in which I have some thoughts on men, pregnancy, and parenting

There have been a couple stories in the news lately revolving around men and procreation that have caught my eye in the last couple of weeks, and due to the phenomenon known as "needing something to post about today" I thought I'd throw them together in a post and share a few thoughts about them -- or, more accurately, about the cultural narratives and expectations about men and manhood they represent.

The first is a post by Mary Elizabeth Williams @ Salon that provocatively asks whether "men have a right to choose an abortion," or, more accurately how much right they have to decide when and how to become a parent. Although she links to a story by Stephanie Fairyington @ Elle in which a man named George Bruell tried to pressure his girlfriend to have an abortion after she unexpectedly got pregnant after the couple (he thought) had agreed they didn't want to have children.

The Elle article contains a lot of crap from anti-feminist "men's rights activists" whose entire goal seems to be the struggle to free men from relational responsibilities supposedly forced upon their freewheeling selves by scheming women and their dependent children. Although updated for the 21st century, this is a narrative surprisingly reminiscent of virulently misogynistic views of women and families found in 1950s and 60s-era diatribes by men who were as unhappy with the postwar mythology of the Father Knows Best lifestyle as feminists, but rather than blame institutionalized sexism they blamed women and women's essentially domestic, acquisitive nature that required men to work long hours to support a suburban lifestyle.

Like these postwar misogynists, the "men's rights activists" in this story are not interested in dismantling sexist structures that warp expectations of heterosexual relationships; they're not interested in fighting for better reproductive justice for all -- they already think women have all the power and they feel aggrieved. As Fairyington writes of Mel Feit, head of the National Center for Men,

Feit’s list of grievances range from sexist social standards -- why should men still be expected to foot the bill on dates? Why is crying or showing weakness verboten for them? -- to what he considers discrimination enforced by the state: men’s lack of reproductive rights combined with unfair child support laws. "Reproductive choice isn’t a fundamental right if it’s only limited to people who have internal reproductive systems," Feit says. "If it only applies to women, it’s a limited right and that weakens it." In his view, Planned Parenthood’s motto -- "Every child a wanted child" -- should apply to both people who make the baby.

Most of these arguments, taken individually, are issues feminist have championed for years. The insidious problem with these grievances is not that (most of them) are inaccurate but that they are not connected to any analysis of the cultural construction of gender or understanding of institutionalized sexism. Or an awareness of how -- in our culture -- gender operates dualistically and women are disproportionately vulnerable in a world where patriarchal structures are still the default. This doesn't mean patriarchy doesn't hurt men too -- as feminists, male and female, remind us continually -- but it does mean that deconstructing masculinity and the expectations of men and manhood must be done with an awareness of women's position in the here-and-now-society. Men's rights activists seem to imply that somehow women, as a group, are (for example) forcing them to pay for dates, whereas most feminists wound point to our cultural construction of manliness that associates male power and sexual appeal with economic power to such an extent that feminist calls for an end to gendered dating expectations are usually met with anxious speculation about how feminists are trying to emasculate men. Ditto on the issue of crying and/or showing weakness.

Women as a group, in other words, are not these guys' biggest enemy. Their enemy is anyone (male or female) who supports oppositional, essentialist gender roles.

But back to the question of men, pregnancy and "choice." Here's what I have to say about men and the "right to choose."

1) The final decision whether or not to have an abortion is always the pregnant woman's. Like any medical procedure, it is the patient who needs to have the final say about what happens to her body. End of story. Obviously, this happens in the context of a medical profession in which doctors (ideally) advise patients about the full range of options available to them. Ideally a pregnant woman trying to decide whether to carry an unplanned or dangerous pregnancy to term would consult with her partner, family, friends, trusted religious adviser, therapist -- whomever she needs to help her make the best decision given the choices available. But at the end of the day, it's her body and therefore her decision to make. If the pregnant person is male-identified or in part male bodied, then the decision would be his. This isn't a gender-bias, it's a question of bodily integrity and who has a say about what happens or doesn't happen to your body.

