WSRC Blog: ‘Feminist Fatherhood #1: Gendered Expectations’ by Jason Coe

By Dr Jason Coe (Department of Comparative Literature, School of Humanities)

This series of ruminations represents my explorations into the possibility, or maybe even impossibility, of “feminist fatherhood.” As a first-time parent, I find myself confronting many difficult questions: am I being patriarchal? Am I doing enough to support my partner? What am I teaching my child about gender, race, class, and politics through our everyday activities? Do I make enough money to be a good father, husband, and son? Am I a productive member of society? How do I benefit from being male, Han Chinese, and an expat living in Hong Kong? Can I do and be better? And am I really that bad?

First-time parenting can be an anxiety-ridden landscape, full of dark spots, dead-ends, and second-guessing. We grope around in the dark, and yet, experience transcendent in the process. In this series of blog posts on feminist fatherhood for the WSRC, I will map out the contours as best as I can. Any conclusions I make are not prescriptive and entirely personal. Your mileage may vary. Lastly, I reserve the right to change my mind later — mostly because one day I’ll probably look back on these entries and realize that I got it all wrong.

Feminist Fatherhood #1: Gendered Expectations

So, why feminist fatherhood? The impetus for finally writing up this collection of thoughts is becoming a father and having a son. Before now, I considered this work on myself to be a personal journey, something that I need not share with others. Everyone learns in their own way, so why go around telling others what I’ve learned and why it matters? Moreover, who wants that kind of responsibility? But parenthood is different — a lesson I relearn every day. From now on, we are responsible for our child’s welfare, and his future depends upon our best efforts. Like it or not, every decision we make about what is right or what is best has tremendous implications for how he grows up. That being said, I didn’t realize how much joy and satisfaction I would find in doing my best to be a good parent and partner.

To be honest, my wife and I both wanted a girl, but for rather different reasons. These reasons reflect both of our ingrained beliefs about gender, but in surprising ways. I wanted a girl because I wanted the child to be just like my wife: smart, high-achieving, athletic, and dependable. I was very afraid of having a boy, who I unfairly assumed would grow up to be a spoilt brat that believes the whole world owed him something. At worst, he could become a sex offender, alcoholic, and/or drug and video game addict, with a gambling problem. Of course, women can also be entitled layabouts, drink too much, play too many video games, and commit sexual violence, but since when do parental expectations and anxieties about their unborn children have anything do with reality? When I thought of having a girl, I imagined coaching her basketball team, teaching her how to code, and her becoming the first ever Asian American female astronaut and POTUS. When I thought of having a boy, I just hoped he wouldn’t grow up to be creepy or a drunk driver. Raising a son seemed like a real drag with mostly downsides, whereas raising a daughter seemed like the sky was the limit. In retrospect, none of these gendered assumptions make any sense and mostly reflect my insecurities and anxieties about my own shortcomings, but ideology never really makes sense.

It wasn’t until the second trimester of my wife’s pregnancy that I began to recognize these assumptions. When we went to our second ultrasound, I noticed a tiny protrusion extending from in between the baby’s legs. Immediately, I realized that the child would be born male, thus changing my entire outlook on my responsibilities as a parent. It was an immediate and visceral experience, both exciting and terrifying. Moments later when the doctor announced the baby’s sex, my wife let out an audible cry of disappointment, so loud that I worried the child had heard and would be telling a therapist about it decades later. Only at that moment did my wife realize how badly she wanted a daughter. After some rumination, she told me that she was disappointed because she wanted a child to do things with in the kitchen, who could wear the cute dresses that grandma desperately wants to buy, and mostly I think, because she likes hanging out with other women. Of course, our son could very well love to cook, wear dresses, and I certainly expect him to enjoy hanging out with his mom, but it felt like these options had already been precluded to the child before he had even left the womb.

I, on the other hand, felt a sudden surge of responsibility upon learning that the fetus floating in my wife’s womb making her nauseous every day would be biologically male, or at the very least would be assigned that way according to current norms of medical practice. Immediately, I understood that whether I liked it or not, my ways of being gendered would inevitably condition this child’s understanding of their own gender. This would also be true had my contribution to the zygote been an “x” instead of a “y” chromosome, but the significance of my role as a father in our child’s understanding of gender only dawned on me then. That I only realized this at the moment of primary gender identification with our unborn child illustrates how gender ideologies function upon and through me. I felt a much greater sense of investment in the child’s future behaviour because we share the same biological sex. I only saw myself as a role model after I found out we were having a boy, which is rather silly seeing how my greatest role model is my mother, but ideology never really makes sense.

