What does it mean to be male and a father in a world that is increasingly dispensing with not only traditional gender norms and the who-does-what in the family dynamic, but also with the very idea of gender itself?
If, as we are told by activists, psychologists, and national treasure RuPaul that “it’s all drag”, that gender is a performance, not a reliable marker of identity, what challenges do these new understandings of identity pose for men who want to be good fathers but do not want to rely on outdated gender roles?
What makes a “dad” when we live in an era that does not trust the base identity of “male”?
Dr. Kenneth Moffatt has an idea. A Professor of Social Work and the current Jack Layton Chair of Social Justice at Ryerson University in Toronto. Moffatt is the author and co-author of multiple papers dealing with the current state of social work and its challenges, as well as the highly influential Troubled Masculinities: Reimagining Urban Men, which was first published in 2012 and became a core text in the “Crisis in Masculinity” conversations of the early 2010s.
We spoke to Dr. Moffatt spoke candidly about the difficulties facing men today, especially younger men who take on the role of fathers. While occasionally striking a warning tone, Dr. Moffatt nevertheless wants to remind fathers that while contemporary masculinity is fraught with hurdles, it does not need to be frightening.
You mentioned that your own father influenced your role of the father today. What was father like, and how did growing up with him influence your thinking?
My father was a child of the Depression. His family lost their farm. That was never talked about and was a source of shame. When WWII came along, my father suffered another shame, in that he was flat-footed and couldn’t fight. That was a really big deal back then, being told you could not fight in the war. And I know all of this from my mother. My father didn’t speak about his own life, ever.
From him I learned that fatherhood is extremely difficult, especially if you are not a man who comes to it easily. My father never came to fatherhood easily. He was trapped in fatherhood, trapped in being part of a family, trapped working in a car factory. So his idea of being a father was one thing: that he was a “provider”. He could never talk about caring for us, only providing for us.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned from him?
What I learned from him, and I don’t think of course that I learned the right way, is that fathers have their own life outside the home, but at home are distant, angry, strong, and scary. A lot of my thoughts about how I want to be in the world, and what I want to do with my work, are in reaction to him. I want to be a different man.
There is a whole field of psychology that describes fathers as the being in charge of symbols within the family, which is a way of saying the father holds the “last word”, makes “the laws”, and even though some of that strict gender reading does not work for me, the base idea really speaks to my idea of what a father ought not to be.
It’s a strange time to be a man. You are surrounded by fragility, especially economic and social fragility, yet in order to be a “good man” you have to perform this authority role of the Good Man
Even though you are describing a kind of fatherhood that it would be easy…
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