By Dr Jason Coe (Department of Comparative Literature, School of Humanities)
This series of posts for the WSRC explores the possibilities for a feminist take on 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? What baggage and biases have I brought with me? Parenting can be an anxiety-ridden landscape, full of dark spots, dead-ends, and second-guessing. And yet, as we grope around in the dark, we the experience transcendent joy of becoming better at it. Getting lost and finding our way, over and over again, turns out to be lots of (exhausting) fun! This blog details that imperfect journey. Read the previous post from the series here.
Feminist Fatherhood #2: Seeing Other People
My personal engagement in feminist practice began with a simple but ground-shifting epiphany: it’s not always about me. In calling myself a feminist, I have come to accept that my biases — especially those pertaining to gender and sexuality — limit my understanding of the world and how I relate with others. Of course, acquiring knowledge begins by acknowledging that we know not, but I only recognized the extent of my personal ignorance through interactions with female friends, family, colleagues, and romantic partners. With great patience and despite my stubbornness, they let me know how I was hurting myself and others without even knowing it. This is the key point: they let me know. Instead of leaving me stuck like a frog looking up out of a well, forever wondering why the world does not accord with his limited horizon, they took it upon themselves to share their experiences with me and learn about mine.
For most of my life, I only bothered to know women in the context of dating and courtship. I do have many female friends but because I saw women as objects I sought to achieve, their input only registered in terms of romance and self-validation. What I wanted from women was their romantic and sexual attention, and all I ever really cared to know about them, even some of my closest friends, pertained to learning how to become someone that their friends would want to date.
I wrongly assumed that the surest way to gain respect and acceptance from my masculine peers was to be a “ladies’ man.” Ironically, wanting to be closer to men made me care far too much about being attractive to women — a mindset that led to desperate unhappiness with myself, my circumstances, and what I assumed to be a superficial society that devalued me personally. Becoming the right kind of man, one desired by all women and envied by all men, would solve all my problems. That confining and heteronormative definition of masculine self-worth blinded me to the immaturity of my convictions and how they harmed my mental health.
Even when women did want to date me, I never stopped feeling insecure. I sought validation when they just wanted to love and be loved, and no matter how much they cared for me, nothing could change my conviction that I was inadequate. I never intended to hurt anyone and even considered myself an exceedingly chivalrous “nice guy” who often “finished last,” but I harmed others because I could not get over myself. There’s a difference between wanting to be loved and wanting to be loved by everyone. The former is a basic need and the latter is vanity, but I often confused them. Still do.
I only discarded this myopia after a woman actually did not let me know something about her — a fact I was not to discover until years later. This unnecessarily kind young woman gently rebuffed my romantic advances after some brief flirtations between us, and her polite refusal brought out my deepest insecurities about my own romantic and sexual viability. Convinced that her disinterest signified something about my personal value, I sulked and withdrew from everyone in that social circle. By a strange coincidence, I later found out that during that same time we had our dalliance, a casual acquaintance date raped her.
As was her right, she kept this sensitive information from me. I still don’t understand why she even bothered answering my text messages at that time. Yet, in that time of great physical and emotional pain, she worried about my feelings. Perhaps she did so out of kindness, distrust, or (I hope not) maybe even fear that I would not believe her. I will never know. Meanwhile, I had the temerity to obsess with my own wounded ego when instead I could have been her friend. Due to my solipsism, I harmed someone that I claimed to care for deeply. While my initial memories of her had been fixated on rejection and resentment, that sense of juvenile aggrievement evolved into a recognition of my own complicity in her suffering.
Trauma resonates throughout communities like ripples in a pond and secrets affect even those not privy to their contents. I once considered myself this woman’s intellectual and spiritual equal, although definitely not in looks, and believed that our commonalities made romance the logical conclusion. In retrospect, I was completely wrong. We were never on equal footing. While I worried about masculine pride, she dealt in secret with the pain and stigma of being raped by someone she trusted.
These revelations reshaped my understanding of myself as a gendered subject. The simple fact is that while sex and romance can be “just for fun” for cis-hetero guys like me, for most others, it can be incredibly dangerous. Sexual violence is a public health epidemic. When we ignore sexual violence or act like it has no bearing on our lives, we perpetuate it. The statistics on rape bear out a sad truth: we all know someone who has been the victim of sexual violence. They may not share that trauma with us, but it still happens. Our ignorance of their suffering merely bespeaks their desire for us not to know, for whatever reason they deem fit.
We are not entitled to other people’s stories. Yet, only by learning from others can we escape the veil of our individual horizon. I owe my present happiness to others who shared their stories and perspectives with me, without which I would still be adrift in a sea of self-abnegation. In opening ourselves to learning from others instead of only knowing and navigating the world through our individual experience, we make possible the frog’s escape from the well. To do so, we must be prepared to listen, especially when what gets said contradicts what we believe to be true. This starts by making friends, if they’re willing, with those who see things differently. This means listening to my partner and our son in order to understand their perspectives.
I identify as a feminist and want to be a feminist father because I want a better way of being in the world that takes others into account — not just as means to my personal ends but as an end in itself. Making space for marginalized voices and being receptive to their opinions, institutionally as well as in our personal echo chambers, enlightens us all. Being grounded in feminist practice makes possible, but without any guarantee, that I might see other people instead of just myself.