Introduction: Twenty-Five Ways for Dads to Change the World

By Jeremy Adam Smith

Once upon a time, I rode a bike instead of driving to work, because that seemed better for the sky and the earth—not to mention my health. I read the newspaper every day and I voted in every election. I joined our friends in marching for peace in the Middle East and for gay and lesbian equality, even though I’m as straight as a ruler.

And it goes without saying that my wife and I enjoyed a habitually egalitarian relationship. Of course she worked and I worked. Of course we shared housework. Of course we talked through all decisions that affected both of us.

In short, I led a reasonably socially conscious, environmentally responsible life, just like lots of guys.

Then in July 2004, we became parents. The marching stopped. Instead I pushed a stroller. I struggled to change diapers, not society. And the issues I once cared about so much—peace, the environment, economic and racial justice—seemed suddenly irrelevant to my daily life. My values hadn’t changed, but everything else had: the demands on my time, my priorities, my view of the world.

For the first time in my adult life, I missed voting days. I simply forgot. Swept up in the daily grind, many parents I know forget to vote. This, I now realize, is probably why America still doesn’t have paid parental leave or universal health care.

But the deepest—and in some ways, most devastating—change happened at home, as the relationship between my wife and I was utterly unbalanced. The old egalitarian habits went out the window; everything took conscious effort, as if I’d had an intellectual and emotional stroke and needed to learn how to walk and talk all over again. For the first time in our eleven years together, our daily lives diverged and my wife and I started arguing. My baby son consumed his mother’s life, tethering her to home, and I was simply not as absorbed by the physical and emotional demands of parenthood, especially in that first year.

This added to my power and limited hers—meaning that I had more choices than she did. In the throes of becoming parents, when strain and sleeplessness can drive our ideals and aspirations over a cliff, I discovered that it is easy for both men and women to fall back on traditional patterns of dominance and submission.

The damage isn’t limited to one couple; the accumulation of individual choices shifts the balance of social power between men and women, as women are pushed to retreat from paid work and public life while men feel compelled to excel in those areas. When it was happening, I had no idea how to negotiate this transition or how to make it fair for my wife.

The politics didn’t end at home; in the larger world, I discovered challenges that I’d never faced before. Work had become political in ways that I wasn’t at first able to recognize. For the first year of my son’s life, I worked at a nonprofit that offered six weeks of fully paid parental leave, which I took advantage of. Seven months later at a management team meeting, the executive director suggested we eliminate this benefit and simply meet the minimum required by law: six weeks at partial pay (a benefit unique, at this writing, to California; everywhere else in America, parental leave is totally unpaid).

My fellow managers had obviously already discussed it and I knew they were thinking of me; dads weren’t supposed to take the full leave, especially managers. I spoke up in favor of the policy, of course, but I sensed everyone expected me to, and, in truth, I was not forceful: it felt somehow selfish of me to argue for the policy, since at that point I was the only one who had benefited. I thought I was speaking only for myself, which I see in retrospect was a mistake. As a brand-new dad, I didn’t understand at that time that parental leave was a political issue, one that affects all parents.

We voted, and I was one of two dissenters. Six months after that vote, I was a stay-at-home dad. Do I regret speaking out? I regret not speaking out more passionately and persuasively. Uncertain and uninformed about the unique issues that faced me as a dad, I couldn’t be an effective advocate.

And that is why I am starting a new series here at my Mothering blog, “Twenty-Five Ways for Dads to Change the World”: to brief new dads on the political issues they’ll face as fathers and to suggest ways for them to stay socially engaged after parenthood.

In other words, we’ll be tackling all the issues that the most parenting guides are afraid to touch. The best-selling What to Expect When You’re Expecting lists every possible illness and injury that can kill or cripple your child—but it doesn’t address the fact that 46 million Americans (possibly including your own family) don’t have access to health care. Health care, equality for gay and lesbian parents, paid sick time, peace in our homes and communities, environmental sustainability—these aren’t just abstract “issues.” Winning these battles will actually help us to take care of our children.

Of course, I reckon that I routinely, successfully practice only about half of the twenty-five suggestions I will make in this series; the rest I struggle with. I know perfection isn’t possible, and, as a parent, I know that perfection isn’t even desirable. As Chabon writes in Manhood for Amateurs, “A father is a man who fails every day.”

The failures are trivially personal—“I’ll buy you an ice cream if you just stop crying!”—and they can be profoundly political, as when we ignore poverty and homelessness in our neighborhood. Our daily failures as parents can even have global implications: Overwhelmed by our day-to-day duties, we cram everything into the trash instead of reusing, recycling, and composting—I know I do. We buy an SUV and drive the kids everywhere, because that’s a hell of a lot easier than getting them (and ourselves) to walk or bike or take the bus. All of us fall short in some area of our lives; as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see our imperfections are signs of our common humanity. If we speak out against human weakness, it must be with compassion and understanding, for others as well as for ourselves.

Some readers might be sighing in despair. We face so many pressures as parents—do we really need to add “changing the world” to the list? Sounds overwhelming, doesn’t it? But I’ve discovered that it doesn’t have to be that way. Making anti-war signs with my son is fun, like drawing castles or folding paper airplanes, and memories of the two of us marching for peace seem to stand out vividly in his mind. My small, personal efforts to help change the world are special memories for him, ones that will, I hope, shape his values over the long run. Raising my son this way helps him to live a larger life.

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At the end of the day, changing the world ought to be a way of playing with our kids, meeting people, exploring the world. Social and political participation should be indivisible from good fathering. When we work (and play!) to improve our homes, neighborhoods, cities, countries, and planet, we are teaching our kids to do the same. If only through example, we teach them to live as fully as possible, to see the interconnections between human beings and between humanity and nature, to take action on behalf of others and on their own behalf. Trying to change the world isn’t just another pressure we face; it’s good medicine that helps us to cope with those pressures.

Fathers have always worked to improve the world, of course. Historically, their activism was built upon their roles as breadwinners. When fathers joined the labor movement and battled for pay, health benefits, and weekends off, they were, in many respects, fighting for better lives for their families and for all families.

However, as I argue in my book The Daddy Shift, the definition of fatherhood has expanded in recent decades beyond breadwinning, to include a capacity for caregiving as well. This has made many fathers conscious of how their caregiving is discouraged by economic, cultural, and even political forces—and today, we are seeing more and more dads advocate for changes in society, public policy, and the workplace that will allow us to be the fathers that we want to be. Only 12 percent of men have access to paid paternity leave. Many don’t take leave when it’s available because they fear for the future of their careers. That needs to change—and dads are the only ones who are going to make that change. If we don’t speak up for ourselves, who will speak for us?

Changing the world is not actually about changing the world; we as individuals are small and the world is large. In the end, taking action is about changing ourselves: opening our eyes, looking around, seeing the distance between hope and reality—and acting to close that unhappy distance.

That process happens in our homes, as we struggle to wash as many dishes as our partners—and thus live up to egalitarian ideals—and in every place we touch, from our cubicle walls to the earth under our feat to the sky above our heads. Change is intrinsic to life, and it is when we struggle to participate in that change—to strive to improve the world—that we feel most alive. And when we see that distance between hope and reality disappear—when we find ourselves, incredibly, living our values—the result is hard-earned happiness, happiness we deserve. This is one of the secrets to living a good life.

I’ll post each of my twenty-five suggestions every Monday, starting October 5. I hope you’ll join me, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts through comments to this blog.