Father Jones?

Monday, February 9, 2009
THE MALE MIND

Dileepan Siva is a Senior Manager for Partnerships at The Synergos Institute based in New York City where he works on building multi-sector partnerships in southern Africa, Brazil and India to address the underlying causes of poverty and social injustice. He recently spent several years working on democracy promotion in southern Africa and South Asia and his associated life and work has appeared in The New York Times and Newsweek as well as National Public Radio and PRI's The World but, in Dileepan's words "for all the wrong reasons." Dileepan lives in Manhattan's East Village and hopes to one day become M.I.A.'s spokesperson and foundation manager but would settle for backstage passes.

Disclaimers out upfront – I'm a single, serial monogamist, SouthAsian –American male with no kids. That said, I did read Judy Blume growing up as well as every other South Asian female writer to hit the scene before Lahiri (read Chitra Divakaruni's "Arranged Marriage" which I continue to argue makes "Interpreter of Maladies" look like child's play) so hope that imparts some ability to understand what has been traded in posts back and forth, on this blog and in the mainstream media, on fatherhood.

First off, I think there's a bit of context here that might be helpful– nod to Neesha who commented on the original post, about how this topic involves Philosophy 101 (although this is probably more like 301 because any course discussing anything to do with brownfolks anywhere would be a seminar listed in the back pages of anycollege registration guide.) Part of the reason that men don't have the same diversity or amount of discussion in the public sphere is because there hasn't been a need to until relatively recently. In much the same respect that there aren't journals discussing and promoting white culture in this country, there aren't the same for men who are fathers. Patriarchy is still for the most part the dominant narrative – I know, I know big words on a blog?...it's philosophy class though kids – so there isn't a felt need to define this against anything or for that matter to discuss what it means. This is of course changing slowly but let's be honest…this is happening in certain places – urban centers in developed countries –only now with stay-at-home dads and the like. I'm sure that as this trend grows – and I mean to middle America – you will see an Oprah-like character (and no, Montel doesn't count) discussing not only those things that pertain to middle class suburbia but specifically to men who are fathers raising their kids.

Right now,there isn't much in the way of public discussion of fatherhood but this is changing. As the paradigm shifts so will the need for discussion and reflection. I don't expect the Sopranos, GQ or sports radio to do this but I'm guessing that soon enough you'll see a whole space devoted to just this topic. And yes Devis, men are again following your lead into this…as they probably should.

A couple of readers noted how mothers share their experiences amongst themselves while it seems like their husbands don't. Some respondents (males in particular) noted that this wasn't always the case and I would add that maybe the difference is less about substance and more about style. It's not that men who are fathers are less concerned or apt to discuss fatherhood but I am guessing that when it does happen it happens among a strong peer group (don't worry, will take the philosophy and now apparently psychology cap off soon) that they feel is safe. It is in a nutshell less public and more private than the way it seems that women interact about motherhood. Rather than go into detail about why this might be – because I'm sure we can think of countless reasons and then add into it some South-Asian specific ones– I think a lot has to do real simply with the shared experience of pregnancy and giving birth to a child. Men don't ever experience anything close to that (OK, some exceptions aside).

So where does this leave us? Should fathers try to build a unique shared experience with their kids? I don't even know what this would look like but my initial thoughts don't leave much room for hope. When I talk to my friends about our relationships with our own fathers more often than not all we remember is pops working pretty hard to put food on the table (so to speak--most of my friends are middle to upperclass so it was less putting food on the table and more about whether we could afford to have some great lamb and not ordinary chicken curry– ah, the bourgeois lifestyle; apologies to the Brahmin readers). The scene at the park where dad is playing catch with his son – um,yeah…not so much. Funny enough, I asked a couple of friends who are white, black, latino and yellah (thank you Joseph Lowery; I don't have any 'red' friends, sorry) whether this was true for them – playing catch in the park when we were young or one-on-one lunches later in life – it was somewhat more true but not by much. It makes me wonder where I got the image to begin with...

Then I remember watching Beverly Hills 90210 (don't deny it – I know most of you do…oops, I mean did…too and can't stand the newer version) and this episode where Steve is telling his dad about how little time he has for him. It always amazed me how grown-up Steve as well as some of the other characters were in relation to their parents. Confronting them on their absences for the most part (except for Brandon and Brenda's parents but they were from Minnesota so…) and taking part in some genuine dialogue. Seems like it's exactly the opposite in many South Asian households with parents always around rather than absent but in more than one sense – overbearing. Don't get me wrong – if I had to pick one I definitely don't regret the sacrifices my parents made for me. My dad was home at 6pm almost every day of my life and my mom was a housewife - you can't help but be appreciative of that. But them being around doesn't translate into strong relationships.