2) Apart from abortion, men have as many options for preventing parenthood as women. If you don't want to get pregnant at a given time, with a given partner, take steps to prevent it. Men are not at the mercy of women in this arena. Here are some of the ways male-bodied persons can prevent pregnancy.

a) refrain from sexual activity that could result in pregnancy such as penetrative penis-in-vagina sex with women, or other types of sexual activity in which your sperm risks getting on or in a woman's vagina. The plus side to this method of pregnancy prevention is that it might encourage you to realize how many other types of sexual activity are out there to enjoy, either on your own or with a partner. One totally risk-free option for anyone who's bisexual is deciding you're only going to have sex with other men -- no chance of pregnancy there! Cunnilingus is another way to enjoy your partners body with no chance of sperm + egg = pregnancy. Look on this as a change to experiment and discover new forms of sexual pleasure.

b) use various types of birth control which hopefully you are already familiar with when it comes to prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. there's sadly no birth control pill yet on the market for men, but in the meantime you have condoms which are pretty damn reliable when used correctly and consistently. If you're sure you never want to have children, you can always decide to get a vasectomy which solves the accidental pregnancy problem in all but extremely rare cases and puts the choice of pregnancy prevention squarely in your hands.

c) this should go without saying but usually it doesn't, so I'm going to say it: COMMUNICATION is incredibly important to a satisfying sex life, and that includes doing everything you can to make sure you and your partners are on the same page when it comes to babymaking. Obviously, in situations like Bruell's story above, communication failed and people are now stuck with the messy real-life consequences. But good communication upfront can certainly prevent a great deal of messy post facto problems, just like securing enthusiastic consent to sexual activity helps prevent instances of sexual assault.

Finally, 3) While difficult, I do think it's viable (and not anti-feminist or anti-child) to create a legal framework for men to surrender parental rights and responsibilities up-front if a sexual partner with whom they are no longer involved decides to carry a pregnancy to term. As feminists, we have argued that it is the best-case scenario for parents and children when all children are wanted -- when parenthood is a role enthusiastically chosen and when children are cared for both by their primary caregivers and by society as a whole. Women who do not choose abortion have the option to surrender the child they birth either to an adoptive family or to the state system. This often isn't an ideal situation for the child, but it is a legal framework that recognizes that mothers sometimes feel the task of parenting to be beyond them.

There's a whole tangle of social and legal issues here relating to competing visions of a social welfare state and the responsibility of society as a whole to enable primary caregivers to parent -- but for the moment, let's assume the birth parent has chosen not to parent and wants to hand that responsibility over to someone else. Mothers who give birth can choose to surrender their parental rights and responsibilities legally, and I believe men should have similar legal options.

I just wish the men who are advocating for them wouldn't ask for them in a way that is hostile to women's basic right to bodily integrity and decisions surrounding their physical person. It shows a pretty stunning lack of awareness of reproductive rights and justice issues that Feit and company really ought to be engaged in, or at least aware of. Instead, they seem to have adopted the rhetoric of women's rights in much the same way Sarah Palin has taken to using the language of feminism -- to peddle a toxic tangle of misplaced misogynist resentment that lashes out at vulnerable targets rather than working to dismantle the sociocultural structures that constrain us all.

* * *

The second story comes from Amelia Hill @ The Guardian (hat tip to Hanna for the link). I knew we were in trouble from the opening sentence, "Expecting men to take an active role in their partner's pregnancy and attend the birth of their children can deskill them as potential fathers and damage paternal bonding, an expert has claimed." While I'm not an anti-intellectual, and I believe in the value of expertise (our highly complex modern world necessitates a certain amount of specialization), I'm always skeptical when an "expert" claims to have the final word on how a certain activity is going to affect complex human beings.

The disappointment and feeling of failure experienced by men expecting to have an intimate and proactive role as their baby gestates, only to find their function is largely one of passive support for their partner, can cause emotional shutdown, according to Dr Jonathan Ives, head of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Birmingham.

