By Dixie Edith
Cuban journalist and professor at the Communications Department of the University of Havana. On Twitter @Dixiedith
June 19, 2020
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Fernando wanted to be a father. When he looked at his four-year-old son, he wanted to be a father. I met him a little less than five years ago on a bumpy inter-provincial flight. From the beginning of an endless wait, I was surprised to see the way the young man related to his little boy. He explained the causes of the plane’s delay as if they were bedtime stories, played with wooden blocks, fed him with infinite patience and then improvised a bed for him between several seats. The child, restless to the point of exhaustion, rested his head on his lap at every turn.
When the blessed flying device finally appeared, Fernando and I ended up sitting together and, for the sake of the Caribbean DNA that flows in us, I served as a handkerchief for tears during the short journey to the East. In just a few months, the young man, born in Bayamo, had been divorced, a promising job offer was placed under his nose in Havana, and he was immersed in a tough legal battle over the shared custody of his son. Without eating or drinking, the little boy had become a cursed chess piece between a mother, still upset by a separation she neither sought nor wanted, and a father claiming his rights.
A family court ruled months later in favor of Fernando. The last time we spoke, however, he told me that, at the gates of every holiday period, the pitched battle over whether he could bring the child to the capital began again. This is because the mother lives looking for pretexts to prevent it. Especially now that he has a new family and a baby a few months-old baby. But “Carlitos loves his little sister,” he said proudly.
When the world was worried about the arrival of the new millennium and the technological blackout that it would produce, the academic world spoke of a phenomenon that specialists called “crisis of masculinity”. This was a reflection on the break-up of patriarchal traditions, where the most traditional roles were being blurred and mixed up hand-in-hand, above all, with a re-evaluation of fatherhood.
The feminist movements had already explained to exhaustion that all this distribution of social functions that are assumed to be natural are not so natural. They are culturally-constructed and can, therefore, be changed. On the other hand, men like Fernando came to the conclusion, by different means, that one is not “less of a man” for not complying with a good part of the requirements that tradition assigns to them.
The North American journalist Susan Faludi illustrated the mentioned crisis with symptoms common to many of her fellow countrymen: increase of stress and signs of anguish, demonstrated in depression, suicides and violent behaviors; the strong demand for plastic surgeries by men, more and more accepted; steroid abuse and their own Viagra sales.
In developed Europe, the debates went through quite similar paths. It’s globalization, isn’t it? And in Latin America, although the patriarchy was still championing its respect, the much-vaunted crisis was also a topic of discussion. For Chilean sociologist Elvira Chadwick, the main change came from the fact that “men went from being the only providers to having to share that role with women who go out to work just like them. Women, who are increasingly incorporated into the world of work, are now not only work colleagues, but also often bosses. This, together with the usual competitiveness of modern societies, caused, according to Chadwick, a “man on the verge of a nervous breakdown”.
Twenty years later, things are more or less on the same wavelength, with the aggravating factor that a conservative and very fundamentalist wave is threatening to swallow us whole. The internet is full of voices calling for a return to the “original family”. Make no mistake about it, this axiom is not just about opposing equal marriage and the right to adopt babies by same-sex couples. It is also about putting women back in the kitchen and men back in the public eye. It is about rescuing those outdated arguments that there is “only one mother” and any [cone can be a] father’. Arguments that would not help Fernando to win his battles.
Specialists in family themes agree that we are experiencing moments of change where models of progress coexist with others of regression. Although daily life shows that, inside, in many houses one still lives “the old-fashioned way” when it comes to roles, points of light illuminate the paths of parenthood. Relationships within the homes are changing and although the transformation is slow, today we can see everything: families where change is a fact and others that have not yet tried to break with the old patriarchal tradition. In the midst of these hurricane winds, many parents, more and more, are asking themselves if it is worthwhile to keep their hands tied in front of the hard work that tradition has destined them to do.
I have had the privilege of meeting many of them. From the cradle. I was educated by two “luxury” people, one biological and the other who arrived later, by the work and grace of reconstituted families. After almost half a century, coexistence is mixed with genes and I no longer recognize differences. As if this were not enough, I share my daily life with men, who are far away from the generation, and who practice paternity very seriously and with pride: Ariel, of course; but also Mario Jorge, Toni, Paquito, Juan Antonio, Santiago and Juan Carlos; or, much younger, Armando, David, Regis, Abdiel, Miguel Ernesto, Jorge… the list is not so short.
But changing the way of thinking of a whole society requires coherence and clear messages. How many obstacles still exist in maternity hospitals for new parents to participate in the birth on an equal footing with their partners? How many custody disputes after a divorce end up almost automatically favoring the mother, without thinking that the potential Ferdinand, counterparts to the conflict, are not always the bad guys in the movie? How many bosses unhesitatingly accept a man’s request for permission to care for his little newborn?
Sergio, one of those fabulous parents I’ve come to know, complained a lot about the bad times that accompanied the arrival of his first child. Not only was he prevented from being present at the birth. He spent most of the time postponing that women’s issue and the times he tried to inquire, get involved, participate… doctors and nurses treated him with that kind of indifferent condescension: Don’t be nervous, everything will be fine, but you have to be patient.
That longed-for transit of customs, of traditions, must go smoothly. It cannot happen that the same society that pressures men, on the one hand, to assume paternity in a conscious way, underestimates them on the other hand. While spaces such as the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) are talking about responsible fatherhood these days and UNICEF calls for “being fathers from the beginning”, others, social and institutional, are sending contradictory signals, even in the best of cases. And it can happen, simply, that a man jumps over his prejudices, assumes half of the daily burdens at home, and one morning, when he arrives at the children’s cirdulo as every day, she throws a bucket of cold water on him: “Dad, tell mom that tomorrow there is a parents’ meeting”. A parents’ meeting?