Coming back to the issue at hand…seeing as how both my parents were around most of the time growing up was there anything different tetween the two of them? Undeniably. To put it bluntly, unless it's an issue of a financial or automobile (yes, automobile--and I haven't owned a car for almost three years) nature it's a bit difficult to connect to my dad. And I don't think I'm the only one out there. Connecting with my mom on the other hand is super easy. I can chill out while she is cooking and all kinds of topics come out – well, not all kinds…she's South Asian after all so marriage, kids and her horror over what kind of children she raised dominate. But we still connect somehow, someway. Maybe it's the kitchen space and smelling the mustard seeds and fenugreek (read: shameless plug for Divakaruni's "Mistress of Spices") that brings everything back to the good ole days in the highchair and mom in pigtails dishing up the Gerber equivalent of Sri Lankan Tamil food – I don't know. What I do know though is that we connect around a shared space and more importantly experience.

That is the tie that binds – and continues to this day because god knows I can't fit into a highchair now…although I still pretend. What is it about fathers – and in particular South Asian ones – that doesn't create this? Like I said there are probably countless reasons for this but the bottom line is that there isn't a shared experience as strong between father and child. It needs to be created proactively and the onus is on the pops of course. Add to that the fact that most South Asian fathers' fathers lives were literally about putting food on the table and the picture becomes a lot clearer. At the end of the day, what I know about being a father comes from…you guessed it – the media. On the bad days, it's Steve's dad in 90210 and on the good ones it's Cliff Huxtable in The Cosby Show (mind you I still have no idea how as parents Cliff and Claire had ample time to be both a doctor and lawyer respectively and still chill out to discipline all five children – let's just thank Quincy Jones and leave it that).

I don't know what kind of father I will be but I do know this much. Between high school and college, I took part in a yoga, meditation and dharma retreat (I grew up in California, alright?). So what, right? Well, the folks who came to the retreat were from two different generations –mine and our parents. So I was basically chilling with my friend's parents getting into some real deep issues – we were in the mountains and were asked to explore challenging times in our lives. I distinctly remember during one of those sessions, one of my friend's father bawling his eyes out one-on-one to about how he had not spent enough QUALITY time with his kids. Sound cliché? Almost every father in the room was bawling about exactly the same thing. I'm not a father yet and don't know much but I do know this. When I do become one, I'm damn well going to figure out what quality time means and make it happen – whether that's through talking to successful fathers, understanding myself better and my own relationship to men in my family or starting my own blog. Machaans for Bachaans anyone?

Before I close out, let's turn to what everyone and their father (nice one, eh?) has been discussing recently. Hope, change, OBAMA. What does Obama – the beautiful father of two girls – have to say about all this? Here is an excerpt from his speech on fatherhood (yes, he gave a speech on fatherhood...):
Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation. They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it. But if we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing -- missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it...We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child -- it's the courage to raise one...When I was a young man, I thought life was all about me -- how do I make my way in the world, and how do I become successful and how do I get the things that I want. But now, my life revolves around my two little girls. And what I think about is what kind of world I'm leaving them...Are they living in a country that is still divided by race? A country where, because they're girls, they don't have as much opportunity as boys do?...And what I've realized is that life doesn't count for much unless you're willing to do your small part to leave our children -- all of our children -- a better world. Even if it's difficult. Even if the work seems great. Even if we don't get very far in our lifetime.

Amen. I mean…err, Namaste. Hard to argue with the President…he's spot on when it comes down to it. At the end of the day, it's a question of when do we as males stop acting like boys and become men –where we are less focused on who we are in this world rather than on what we are leaving behind for our kids. Couldn't have said it better myself…and you're right, ladies – being open to seeing this means we should talk about it.
24 comments:
Rani said...

Very interesting piece and thank you for writing it. I think it's really interesting to contrast this with the post from earlier today. It's like, pre marriage and pre kids there are all these aspirations and goals and, after kids, it's bickering and complaining!

Harpreet said...

I think we need an Indo 90210. Get the kids from Slumdog on the phone.

Anonymous said...