"Having begun the fathering role already feeling a failure may destroy his confidence," Ives said. "It can then be very difficult for him to regain faith in himself once the baby is born and move from that passive state to being a proactive father. His role in the family is no longer clear to him. He effectively becomes deskilled as a parent and this can lead to problems bonding with the child."

Oh, I have so many issues with this way of understanding parenthood! "Support" for a pregnant partner is somehow the opposite of being "intimate" and active? Men are somehow incapable of grasping that their pre-natal and post-partum roles will, like women's, be different? Men as a general rule have so little self-confidence that being asked to do something like being present and supporting during pregnancy might actually destroy their ability to parent? And I have to say I'm baffled by the assumption that this feeling of inadequacy is unique to fathers -- it's always been my understanding that most parents, regardless of gender, feel profoundly inadequate for the task at hand.

And this might actually be a good thing, as the article (thankfully!) goes on to point out.

Adrienne Burgess, head of research at the Fatherhood Institute, said: "That experience of helplessness that Ives is saying is so dangerous, is, in fact, the perfect preparation for fatherhood: there are times as a parent when you can't do anything to help your baby, when it's crying all night and can't be soothed. Part of being a parent is being there for your partner and child without doing anything except providing love."

I just really want to emphasize what Burgess says here, because I think it highlights the chasm that exists between the neotraditional conception of masculinity and fatherhood that relies on rigid separation of male and female duties and a conception of masculinity and fatherhood that, well, relies on the notion that men are human beings capable of a full range of human responses. In the neotraditional version of masculinity, men must be protected at all costs from being made to feel helpless, from being (in a word) emasculated. Helplessness sets them up for "failure" and failure is so shameful and world-ending that men must avoid it at all costs -- up to and including the cost of not being present to their partner during pregnancy and at their child's birth.

In the men-as-humans model that Burgess puts forward, however, helplessness is simply part of the human condition, a run-of-the-mill part of parenting and family life. That we've elevated the power of parents (fathers perhaps particularly?) to such Godlike heights that the notion that inability to change the course of events necessarily equals "failure" is stunning to me. To argue that men should be encouraged to avoid the parts of family life that entail helplessness is, in my mind, a wildly unhelpful (at best) perhaps even unethically negligent (at worst) recommendation. It is akin to arguing that if a friend or family member is diagnosed with incurable cancer you should just quit spending time with them because you can't do anything to cure them.

More often than not, it's our simple presence -- loving, nonjudgmental, patient presence -- in the lives of others that is what matters. This is a skill that all of us could do well to hone, whether we are parents or children, spouses or partners, friends or extended family members. It is a skill that should be genderless, and one which we would do well to encourage all soon-to-be parents to practice with one another and, once the child arrives -- by birth or other means -- with that child as well.


  1. Brilliant analysis of the articles. I agree totally with what you have to say about men and the "right to choose."

    Can't add much more because you put it so well, but it's making me think a lot about how the issues relate to my own life...

  2. Hmm...in theory I'm with you on men being able to formally opt out of parental responsibilities if a woman chooses to have a child they've conceived together, but he doesn't want to be a father.

    Because absolutely yes, ideally every child should be wanted by both parents (in cases where two parents are involved), and no person, male or female, should be compelled to be a parent if they don't want to.

    But in the current world, where women's choices are often constrained since abortion (an obvious means by which women can opt out of parenthood) is expensive, difficult to get in many places, and widely stigmatized, I don't know if I feel that a woman's ability to opt out is universal enough that it's reasonable to say "yeah, it was her totally free choice to keep this baby, so it's on her."

    And I really don't think I agree that saying "she could have given it up for adoption" is sufficient to make it reasonable to argue "so I shouldn't have to have any part of it if I don't want to."

    I can see how opting out before there's an actual baby could arguably be a fairly equal choice for both (even though only one of you actually has to go get the abortion), but once you've gone through pregnancy and the baby is born...I think that's a whole other pile of worms.

    Once the baby is born, it seems to me it's the responsibility of its parents, and they have to work with that reality (I would be sympathetic to an argument that a man should be equally able to refuse to give a baby up for adoption, and be able to require child support from the mother to assist him in raising the child if that's what he wanted to do).

