Fatherhood, Care-giving and its Caveats, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Jun

For those of you who have endured years of my Father’s Day commentary, this might seem like an outlier message.  Bear with me, if you can stand to do so, as I attempt to blend a tribute to fathers with a bit of what I hope at least will seem like relevant policy analysis.  You can let me know if you approve of the results – with caveats of course.

Like many of words we use, misuse and overuse, “caveat” has a range of meanings, but mostly related to declarations or even warnings of stipulations or conditions that might impact our commitments; or alternatively it refers to “limitations,” as in ways in which what is presented to us as sufficient ‘truth’ is more accurately a restrictive (sometimes dramatically so) viewpoint on a situation or incident that begs for a more comprehensive and thoughtful lens.

“Caveats” in both senses have long been a part of the UN’s nomenclature, used by states to contextualize their investments of funding and personnel, and by NGOs and policy experts to assess the “missing elements” in what might otherwise be helpful analysis of security, development or social issues.

The conditions/stipulations aspect of “caveats” was on display Wednesday in the UN Security Council where members were given candid and thoughtful briefings by Force Commanders on the state-of-play in peacekeeping operations.   In our view, these briefings are not held frequently enough to accomplish what Nigeria noted were more flexible adjustments to what at times could be seen as peacekeeping mandates with eroding relevance.  Briefings are also not held often enough to allow some of the women who were in uniform in Council chambers to share assessments and experiences through their own, still-too-often-ignored perspectives.

One notable feature of this briefing was the practice by some troop contributing countries to issue “caveats” to full and unconditional participation in peacekeeping operations. These contributors, in essence, maintain the right to identify “conditions” based on judgments of operations that needlessly jeopardize the well-being of seconded troops; conditions which would therefore exempt such troops from obeying to the letter relevant orders of Force Commanders.

The need for such caveats, as noted by New Zealand (which has recently revoked its own), relates in part to the perception of some states that UN peacekeeping operations are burdened by mandates the complexity of which overwhelms training and capacity in the field, thus exacerbating relevant security threats.   But as other states and commanders noted, if caveats are warranted, there is a proper time and place for them.  Such stipulations should be stated as early in the process as possible.  Moreover, caveats must remain flexible enough to accommodate shifting circumstances, including successful UN efforts to address field concerns.  In other words, reasonable caveats should not be posed as last-minute, categorical demands but as timely and flexible responses to conditions that are not yet sufficient to warrant unconditional assent.

The UN will continue to grapple with the challenges of caveats in peacekeeping operations. Like that or not, we can all at least acknowledge that, in some form or other, we have our own caveats; we all have “conditions” for things, even important things like marriage and family.  Some of those conditions even apply to our erstwhile caregivers, specifically regarding the ways in which we want to be cared for — and ways we don’t — that are independent of others’ need to “care” for us.   Many of us have overwhelmed others, and been overwhelmed ourselves, in caregiving scenarios that were much more about the one setting the terms of care than about the one receiving the caring attention.  Not all “caring” feels like caring and such feelings are not always unwarranted: a bit like the security assessments of UN member states, the conditions for and benefits of caregiving are to a significant extent in the eyes (and hearts) of its recipients.

Beyond conditions, there is the scenario of “caveats” as limitations. Last Tuesday at the UN, Chelsea Clinton headlined an event co-sponsored by MenCare Advocacy and @UNFPA at which a report was released entitled “State of the World’s Fathers.”  The full report can be accessed at www.sowf.men-care.org.

This latest iteration of our “state of the world,” which I must say I was a bit reluctant at first to pick up, painted a generally positive (if limited) assessment of the status (and potential benefits) of fathers as caregivers, a role important for childless men (such as myself) to assume as well.  My reluctance was related in part to the increasing tendency within UN (and other) circles to assume generic caregiving deficits on the part of men (based on restrictive definitions as much as on male sloth) along with the notion that the value of fathers lies primarily in their willingness to be engaged, as the report puts it, “in ways that women want.”  Given that the report fails to highlight let alone enumerate the manifold outcomes and contexts of “caregiving,” the report seems to “patronize” male caring capacity more than explore, encourage and even celebrate its diverse manifestations.

The report utilizes as its one, relevant lens for caregiving, father interactions with young children and domestic chores, citing (quite rightly) that worldwide such men spend less time at these responsibilities than women do.  This is a gap that most fathers I know (across many cultures) both fully acknowledge and have done something to address, in some limited instances a lot to address.

It is useful for this report to identify caring gaps and to suggest remedial options in the (still too many) situations where remediation is warranted. But it is surely a bit disingenuous to create some essentialist equivalence between “caregiving” and time spent with young children and ironing boards.  Caregiving is of course very much about those things, including for fathers; but it is also about vocational and life mentoring, about getting up at 2AM during a thunderstorm to patch an elderly neighbor’s leaky roof, about inspiring people through classrooms and religious institutions, about offering assistance to a lonely traveler, about making personal sacrifices to enhance the educational prospects of family members, about holding the hands of people suffering from grief or tragedy, about being reliable to others and faithful to our word, about adjusting ourselves to the new conditions (caveats, if you will) of evolving young lives rather than forcing youth to become imperfect replicas of our imperfect selves.

There is so much more that could be listed here.   Caregiving by fathers and others is incredibly multi-faceted.   It requires a flexibility and fairness of spirit.  It involves an ability to process kindly and attentively the (sometimes maddening) demands and limitations of others, including of course, partners and children.

Many of the fathers I know do these and any number of related things.   They might wish to have more time with their children – or to assist the children of others – but they are often doing things that bring value and benefit to the home, and also to the world, our world, the world that any children they have sired are soon destined to inherit.  If preparing and guiding people, young and old, to face and cope with challenges in these messy times cannot be fully acknowledged as “caregiving,” I’m at a loss to understand its meaning. If providing materially (and hopefully emotionally) secure contexts for growth and challenge is not “caregiving,” regardless of whether it corresponds neatly to what some others might “want,” then we need urgently to find new terms to honor this service.

As most of us can attest from our own life experiences, father doesn’t always know best.   But just as clearly, many fathers and their male surrogates do much to help children and others prepare for hopeful, thoughtful, independent participation in a complex, rapidly shifting and too-often unsettling world.  The specifics of this caring might at times seem out of context and rather “old-school,” and those specifics might well include too many baseball practices and too few dirty diapers. Still the reliability of this caregiving and the willingness to work through the many stages and caveats of others’ lives are essential to positive growth and development.  I am personally and extraordinarily grateful to the many fathers in my own contexts and around the world who, through their actions and values, stay this challenging course.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: