Leading up to Father’s Day, I count my victories in small bites. This month, it was a button.
While filling in my son’s information on ePACT, an online emergency preparedness resource for families, I noticed that on the mother’s page there was a button for "same address as child." For the father, there was no such button. I wrote a letter. Now fathers have a button too. A button-sized victory for dads everywhere. Well, for dads in British Columbia anyway.
There’s still a part of me that feels ridiculous writing complaint letters about these sorts of things. Two years ago, I would never have noticed the discrepancy. Who cares about a button? But after two years as a single dad — two years of dealing with gender-role stereotypes at nearly every level — there I was, not only noticing but writing letters.
Unfortunately, not every institution is as responsive as the nice folks at ePACT. There is, to pick on the local 800-pound gorilla as an example, Revenue Canada. Its policy for the Canada child tax credit explicitly and unabashedly discriminates based on gender: “If there is a female parent who lives with the child, we usually consider her to be [the primary caregiver]. However, if the male parent is primarily responsible, he must attach to Form RC66, Canada Child Benefits Application, a signed note from the female parent that states he is primarily responsible for all of the children in the household.” And if the female parent will not provide a signed note, then the burden of proof on the father is somewhere between that of a criminal trial and the Spanish Inquisition.
In my case, a sole-custody court order was deemed insufficient to prove that I have “primary responsibility” for my son. I was asked to provide letters from his school, from his afterschool activities, and from community leaders such as doctors and lawyers. For a mom, it’s automatic. For a dad, it’s a two-year treasure hunt.
But resistance is futile, so I tried to comply. In doing so, I noticed that my son’s elementary school had changed his student information from “Father has sole custody” to “Mother has sole custody” despite the fact that the school had a copy of the court order. Like ePACT, the school is full of good people. The teachers, the principal, everything about it is great, and it was apologetic about the error — a simple accident, not conscious discrimination. But even as an accident, it says volumes about social expectations. People assume that the mother is the caregiver to such a strong extent that it changes what they see on the page.
It’s somehow become socially acceptable (again) throughout North America to devalue a human being purely because of an identity-characteristic such as gender.
Dealing with this over and over has made me hypersensitive, a bit like a feminist in the 1980s. When my son’s teacher corrected his grade-one essay about his family from “My family is my dad, my mom, and . . .” to “My family is my mom, my dad, and . . .” I asked the teacher why. She told me I was “ridiculous” and “offensive” to bother her with such an issue. She was both right and wrong. It is ridiculous to complain about a simple swapping of the word order — though not that dissimilar from the campaign 20 years ago to change “businessman” to “businessperson” — yet when you correct a child you’re telling him he’s wrong, that he made a mistake. Why is it a mistake to put “dad” first?
When did it become such a bad thing to be male? Why has “testosterone” become a dirty word? Thinking about these things, I started to do something men don’t often do: I talked, communicated. First during poker games with friends who happened also to be single fathers. Then through a website I started for single dads, initially as a fitness site for dads with little spare time. And finally through systematic research for a book that grew out of this frustration.
What I’ve seen coming out of all this talking is that it’s somehow become socially acceptable (again) throughout North America to devalue a human being purely because of an identity-characteristic such as gender. In the US, President Obama's method of counting civilian casualties excludes all military-age males, within a strike zone, who have not been explicitly proven innocent. Meaning that it’s official government policy that in certain situations the simple fact of being male makes you guilty until proven innocent.
Here in Canada, we have a Ministry for the Status of Women — a cabinet-level government ministry — that publishes reports of journalists who write articles discussing the gender discrepancy that’s leaving boys behind in schools, and reframes this as a “hate” issue against women. A report from 2003 titled School Success by Gender: A Catalyst for the Masculinist Discourse, for example, argued for greater government monitoring of websites that seek to help boys in school or give fathers support in custody disputes. "Some masculinist groups use the Internet as a vehicle for hate-mongering against feminists. This accessible and virtually universal medium gives them the opportunity to say and post almost anything. It is no accident that this medium is being used by those on the extreme right, pedophiles and pornographers.”
This is not a fringe group writing. It’s a report for a government ministry associating men with pedophiles and pornographers simply because they are seeking each other’s support — something that women do far more naturally than men for reasons of culture and history. If men are forming support groups, if they’re seeking a greater role in caring for their sons and daughters, if fathers are engaged with their sons’ education and well being, then those are all good things. They should be encouraged. It means we’re slowly moving to a post-gender society. Ironically, however, all the institutions we’ve put in place to help enable that transition are precisely the ones that are now causing the greatest obstacles.
The philosopher Ivan Illich once pointed out that every institution gradually becomes counterproductive to its original intentions: the medical industry causes illness, educational institutions induce ignorance, the judicial system perpetuates injustice, and national defense makes a nation less secure. Similarly, the fight for gender equality has now made it almost politically incorrect to acknowledge equality among parents.
So let me put my cards on the table before I get added to the ministry’s list of “certain writers acting as the customary spokespersons for the masculinist discourse.” I’m not a misogynist. I’m not anti-feminist. I like feminists, and I have read more feminist literature than any man I know. I don’t agree with all of it. I tend to prefer French deconstructive feminists, such as Luce Irigaray, and literary ones such as Gayatri Spivak, over the more combative ones, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon,who once wrote that "to be rapable, a position that is social not biological, defines what a woman is." Which inevitably implies that to be a rapist defines what a man is.But I’ve read them all, I appreciate them all, and I think it’s time for men to start learning from them all.
That's because it is time for a masculinist discourse to complement feminist discourse, especially in family matters where the unofficial policy often seems to be mirroring the official “guilty until proven innocent” approach to defining war casualties based on gender. We don’t need men shouting words like “feminazi,” which is the way masculinists are caricatured — but it's worth pointing out that to be a good feminist you also have to be a masculinist (and vice versa). I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to become as hypersensitive as I am now to missing buttons for the dad’s address or the constant bombardment of “man as idiot” commercials on radio and TV. But we do need to start some sort of conversation about gender that is rooted in today rather than in history. I have a son, and to me that trumps any notion of historical wrongs. I don’t want him to grow up voiceless, any more than a feminist 30 years ago wanted her daughter to grow up second class.
And if not for your sons who will one day become fathers, then do it for the girls. Because if you assume men cannot raise healthy, well-adjusted, and confident children just as well as women can, then you’re also implicitly re-opening the question of whether a female firefighter can perform certain rescues as proficiently as a stronger male counterpart.
In the song "Everybody Knows," Leonard Cohen sings the line, "You've got that broken feeling, like your father or your dog just died." Within family matters in North America it does sometimes seem that this is the status that fathers are assigned. So on this Father’s Day, let’s give the dads a promotion. Fathers are wonderful. They’re just as cool as mothers.