Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Sorrowful Authentic Self: A Reflection on Bad Parenting, Part II



In an earlier post, I wrote about how cars and suburbs have made modern parenting more difficult than it needs to be.  In that post, I noted how even though others built the world of cars and suburbs, those actions have made my parenting a difficult task.  As I reflected a bit on that post and other parenting frustrations, I came to appreciate how my very self was also constructed by others.  And in the first place, it was many selves, like myself, that built up the world of cars and suburbs that I originally started complaining about (I know that’s a confusing and/or crappy sentence, but I kind of like it and think it makes more sense once you’ve read the entire post).   All of the preceding verbal mess is my way of trying to express the whole notion of structure, agency and every other similar term used to describe how people build symbolic and material worlds and how those worlds in turn build people.


Guest Lectures and the Cultural Specificity of “Coming Out”
During the spring semester, I was lucky enough to have Serena Nanda give a lecture at my school (besides being a known name in the field, she was incredibly gracious and personable).  She spoke about the globalization of non-heteronormative and transgender issues; both of the cultural values and constructs of the Western gay community flowing to the non-Western world and those of folks like the hijras washing into the West.  

Even with the increasing global alliances between these communities, she noted a couple instances of cultural unintelligibility, where despite some cross-cultural similarities in gender, other aspects of culture remained divided.  In particular, she noted how many Southeast Asian cultures don’t put such an emphasis on the meaningful linkage between inner identity and public persona, which contrasts markedly with the practice of “coming out” common in the Western gay community.  In the West, an individual is validated by making their personal feelings and behaviors public as they’re being who they “really are.”  In many parts of Southeast Asia, however, what one publicly does is much more important than what they privately feel or do.  Nanda pointed to a revealing quote from a Pilipino transgender migrant commenting upon the American practice of  “coming out”—

“The Americans are different, darling. Coming out is their drama. When I studied at [a New England college] the queens had nothing better to talk about than coming out. .. the whites, my God, shedding tears, leaving the families. The stories are always so sad” (Manalansan 2003)

From her own cultural perspective, the speaker felt that coming out didn’t make much sense because who cared what one did in their private life and who they “really were”?  The informant thought that US gay folks experience a lot of needless pain and anguish because of this urge for their interior selves to be made external and accessible.

Nanda made the point that this is an example of the individualism, so central in Western culture, interpreted through the cultural lens of the American gay experience.  The desire to “come out” represents the intersection of a gay identity and maybe homosexual behavior with the more general cultural value of individualism.  In Nanda’s opinion, Americans are fixated on making their “authentic self” known. In other words, a person’s existence is given greater meaning when their unique, interior life is made public for others to see.   In this sense, ultimate personal validation is only possible when one’s words, thoughts and actions embody their own unique individuality.  As she noted, this is why “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was such a failure in a Western institution like the US Military--DADT asked adherents of Western culture to stifle one of its central cultural imperatives, making one’s authentic self known.

Quick detour from the main point. I think it’s important here that I make some qualifications about the previous paragraphs.  I in no way mean to diminish the importance of the experience of “coming out” for a gay individual.  It is an event that often is fraught with real pain and anguish.  In this post, I’m simply agreeing with the notion of the “authentic self,” so important in American culture, is a social construct.  However, saying that something is a social construct does not equal that something is not “real, “important” or does not have real consequences.  For many gay people in the US, their sexual orientation and their acceptance by friends and family is one of the most important kinds of meaning they can derive.  Terming something a social construction just means that that thing is built up by people and is not an inherent quality of the natural world.  For example, anthropologists often discuss, “race” as a social construct, however it would be exceedingly difficult to argue that that construct has not had real consequences and cause real suffering in the real world of real people.  

Back to my Bad Parenting: Oh, Woe is My Self
I thought/think that the idea of the authentic self is an insightful one, and it actually helps me understand my struggles with stay-at-home parenting.  As I’ve noted several times already in this young blog, I’m having a hard time this summer dealing with the constant needs of my two young children.  When I sit back and reflect, however, I have to ask myself, “what’s the big deal, it’s really not that bad.”  After all, they are small, fairly helpless children that very legitimately require my attention to survive and thrive.  

In the heat of parenting moments, however, a powerful frustration can take over that’s difficult to fight.  When I’m being honest with myself, one of the reasons that that frustration is so strong is that parenting prevents me from doing what I want to do, when I want to do it.  At my more self-pitying moments, I feel like I’ve lost who I am in my children because their helpless little selves require my constant and dedicated attention.  They are preventing my authentic self from showing its face, instead I’m just the “father.”  During the school year, I am able to derive gratification and meaning through my individual professional role as a faculty member, which I consciously value as an important component of my authentic self.  During the summer, that largely dries up and blows away, leaving me defined through my children.  

Why do I feel this way? I really do believe that Nanda was right about me too.  As a product of American/Western culture, I have a sense that I am an individual and that I should be able to actualize my individual self by pursuing my own interests and desires and these damn little kids are getting in my way—they should not dictate what I do or who I am.  However, as a stay-at-home parent, my activities and identity begin to be clearly defined relationally, that is who I am is determined by who my children are, what they do and what they need.  My frustration grows from the fact that I want to express my authentic self, not just be a parent whose identity is almost completely built up by two other small humans.  To get ultra-reflexive, my starting this blog is a direct result of this desire to express aspects of myself that I felt I couldn’t do in the course of a normal day at home with the kids.

Some might say, “hey, are you just complaining because you’re selfish?”  I do think that’s part of it, but I also think that Western culture so idolizes the individual and his ability to define his own destiny that Westerners are especially offended when their individuality and individual choices seem constrained (I do have to emphasize “seem” here.  Any self-respecting sociologist or anthropologist knows that all individuals are largely the products of social action, even if many folks consciously and unconsciously believe otherwise).  So while my entire life is full of constrained choices that really do impinge on any real sense of “authentic individuality,” the kids are so omnipresent and clearly demanding of my energy and efforts that it’s especially easy to assign blame to them.

If I had simply been born in another time and place, I don’t believe I’d have the same drive for this kind of individual self-actualization.  Instead, I may have been focused on fulfilling obligations to kin and community and by doing so, gratifying myself through common participation in a corporate group, rather than focusing on my behaviors and feelings as an individual.  I’m not trying to sound Utopian here; I know that folks living in more communally, collectively oriented cultures can face significant conflicts and often knowingly seek out alternative cultural settings--like mine--where their own achievements as an individual are more valued.

So, not only does our culture and society create the cars and highways of daily life, it also fundamentally makes me who I am by shaping the contours of my thinking and basic sense of who and what I am.

I’m going to be culturally relative here, so I make no claims as to which condition is more metaphysically gratifying, just want to note the differences.  I’m sure I’d be chafing at the pressures and expectations of living in such a tightly knit social unit and writing some complaint-ridden blog.

Post Script
In this post, I’ve made the comparison between myself as a stay-at-home father to gay folks in the US struggling with the decision to make their sexual orientation public.  As with many of my comparisons, this is imperfect.  Again, I must say that my own travails pale in comparison and that ultimately, I do have it pretty easy.



References Cited
Manalansan, M. 2003. Global divas: Filipino gay men in the diaspora. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Matzner.

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