President Obama has yet to spend a Father's Day not talking about the idea of fatherhood in general, his own absent father, and his efforts to strive to be a good father to his two daughters despite the lack of a model in his own life. Yesterday was no exception; he had a barbecue with 150 students from local high schools and gave a speech in Ward 8 to leaders from fatherhood groups. Obama trumpeted his fatherhood initiatives, including a new national fatherhood and mentoring program. His fatherhood initiatives are an expanded replacement for the healthy-marriage initiatives pushed in the last administration.
For many progressives, the initiatives are still dictating how families should look and act. At The Future of Capitalism, Ira Stoll had harsh words about an e-mail Obama blasted out directing everyone to the new Fatherhood.gov website.
Here was tip number two: "Watch a game on television with your children. Cheer for your favorite team and chat about the plays. Mute the commercials and use those minutes to talk about what's going on in your lives." Here is the government telling Americans to "mute the commercials."
And here is Stoll assuming that every family looks and acts like his. The advice might seem infuriatingly mundane to someone like Stoll, but we know now that the discursive, interactive lives that middle-class parents assume they will have with their children don't happen in poorer families, and that helps lead to language differences that put low-income students at a disadvantage before they ever reach school. Those are the kinds of differences programs like Harlem Children's Zone try to tackle, and they do it with parenting classes. You could see this as another way that the government is telling families how to live. (In the research Paul Tough discusses in his book, lower-income children were less helicoptered, and that had its advantages, too.) Or you could see it as an expansion of access to the kinds of resources on how to be a parent middle-class families take for granted.
There's a liberal argument to be made for expanding services of all kinds to the poor, including relationship counseling and parental advice, as long as financial assistance programs don't suffer. There's a feminist argument, too. Much of successes, to varying degrees of feminism have been to integrate women's lives into the traditionally dominated male spheres; we've been less successful in expanding the male role in the domestic sphere. In many workplaces, for example, women have gained the rights to maternity leave and space to pump breast milk. While many companies offer paternity leave, it's often shorter, and men regard it as voluntary. The biological connection women have to childbearing will likely never be completely severed, so maybe it's time to reinforce the primacy that fatherhood should take in the lives of men. Maybe a concerted effort that encourages men to take time out of their leisure and work will help women more in the end, too. Stoll was angry that Obama's e-mail and website took time out of his Father's Day, but his evening post on the subject took time as well.
-- Monica Potts