Dileepan: Interesting piece. Would be curious to hear what you think about the commentary from this morning. There is almost no discussion of the wonders of the children, quality time with them. I know the focus was instead on the marriage relationsihp but would be interesting to hear what you think about it all from the perspective of somebody who wants to embark on it no?

K.L. said...

I feel like my husband wants to be the dad who throws the ball around in the park with our kid. Like really wants to. But more and more he is gravitating towards being the one who, all he can do is show up by 6, and then feels put out by me if I suggest he should be doing more.

How do we help our husbands bridge the gap between their aspirations and their realities? And why does it seem like the moms I know have bridged this gap on their own? Dileepan, it seems like youa re saying the experience of childbirth somehow bonded us to our kids in such a way that is almost a natural order to do it, but I'm not sure I agree.

Anonymous said...

Love the Obama speech but it's a bunch of crap. If you've read his book you hear Michelle talking about how he wasn't really around for much of the girls' early childhood years. Don't get me wrong, I'm waving the Obama flag with the rest of the country but nice words does not a good father make.

Anonymous said...

Dileepan: I would be curious to know what you would have liked your dad to do differently. And what can our husbands start doing with our kids at at young age? I worry that we will turn to these issues after it is too late.

Hema Parekh said...

This is a great post and I laughed out loud at the 90210 reference. This reminds me of when my husband and I began talking about having kids in the first place! It's nice to get a reminder of all the wonder and hopes and dreams we have for the parents we will be. We all strive to be this still but sometimes we get bogged down in the diapers, who's doing what, the milk. So thank you!

Ushi said...

"My dad was home at 6pm almost every day of my life and my mom was a housewife - you can't help but be appreciative of that. But them being around doesn't translate into strong relationships."

So true! For fatherhood and marriage alike!!! You need more than just physical presence. Yes "quality time" is cliche but you need it!

Anonymous said...

"she's South Asian after all so marriage, kids and her horror over what kind of children she raised dominate"

hahaha LOL

Asha said...

OMG Dileepan, I heard that NPR piece--amazing and so glad you are safe! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Anonymous said...

You know, I think lots of our husbands are trying to make it a point not to be "absent" in the way you describe in their kids' lives so hopefully some this generation will change thigns a bit.

Ruchi said...

Dileepan you are going to make some woman very very happy! Thanks for writing!

pooja said...

Great post and a good reminder for us to remember why we have children in the first place. Best of luck to you Dileepan and thank you Deepa for rounding up some interesting and thoughtful male voices.

single desi girl said...

Dileepan--curious, how much do you think about this sort of thing as you are dating a woman? As a single woman every man I date at this point is a potential father and it is on the forefront of my mind. Same for you as a single man?

I have a cute friend said...

Dileepan great piece, a humorous and insightful take on fatherhood. You mention you are single. (1). Do you find conversation such as the commentary to the previous post completely foreign or do you have friends going through the same thing? And (2). You looking???!

Ravi said...

Great writing Dileepan, and it makes me terrified so thanks for that. (I am about to have my first child--a daughter--and I already live in fear of turning into my father).

Homely Nari said...

Dileepan, gotta ask, how old are you and when can we meet?

one life, roll up said...

interesting... oedipus, anyone? i fit the same profile as dileepan (minus the stache), yet i find that my sister and i connect more with our father--and yes, he was that hustling south asian doctor dad many of us know so well.

i believe that in nurturing a robust shared father-child experience, we must not only focus on "what we are leaving behind for our kids" but also embrace the fact that our kids define "who we are in this world," inasmuch as our own obsessions.

Saha said...

in a way we are lucky to even have the cultural space to have this discussion--i would get that men our father's generation might have wanted to be more involved or whatnot but there was no support or even language to articulate that sort of thing. even now, paternity leave is sort of a joke, frowned upon by all but the most california hippie dippy companies. so dads get sort of screwed because many have to take on a traditional gender role of primary bread winner but they also ahve the desire to be more involved with their kids, and the expectation from their partners that they will be equal parents! in 20 years, if this keeps up, it will be the dads that are beleaguered by the incessant expectations upon them!!!

Anonymous said...

It's not too late you know, Dileepan. Taking from the above poster, I would bet your dad would love to go back and do things again. Maybe now the onus is on US to make the efforts to create great relationships with our fathers in this stage. Not that it will make up for what we didn't have as kids, but at least we won't be sitting here old and gray writing about what we could have had as adults.

