Friday, February 03, 2006

$1 Million for Better Dads

Congress finally approved the budget, including $100 million for healthy marriages and $50 million for fatherhood initiatives, per year, for five years. $50 million for fatherhood initiatives next year, divided among 50 states, is likely to mean that Kentucky could have $1 million to do something to promote better fatherhood.

I have been involved in the discussions of the Commonwealth Marriage Initiative for the past few years. I know there is not a well-developed plan on the table for how to spend the money. There are some local agencies, but nothing statewide. There are family promotion initiatives, but few even attempting to produce better fatherhood. Moreover, it is very difficult to target government money to do anything that will deliver better fathers.

We are at a blue-sky moment. So what should we do?

As I have argued before, the only institution that can really improve families are families themselves. Yet it would not really do the job to give every Kentucky family its piece of the $1 million. We need to pick some families to have the greatest impact with this money.

My nominee: Marry Your Baby Daddy Day. There are couples in the commonwealth who have children together and who plan to marry "some day." The best thing that we could do for the children of those couples is make some day, now. Sure, there are some who are ambivalent about marriage for more than just monetary reasons. Yes, everyone should have pre-marital counseling. But the crucial facts, I think, are that they say they want to marry, and they already have kids.

So, I propose that ministerial associations and the justices of the peace get together and arrange a whole bunch of weddings so moms and dads can become wives and husbands. The average wedding costs about $20,000. If we used the money to leverage donations, we could get 100, maybe 200 weddings out of that. That is, at a guess, 500 kids who could have a permanent father at home by, say, Father's Day. If everyone is more modest in what they need, double all those numbers.

That is my idea of a worthwhile fatherhood initiative.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Married Touch Cures Fear

A fascinating study put wives in the anxiety-inducing MRI machine to make their brains fire stress! stress! stress! Then the researchers watched what happened to the women's brains when their husbands took their hands for reassurance. Immediately, the wives calmed down and their brains reduced their fear shots. Having strangers hold the women's hands did not have the same effect.

Even more fascinating, the anxiety-reducing effect was stronger for the closest couples. Dr. James A. Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, the study's lead author, and his co-authors, Dr. Hillary Schaefer and Dr. Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, said that "supercouples," who scored at the highest end of emotional closeness on the study's screening questionnaire, showed the biggest effects.

This leads to the natural question: when husbands are in the MRI machine and their wives are holding their hands, do we see the same anxiety and same anxiety reduction? I asked Dr. Coan, who reports that the team is busily conducting the complementary study. He added that they will also be testing homosexual couples to see if there is a similar effect.

Here is my hypothesis: wives are more reassured by their husbands' touch than vice-versa. This goes back to the discussion of protection as one of the jobs that husbands normally do. The great thing about a scientific hypothesis is that it can be tested, and a disconfirmation is as valuable as a confirmation. So we will see what the Coan team (Coan-heads? Surely not) report next year. I will keep an eye out for it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Serial Monogamy, Serial Polygamy, or Worse?

Kate Zernike's story in the New York Times on rich guys who dump their wives for younger models over and over again, "The Ex-Ex-Ex-Men," is sad.

It does raise the question, though, of whether we should think of this phenomenon as serial monogamy, or serial polygamy. Since polygamy is illegal in our country, these relations have the form of monogamy. Often these deluded playboys imagine that they are in love and that this is really for life. For a while.

Still, polygamy seems to be a closer model. In formally polygamous societies, only rich men can afford multiple wives, leaving poor guys without any. In those societies, each woman and her children typically has their own house, while the husband moves from one wife's house to another. In our society, the rich man pays off the old wife so she and her children can set up their own household, while he moves on to the next. The lead example in the Zernike story is Ron Perelman, who recently dropped wife number four, Ellen Barkin. The story noted that Perelman had paid off his four exes, according to their prenuptial agreements, in the amounts of, respectively, $8 million, $80 million, and $30 million, while Ms. Barkin got $20 million. Evidently wife number two understood her man the best.

The theory of the prenuptial agreement is that it removes any temptation for the poorer party (unless you're Oprah, that would be "her") to try to get half through a divorce, while it costs the richer party (read: "him") enough to make him think twice about dumping her and moving on. And a $20 million payout to his most recent blonde might give the average millionaire pause. To a billionaire like Perelman, though, it is just another business expense.

In Perelman's case – or Donald Trump's, or any number of hugely rich guys who give themselves "weddings" every few years -- this sequence of payoffs, though, suggests another way of thinking about what these relations amount to: prostitution.

Sad, sad, sad.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Who Sets the Housework Standards, Anyway?

