. I had no idea it was going to be about fatherhood. I had no idea this was the book I dreamed about writing.
The thing that made it urgent was watching the last few years around the world and noticing that while things were sort of changing, these cultural norms around gender, a lot of men just don’t know how to imagine themselves without the normal patriarchal signifiers.
It wasn’t that surprising this was a backlash of misogyny and racism because we’re moving into a very different, connected world without preparing people for making sense of themselves, where boundaries are blurry.
What is a feminist dad? A lot of this book reads to me like simply good parenting. What about this makes it a path to becoming a feminist dad?
A lot of it is about being a good parent but rethinking the model of what it means to identify as Dad. Some enormous amount of men put parenting ahead of work identity (in studies and reports).
But what does that mean? This book is really about how dads think of themselves as parents as opposed to how dads can parent kids.
You included a poignant anecdote about your son interrupting your reading on a rainy day. What did you learn from that episode? You ended up putting the book down and giving him your undivided attention. How are practices like this feminist?
This idea is about different responsibilities as fathers as opposed to being the authority. This often happens for all parents but certainly dads because culture tells us we’re supposed to think this way: Anyone who interrupts us is an interruption to our hero narrative. We always imagine we’re the protagonist. So when they do that, we’re like, “Wait, why are you messing up my story right now?”
Of course, we need to teach our kids not to always interrupt us. But often, I do forget my kids’ daily life. I think their things are frivolous and mine aren’t. And again, so much about where that becomes feminist and not just parenting is it’s so much about how we’re socialized.
Society tells dads they are the center. How many families move because of Dad’s job? How many decide which activities fit into family life because Dad’s life comes first? It’s true even when he’s not the highest earner.
Tell me about the title. Are you afraid of losing readers because you use the term “feminism”?
It’s an issue because there’s been a concerted propaganda-like effort to make “feminist” to be an attack on men. It’s very intentionally turned into a bad word in order to stop the political action. Why have I decided to do it? It was a long, hard choice.
It was a really hard question because you want men to read it. But it was important to me because I wanted it to be bold. I didn’t want to be like, “How to Be a Good Dad.” I wanted it to be very clear what this book was about.
I know it’s going to turn some people off, but I thought there was something in saying it’s time for men in general to be willing to brand themselves as pro-feminist. It’s crazy how few people are willing to do that. Why? Because it’s certainly not going to change unless men get onboard, especially cis-hetero men.
Part of me wanted to model the willingness to say, “Yeah, I’m a feminist dad.” All these men’s books about fatherhood say, “I wish there was more room to go to therapy and talk about my feelings.” But they aren’t making that jump to feminism.
You talk about how you can make sure your kids don’t fall into “bro-ism” and “locker room essentialism.” Can you explain?
We indoctrinate kids with the idea that girls are one way, boys another. And sometimes that’s in the way we divide household roles. Like your genitals define whether you’re good at laundry. But those roles end up teaching kids, and they think that’s the norm because that’s how they see it. And the bro-ism, you see in a lot of men. I think most men think about what’s age-appropriate when talking about sex, but they still say things like, “That waitress would be cute if she smiled more,” and reinforce she’s an object for the male gaze.
So, how do I actively combat this and call kids out when they say those things? We tend to be really good at it when things are obvious, like (if someone says) “He throws like a girl,” but all these subtle (acts) are doing that just as much.
I’m interested in one of your principles in this book that you call “Rigorous Inclusivity.” Can you explain what that is and why it’s important in parenting?
This applies to gender, race, ethnicity … anywhere we’re not modeling as parents inclusivity and equality. If I were driving down the street with my kids and we saw someone getting beat up by a baseball bat, they’d be shocked, I’d be shocked.
But our racist, sexist jokes, we let go as if it’s not as shocking as physical violence. We need to raise kids who can’t even imagine a lack of inclusivity, that it becomes shocking. I tried to raise my kids in that way, and it’s always still a challenge because they have the internet and friends and need to fit in.
But all the research shows that this generation is unbelievably inclusive. You get all this nonsense about “These kids are coddled,” but as a professor, I see these kids stand up and speak out against us.
If there’s one takeaway you hope readers get from this book, what is it?
I hope that men read it. (But it’s) not just for men. And I hope that people see it’s really not a critical book. It’s not telling you all the things that are wrong with dads. I tried to write in as nonjudgmental a way as I could while demanding people take responsibility for their participation in a larger system.
This is really a book about what most people want. As much as I know the word “feminism” will divide people along typical partisan lines, I don’t think it’s a particularly partisan book. This is just normal and a book about how to get there. It’s not anti-masculinity or (anti-)dads. It’s how we reinvent fatherhood.
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