    But I understand that giving a child up for adoption is often really painful and difficult to do, so I don't think it's really fair for one person to be able to say that because adoption exists, "give the kid away or raise it without my help" is a perfectly reasonable set of options.

    I'm now imagining some really careful, paperwork-filled legal process for reviewing a man's opt-out request to make sure that it would only be allowed in circumstances in which it was demonstrably true that the woman had a similarly free choice to end the pregnancy if she chose (no financial hardship, no need to take time off work or school to travel hundreds of miles, etc.).

    If we assume that's the sort of system we'd have, where we would actually make sure (to the extent that we can when applying laws to real life) that both parties had the same ability to opt out of parenthood early in the pregnancy, then sure, I'm all for it.

    Babies are born either wanted by both parents, or with the understanding by one parent that they will be raising it alone by their free choice. That could be fair.

    But until such time as we live in a world where women actually do have the ability to opt out of parenthood by a process as straightforward and uncontroversial as this legal option presumably would be for a man, I have to say "Dude, you were part of getting this started, and you're in it."

    Wow...that got super long. I should have just written my own darn blog post! Clearly, you're covering some thought-provoking ideas. :)

  3. @A'Llyn

    A belated "thank you!" for the thoughtful comment. I totally agree with you that people with a better grasp on the legal framework than I would have to craft a method by which both prospective parents had actual freedom of choice. This is why I find so much of the "men's rights activists" rhetoric frustrating -- not such much because of the individual freedoms they are articulating, but because they do so in a power vaccum. They aren't seeing the way in which our current system privileges male freedom of choice over female freedom of choice, and how the child custody and child support laws we have in place currently were put in place to protect those vulnerable groups.

    In other words, they aren't aware of their privilege as male-identified persons under patriarchy. So their "solutions" to the problems that they (often correctly!) identify are regressive rather than progressive, and would more often than not just reverse the gains made in women's self-determination and children's security and well-being.

  4. Re your comments about the second story, Jonathan Ives’ “expert” view of men and fathering. To me Ives’ findings are simply pointing to men’s version of an experience not unknown amongst women: building up expectations of being a particular sort of parent can rebound in a really awful way when reality hits you in the face. One of the negatives, for both women and men, is a feeling of failure, and for some people this can spiral into much worse states.

    I totally agree with Adrienne Burgess that helplessness is an inevitable human experience and a valuable entry into parenting. But this is different from a feeling of failure. Whether we respond to helplessness with acceptance or with self-condemning failure can be enormously impacted by a bunch of related issues: our own general self-esteem levels, values prevailing in our social milieu, the skills we have or don’t have in parenting, the amount of social support for our parenting, etc.
    Ives is studying the “moral habitus” of fathering, that is the way in which specific moral codes, expectations or attitudes towards fathering get translated into the behaviour of individual people. Women can also suffer under the moral strictures of mothering, sometimes horrendously to the point of becoming frozen, “passive” and losing faith in themselves as mothers. Ives’ research can be used to support calls for more social resources for passive or unconfident fathers, just as research about post-natal depression has been used to support calls for more social resources for mothers.

    I agree with you that there are some scary and fundamentalist views of masculinity around these days. But I reckon you’re adding to the problem by claiming that Ives is saying that “helplessness _necessarily_ equals failure”. He says men’s experiences “can” lead to the specified awfulness – not that they inevitable do. Don’t forget the media is always looking for fodder for ‘wars of the sexes’, since inflammatory spin on issues makes dollars.

    Your final call for “nonjudgmental, patient _presence_” is really lovely. While people are caught up in whether they meet expectations (their own or other people’s) about their parenting then they are not really present. Seems to me Ives’ research is fingering a way in which men get distracted from the present. Failure and disengagement is what it’s like for some men. You say you would rather see men as “human beings capable of a full range of human responses”. If it’s really true you’d rather see men that way, are you fighting with Ives, or with simplistic media portrayals?