Dileepan said...

first up - just to let you know...the moustache in the pic is fake, although don't get me wrong, i think veerappan is hilarious.
(http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/26/magazine/26VEERAPPAN.html). much thanks for the insightful comments and questions alike. great post by swapnil breaking things down to some clear nuts and bolts - the reality so to speak in comparison to the aspirations and perceptions that i have as a potential father-to-be. to the question on the wonders of having and raising children - i have to say that i am real hopeful that it will happen one day soon with someone special. that said, hanging out with my close friends - many of whom - have at least one if not more kids tempers the urgency - a lot. kids are a handful so to speak - a couple of hours with one of them and i am straight tired and in need of a nap. don't get me wrong...i love kids to no end and cannot wait to be with them but i honestly wonder how my close friends - and those reading this - do it day in and day out.

so big up to all of you parents out there - seriously. especially ones raising kids in this country. i grew up abroad and my parents
can tell you that raising kids in the good ole US of A is quite a bit harder than it is overseas. then there's the joint household
situation back in the homeland that takes the pressure off of the mother for the most part and onto the extended family to bring the
kids up. now i'm not arguing that we should all move back to jaffna, jalandar or jamnagar (the last one is in gujarat for those not
geographically inclined) because god knows some ridiculous nonsense went on back in the day - we only have to watch zee or sun tv for a split second to understand that.

but it's appreciating that it's not easy raising kids with the lives we live nowadays. i'm not naive enough to think that parenting is an easy ride but i damn well know that it is doable someway somehow. and
it is as i said before - all about QUALITY. so what can fathers today do with their kids? spend time with their kids where it is just them hanging out (without mama) and getting to learn their kids inside and out. i'm guessing this means taking them to the park on sunday while mum is at home resting or catching up with her girlfriends. it means
reading to your kids at bedtime and otherwise. and yeah - sorry guys - but i think it does mean knowing whether there is enough milk left in the fridge or not.

now i know that most of us don't remember how it was when we were real young but round about elementary and onwards i definitely do. and you know what my fondest memory growing up was? it was the time my dad,
brother and i - without my mum or sister - went to cyprus for two weeks. we rented a car and toured around the island - beach hopping. every day we would wake up, get some breakfast (including some beef and pork - sorry mum) and then build castles in the sand. every day we would do this on a different part of the island in the waters of
the mediterranean and watch as the sun would set and the tides break apart the castles we had built. awwww...seriously though.

i'm not writing this assuming that everyone has the privilege or opportunity to do exactly this. but it's not impossible for some if not most of us as parents i would hope. more importantly, one of the things i most wished i had later in my life is a trip or experience just like that one when i was young with my dad. to share things as adults. looking at my close friends who have kids...it's not that i worry about them and the quality of interaction they have with their kids now - on the contrary, they do a phenomenal job.

what i actually worry about is that period later in our lives...when we have kids that have left home and are moving about in the world. will we still make the time to have QUALITY in our lives? if i were to ask all of my guy friends - fathers and not - whether they have ever had something like this with their fathers...i think we all know what the answer is. here's to hoping that we - as SONS (point well taken Anonymous) and FATHERS can change that. here's to hoping that we can realize what steve's dad did albeit earlier and chill out quality-style with our own grown-up theo's like cliff huxtable. here's to hoping that before we have the indo 90210 (although i would do anything to see freida pinto
play kelly) we have an indo dr. phil.

as to how this all relates to single men - good question. i know from my own experience that the thought definitely crosses my mind when i date a woman as to whether she is a potential mother. guys (and gals) who say otherwise either haven't thought it through and subconsciously do it anyway or have and just know where they stand, i.e. don't want
kids. but this sort of thinking for me is recent...i always looked at a woman as a potential partner in a relationship. only recently as close friends have had kids have i thought through more deeply whether i want kids and in turn this informs who i am attracted to and end up dating. how this all plays out - i have no idea and should definitely not be the one dispensing advice. i'll look to learn from you all out
there...

Anonymous said...

Well said Dileepan. Though I would be lying if I didn't say it makes me a little sad to hear that you fondest memory involves your dad who you have depicted as sort of absent--motherhood can be thankless...

Anonymous said...

Anyone who likes Divakaruni's "Arranged Marriage" cannot be taken seriously.

parutron said...

Lost in Emotion, Judy Blume, and 90210!? You are made to be a father to a girl!

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