[Today we welcome our first guest blogger, Sporcupine (Mrs. Gruntled).]

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if those housework studies assume that whatever the wife does is needed housework, and I wonder if that's fair.

If he's happy with a cleaning service vacuuming every other week and she insists on vacuuming every other day, is someone "right" in that debate?

If he'd alternate franks-and-beans with mac-and-cheese forever, backed with proper vegetables, and she wants to cook from scratch four times a week, what's fair? Does it matter how many cookbooks they each purchase and read?

If he'd serve company on plastic plates on the porch and she likes to get down the heirloom china, set the table with all the pieces, and later wash the china by hand to protect the gilded edge, what's the deal? We know she's elegant and he's practical, but what's an equitable split on washing up?

Home decorating is especially open to different expectations. What if she changes to different slipcovers for each season of the year, and he doesn't even notice the change? What if she carefully selects a different Longaberger basket to display in each room of the house, and he doesn't remember ever hearing the word "Longaberger"?

When the issue is adding grace, beauty, and style to a family's life, I can admire the spouse who wants to set a high standard, without saying the other spouse should do half the work to meet that goal. If the studies don't offer any distinction between necessities and niceties, I think that's a flaw.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Protection is Housework, Too

There are many studies showing that women do more housework than men. Even when both husband and wife are working full time, as Arlie Hochschild famously demonstrated, women still do more of the "second shift" of cooking and cleaning and childcare.

Other studies have shown that husbands and fathers do more than their fathers did. In particular, many fathers today are much more involved in raising their children than was true in previous generations. Some more nuanced studies have further shown that in the widget-laden middle-class home, there is just less housework to do than there used to be.

There is a set of chores that men as still more likely to do – yard work, household and car maintenance, and the outside tasks in general. However, women are more likely to do the daily stuff, while men's household jobs are occasional. The equation is not quite balanced. Men come off looking like slackers in these studies, which bothers me.

Then I had a minor epiphany. There is another important category of housework that men do: protection. This includes the daily tasks of making sure the doors are locked, the longer-term upkeep of smoke detectors and floodlights, and dealing with the rarer dangers like termites and foundation cracks. Most especially, men get to deal with the Scary Noise in the Night. Many other tasks get swapped back and forth across gender lines, but in my experience, this one falls largely to husbands and fathers.

I find that I routinely engage in continuous threat assessment, especially when I am with my wife and kids. I automatically size up the dark street, the unfamiliar guy, the strange dog – anything that might endanger my family. Like most men, I don't like to sit with my back to the door or the crowd in a public place, which I believe comes from the same instinct.

Our lovely town is a safe place to live, but even here there are dangers. And, in a larger sense, providing the protection to society which makes our town safe, and (for the most part) makes our nation safe, too, is overwhelmingly the work of men.

So when we are making our accounts of housework, let's be sure to include protection as one of the valuable tasks of household life. I think that will go some way to balancing the books.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Hurrah for The Bible and Its Influence

I am strongly in favor of teaching about the Bible in all schools, including the public schools. In fact, especially the public schools, where all my children attend. The Bible is unquestionably the most important book in the history of Europe, Australia, South America, and North America. It will soon have that status in Africa, if it does not already. I think the 21st century will ultimately be one of the great Christian centuries of Asia, where it all began. Not teaching about the Bible in American schools would be an absurd folly.

On the other hand, the public schools cannot teach the Bible as true. This is the deal we have made in order to have state-supported common schools.

The same is true, in miniature, of the Ten Commandments. Of course you may post the Ten Commandments on the public school wall – just teach about them and their influence in your class. Of course you may not post the Ten Commandments on the public school wall as the school's rules for conduct – not the first four commandments, anyway.

For years there has been a movement to teach the Bible itself in school. Over and over again, the courts have rejected with as an impermissible endorsement of a particular religion. In principle this is not a partisan issue, though most of the politicians who still make such proposals are Republicans. Democrats have learned the lesson, and are now trying a new and different approach. A book, The Bible and Its Influence, has been written specifically for use in public schools to teach about what the Bible says and why that has been so determinative for Western history and culture. Legislators in Georgia and Alabama have proposed legislation to authorize school districts to have such a course.

Republicans should support teaching about the Bible and its influence. Instead, they have been fussing that Democrats are Pharisees and hypocrites for stealing "their" issue. Yet teaching the Bible and teaching about the Bible are quite different, pedagogically and constitutionally. Religious politicians of all parties should support teaching about the Bible in the public schools in the only way possible. If not, they should give up on the public schools altogether – and stop being politicians.