Things got real for me as a parent when I began to carry our son. By comparison, my wife had been carrying him for 9 months already, so I had a lot of catching up to do, which actually, has been a total joy. Even something so simple as carrying a baby held a sort of mystique for me with its own ideological sway. First of all, I’m a pretty big and clumsy guy who has broken his fair share of Ikea furniture, and I’ve been told more than once that I don’t know my own strength, so the thought of holding something as precious as a newborn has always been nerve-wracking. I never carried other people’s infants in fear of breaking them, perhaps irrationally, or maybe to get out of babysitting. I don’t know for sure. Those feelings changed pretty quickly.

Like all newborns, our son was tiny, but I wasn’t afraid to hold him. If anything, I felt safe in my strength, almost as if unbeknownst to me all of this time, the purpose of being born a bumbling oaf was to carry this child as far and as long as necessary — an important skill for soothing a crying baby! Moreover, he’s pretty responsive to all of the high-flying movements that we do. He smiles in delight when we prance across the room with him raised above my head, when I gently support his neck and abdomen to keep his mouth above the water while he splashes in the kiddie pool, and when I rocked him back and forth when he wouldn’t even yet open his eyes. I take his inherent trust in me with gravitas, and I scoff when his grandparents tell me I’m too rough or that it’s dangerous. Of course, they don’t know that when the baby is in my arms, every process in my body — from my tensing abdominals and firm but pliant hold to my brain’s instantaneous calculations of spacing, speed, and distance — is focused on assuring his safety. It’s a primal instinct that I’m sure other parents understand.

(Interesting side-note, a Taiwanese confinement nanny in a baby clinic waiting room once lectured me about bouncing our baby because I would give him shaken baby syndrome. She then proceeded to shame my wife for not having her parents around and for deciding to forego the 1-month confinement period. She didn’t ask about my parents’ whereabouts. We decided to ignore her before she could recommend us some professional services to us because I was a clueless man and my wife an irresponsible woman. I will always remember that experience as a prime example of how capitalism and sexism often share a common agenda.)

At the same time, I’ve also had to question my confidence about carrying our son. My wife sometimes asks me if I would be so hands-on and “rough” with the baby if he were female. The truth is, I’m not sure. Just as my wife felt like she would forge a trust and deep understanding with the child simply because of their shared sex, do I feel like my son and I have a mutual trust in safe roughhousing simply because of our shared sex? I’d like to think not, but when I ask myself this question, I can’t help but think that part of me might be gentler, or at the very least behave differently, were the baby born a girl instead of a boy. When he couldn’t do so on his own, I used to hold his head up to drink from the bottle and burp, and sometimes, I would worry that my palms gripped his cranium and chin too tightly, so I would self-consciously relax my hands. Were the baby female, would these types of worries arise more often? Would I expect her to be as receptive to roughhousing as my son? Wouldn’t she be missing out on a parent-child pleasure that he and I share if I let those worries inhibit our interactions? Moreover, does my wife only trust me with our son because I know “what a boy can handle”? Would she trust me with a daughter in the same way? Unless it happens, how could we know? And even then, how much will our experiences with our son shape how I interact with a daughter? I just don’t know.

After these experiences from the first weeks of our son’s life, it became quite clear to me that we can’t possibly be gender neutral because we actively shape our performances of gender through the very act of parenting. I learn my own masculinity and fatherhood through our family interactions: confirming, denying, growing, and accepting different aspects of myself by way of socializing with them. And just as I feel empowered to perform masculinity because of my child’s sex, my wife may feel inhibited in her own gender expressions. We’d be fooling ourselves if we thought our parental roles were neutral or natural, but I’d like to think we will become aware of our biases as we go along. At least, we can only try. Parenting requires a particular kind of bravery: even though it’s basically the most important thing we will ever do, we can only do our best given the circumstances and accept the outcomes no matter what. If we screw up, hopefully he’ll forgive us once he works it out with a therapist.