Essays for Father's Day on opting in to responsibility
Well, there's a other piece of it too. There are things that you don't think you're opting in to because, for you, it's unthinkable to not do them - even if other people don't do them.
I don't feel like I'm "opting in" to feeding my daughter, because for me it's unthinkable to let her go hungry when we have plenty. But some people do let their kids go hungry despite having plenty. I'm grateful to my family and the people of the milleiu where I was formed because that's unthinkable to me largely because of their influence.
A lot of times when I thank my husband for doing a thing I think of as "opt in" he shrugs like it's just a normal part of life. He doesn't think of his tasks as "opt in" but as just what you do as part of normal life.
There's a part if me that doesn't like calling fatherhood an "opt in" thing. It shouldn't be. It should be unthinkable for fathers to abandon their families or to refuse to participate in them. It's unthinkable for all the men in my (extended) family.
I read somewhere - and I can't remember where - that our tradition of wives taking their husbands' names came from an idea of husbands accepting responsibility. To put it negatively, if Mrs. Smith and the Smith children are destitute, society has shame and stigma for Mr. Smith.
Opting in is maybe the definition of love. As sponsors in various ways through the years of engaged couples preparing for Catholic marriage, my husband and I always talk about how love is a decision, not a feeling. The decision to love, to opt in, to choose the other over and over every single day, is what keeps marriages together. Perhaps it's also what keeps parents and children in relationship once adult children move out. I don't know yet, as three of my four are young adults still living at home and the fourth is not yet an adult, but I suspect there are some strong parallels to marriage in choosing them, deciding to love them, over and over, after they live on their own.
I thought the Alexi Sargeant piece was excellent. There's a lot to be explored in his use of Greek epic and specifically Odysseus. Mary Harrington has written about how liberal feminism focuses on the maiden and doesn't have space for the mother, let alone the crone and Sargeant's piece reminds me that there is something similar for men. The male hero's journey is also incomplete under liberalism. Odysseus can travel to Troy and journey homewards but can not arrive. There is no space for the patriarch and no value assigned to protecting and providing, so Odysseus's nostos has to remain unfinished.
Personally though, I'm not sure I was ever "out" enough to have had to opt in. Living only a few miles from where I grew up and where my extended family still live, I only had the briefest dreams of free-floating independence and to opt-in is to start from an aristocratic position of boundless possibility. (In the manner of Janan Ganesh, for readers of the FT!)
Most people - male and female - for most of history have had no illusion about their lack of heroic freedom. They've known that their lives are finite and contained. What is remarkable about 2022 is the ubiquity of the myth of independence, particularly amongst those without the material advantages to have ever made that a permanent reality.
Great essay from Dinan. My oldest is a toddler, so my fatherhood is mostly still a binary choice between spending time and not spending time on my kids. I think a little about how to handle behavior, but most of my time is the bathroom, the bedtime routine, etc.
My main challenge is figuring out how many vestiges of my social life/volunteering I can retain while being fair to my wife. I don't think this is just selfishness, because I think something important is lost when married people retreat into their own single-family homes. But despite my aspirations, Dinan's essay reminds me that fatherhood is only going to take more effort in the years ahead, and it's likely that I'll end up turning inward even more, for better and worse.
"What does it mean to opt-in, when you can walk away, and how does that choice change you? What support is needed when you want to support someone who isn’t uniquely dependent on you?"
While getting my master's, I committed myself to a major elder-care role. I did this out of a sense of reciprocal responsibility: these elders had taken me in during college when I was over 18 and ill and not, strictly speaking, any adult's responsibility but my own anymore. I felt indebted. Moreover, since I was the young adult whose career had already been interrupted by illness, I had less to lose by having my career interrupted again.
I could walk away. My elders had been economically successful enough for it to have been "their own fault" if they couldn't budget for paid professional care, even with the substantial help they had given me. But I believed I had been too great a burden on them to just walk away, unburdened by them, so even though I "could", I couldn't. My obligation continues, though varying in intensity, to this day.
And it fractured me. Undivided attention for a task was no longer something I could count on but a rare, unpredictable luxury, elusive even planning for it. I suppose it's normal for mothers to have their attention fractured like this. Certainly, my attention has become *even more fractured* since becoming a mother. But I opted into fracturing my attention before motherhood, and I still sometimes wonder whether it was the "right" choice. That is, I don't daydream of what might have been, the successes I might have had if I hadn't opted in. I choose not to think like that. Just like I choose not to think of what might have been had I not married my spouse.
But I'm aware of how lackluster my resume has become since my *choice* to fracture my attention with elder care, how easily my choice could be second-guessed, and how dependent I am on the invisible, informal economy of family.
I married with the intention of avoiding divorce to begin with, so I don't resent my currently-dim prospects of achieving anything better than financial and medical disaster if I did divorce. I don't resent the prospects, but I'm still aware of them, and they do take a bit of the self-congratulatory "virtuous glow" out of remaining faithfully married :-)
Thanks for this, Leah! I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about how my masculinity plays into my daily life as a single person striving for holiness and also longing to be married. The masculine drive to provide and protect can sometimes feel really diffuse, as Alexi stated, lacking anyone in particular for whom to “concretize” that gift of self (such as for a wife and/or children). I’m certainly open to any further reading suggestions you have (or to hearing more from fine, thoughtful Catholic fathers like Alexi)!
Leah, your comments in the New York Times about the good reasons why Roe v. Wade was overturned are disgusting. I agree that we should have a society where women don't have to have abortions, but in our current de-evolved state, that society is farther away than a rational person can dream of. Your written support of the overruling is disgusting and foul.