“…It’s just different.”
Healthcliff “Cliff” Huxtable, Dan Connor, Phillip “Uncle Phil” Banks, and Steven Keaton. Strangely, these are the individuals that come to mind when I think about our cultural discourse on fatherhood [i]. These caring men are usually coming home from work—always walking directly into the kitchen, the domestic epicenter—to quickly be debriefed on the day’s events. Their day-to-day lives exist elsewhere, only coming into focus on special episodes. While they are often physically absent from the week’s familial events, their eternal love—though rarely explicit—is never in doubt; it is an unmarked but constant presence.
It is odd that these comforting if slightly nebulous sitcom characters would be so prominent when contemplating fatherhood. Shouldn’t there be something more substantive to draw on? But perhaps having fictional characters—actors performing scripted roles—being at the forefront of my imagination isn’t so surprising. When you scratch below the surface a bit, being a dad is lamentably often seen as a performance, as one playing something they are not. ‘Father’ is a secondary character that men play like an acting role; the script only having a few recurring stereotypes. It isn’t who they “really” are, doesn’t come instinctually, so on and so forth. Yes, men have their careers; they can be breadwinners and providers, in fact this is the overwhelming imperative, but actual care giving is a secondary role that is not “natural.” Of course this facilitates the related belief that for women, motherhood is a natural state, and they are more of a woman when they become a mother. This narrative is one of the many historic linchpins of patriarchy, both despite and because it is constantly being augmented.
And as of late, this narrative has been augmented quite a bit. In the US there is a good deal of evidence that the economic collapse, coupled with larger historic shifts in gender dynamics, is reshaping the role of male parents. As women are increasingly the sole earners in families, men—willingly or begrudgingly—are taking on a greater share of parenting duties. Whether it is a style exposé or sociological commentary, every week there seems to be a new media story about the changing roles of dads in our society, with a variety of qualitative conclusions. Some fathers are eager to embrace full-time childcare as the ultimate creative project. After all, what could be more artisinal, DIY, and back-to-nature than child rearing? Alternately, the specter of the symbolically castrated “Mr. Mom” still looms large, particularly among older men ashamed of this ‘temporary’ detour in their career. In either instance, attention is usually limited to the middle/upper middle end of the economic spectrum.
Then there’s the recurring comedic image of a man with a baby carrier or pushing a stroller, hapless and overwhelmed, the implication being that this is laughably unnatural. While at face value these changing images give the semblance of a more equitable division of parenting responsibilities, it relies on and reinforces the same gender dynamic—dad becomes the object of fetishization in order to guard against the trauma of difference. Rather than accept or embrace complexity, a laugh track is played. At the other end of the dad/fetish continuum, sincerity replaces comedy; upwardly mobile men spend hours crafting homemade toys and costumes for their kids. These fathers take on an air of almost mystical parenting capability (spoiler alert: the following pages will certainly not be immune from this strain of interpretation). Instead of being laughed at, they are dismissed as caricatures, their devotion too uncomfortable to be taken seriously. And of course the corollary injustice is that these devoted fathers are only doing what women have been doing for centuries, but without substantive praise or appreciation. Because of their privilege, when men do work conventionally attributed to women, it is all too often imbued with ‘real’ value. The furniture is rearranged but the room is still the same.
Even now this emerging dialogue on fathers is on the very verge of being turned through the social media hype cycle like any meme or celebrity obsession. If it isn’t happening already, something new will push it aside, leaving little unchanged. Sadly, this disposable and reactionary system of dialogue doesn’t address the meaningful issues around parenting, politics, community, and fatherhood. And fatherhood as a subject is particularly vulnerable to this process precisely because there is so little dialogue about it. Somewhat paradoxically the litany of ways in which the father looms over our collective imagination—father figures, daddy issues, and of course the Holy Father—is overwhelming. There is so little dialogue because everything is about fathers in one way or another, like a tacit monopoly on our collective conscious.
It is amidst these discursive vacuums, political trappings, and theoretical ambiguities that we decided to make the journal in your hands. Kindling Quarterly is, quite simply, an exploration of fatherhood. We offer no dramatic manifestos or grand theories about what it means to be a father, just simple explorations of creative individuals whose role as a parent—whether stay at home, working full time, or everywhere in between—is intrinsic to their life, and often their career. We believe that if we listen to these stories and create a space where they can multiply, a larger narrative will emerge and the existing narratives will change ever so slightly for the better. This journal operates under the Charles and Ray Eames axiom that ‘eventually everything connects.’ In place of caricatures we have fathers discussing their lives with the appropriate attention and devotion that parenting necessitates. Fatherhood isn’t new, but to borrow a phrase from one notable father “it’s just different [ii].”
Like the act of parenting itself, Kindling Quarterly will be continually changing and the process will be far from perfect. Already in this first issue there is a troubling lack of racial, cultural, economic, and sexual diversity that we strive to correct in subsequent issues. Additionally, while we are committed to spotlighting some of the unique challenges of fatherhood, the last thing we want to do is present men or male parents as marginalized when they clearly are not. What this ultimately means is maintaining a diligent understanding of how power, historic inequality, and entrenched ideologies shape our lives. Still there are other assessments we can only happily accept. If the depictions of fathers in this journal appear as wholesome, may be even uncomfortably precious, that’s because they are. When done with even the smallest amount of care and thought, how could active parenting be anything other than wholesome? While the term may be culturally loaded, our subject requires that we at least not be shy about the sentiment.
Fittingly, this journal’s infancy mirrors our own stage of fatherhood. My son, Amon, is barely 4 months old while my co-founder August Heffner’s son Phoenix is six months older. One of the many things we have both learned since becoming parents is that, despite its universal reach, thoughtfully discussing parenting, much less fatherhood is tricky terrain. Whenever I attempt to describe the happiness I feel since becoming a parent, I am immediately reduced to boilerplate clichés, sappy epiphanies, and ecstatic exaggerations; becoming such a better version of myself, the sudden and almost total absence of selfishness, suffering what I can only describe as happiness panic attacks, etc. So I know better than anyone that despite our desire to explicate the creative project that is fatherhood, that feeling I have when I am with my son is impossible to explain. All the more reason to let fathers discuss their lives with considerate simplicity. The important things will always be elusive anyway.
These are naturally the productive challenges that accompany trying to untangle the dimensions of fatherhood, and for that matter parenting, masculinity, and sexuality. Luckily this challenge also involves the creation of a space where men’s parental stories can proliferate, grow, and effect change—all in the hopes that the process can be demystified and even politicized when necessary. Done in an inclusive manner, surely only good can come of this proliferation. Old dynamics can shift and new spaces can emerge. At the very least, one day a father parenting on his own won’t necessitate a laugh track.
[i] Sorry Dad. Just stay with me here.
[ii] Rick Ross (featuring Dr. Dre and Jay-Z), “3 Kings,” God Forgives I Don’t, 2012, Mercury