Becoming a mother forced artist Janine Macbeth to search for a new definition of fatherhood. After giving birth to two children, Macbeth found that old gender norms and ideas about fatherhood were not just hopelessly outdated, they were breaking her down. So after her second son was born, she and her husband started from scratch to explore new ways to be a family. “Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!”, a new children’s book from Macbeth’s brand new publishing company Blood Orange Press, is her tribute to that journey. It’s a celebration of loving, engaged fathers, the children they once were and the ones they now raise.
Ahead of Father’s Day, Macbeth joined me over the phone from her home in Oakland, Calif., to talk about engaged fatherhood, the importance of showing images of loving men and fathers of color, and the political space she’s creating to tell more stories like these with her new publishing company.
What compelled you to start this project?
It started gelling when our second child was born. I became hyperaware of how disenfranchising motherhood can be and how traditional gender norms reallly, really, really hold moms back. That was a painful realization.
And the flip side of that coin was my husband was absolutely amazing and stepped up. And his commitment to his kids and his commitment to me broke our family out of traditional gender norms so even though they tend to hold moms back, he didn’t let them hold me back.
Is there a memory that sticks out in your mind as an example of how your husband was able to be there for you and for your family in a way that society doesn’t expect fathers to be?
With our first son I had some complications around nursing. And I was literally not getting more than an hour and a half of sleep a day, for many days. And so when the baby would cry or need something it got to the point where it was like, okay, if [my husband] Lome gets the baby I might get a little more rest and my health might improve. It was survival mode. We’d talk about it and I’d say, I need you to take the baby half the night. And that helped me even have brain power and be able to be present. And that evolved into him always doing dishes, cleaning, doing the laundry, which literally freed up my energy and space to be able to start working on art projects.
I am not a mother. But my reaction to what you said was, well of course your partner should be there for you. That’s a given!
Even among families committed to gender equity, even with my own situation–and I haven’t seen a husband step up the way my husband did, I haven’t witnessed it–there was a learning curve in the beginning because it was like okay, I’m going to do half of everything. I’ll pick up the baby half the time. It wasn’t that literal, but the undertone of it was, “We’ll do this equally.” I’ll take the baby half the night and you take the baby half the night. Or I’ll do the laundry and take out the garbage, and then these are your chores. But in the first few months after the baby is born, gender equity doesn’t play out that way.
Especially if a woman is nursing or if she had a cesarean, which I didn’t, the impacts on a mother’s body are much more extreme, so even if you split things 50/50, it’s not equitable. For me, my vision of what gender equity is in a household with a newborn baby is not splitting things 50/50, because no matter what the mom is going to be doing more. The understanding that we came to, it was kind of organically that it happened, is [my husband] does way more than I do around the house.
When I first heard about the book project, this term “engaged fatherhood” was a new term for me. How do you define it?
Engaged fatherhood is when parents fully involve themselves in the parenting process and don’t compartmentalize their roles as fathers. And this commitment to the kids as well as whoever the kids’ mother is, regardless of whether they’re together romantically, flows from an understanding that the well-being of the kids is reliant on the well-being of the mother and their father figure. I would add that engaged fatherhood for me, it’s not like a term I had heard anywhere. For me there’s a layer of consciousness on it, that really is looking to build gender equity as opposed to gender equality.
I do think that mainstream society presents this idea of manhood and adulthood as separating from others, as independence, as being completely autonomous. But in your book you suggest that being a mature adult is about respect, it’s about interconnectedness, it’s about kindness. There are other ideals attached to it.
It’s actually something I was subconsiocusly working through in working on the book. And in the past couple weeks it clicked for me finally, this realization that an amazing dad like my husband Lome, for example, doesn’t wake up one morning as a compassionate father. It was more like he was born and throughout his life was developing values that set him up to be this great dad. It’s about personhood in the world and how to be connected to people.
What we’ve been talking about so far is just about heterosexual families. I wonder how this project looks to you when it comes to all different kinds of families.
I’m so glad you asked because I think that’s the elephant in the room with this book. It’s very heterosexual-centered and doesn’t even really allude to LGBTQ couples or families. This is a challenge that I faced the second I started working on it. Even titling it “Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!” is gender normative. Not all fathers grew up as boys. Not all fathers parent with other mothers. When I was working on this book I reached out to friends, and asked how I could incorporate same-sex couples and LGBTQ folks in this story about what it means to be a family.
The thing that made it hard to get around was that at the core of my experience for creating the book is this gender equity thread that came through clearest for me in a heterosexual relationship. This is what I know. And I hope to do many more books and we hope to publish different books with different voices.
What’s the interplay between race and ideas about fatherhood and manhood and parenthood? And I wonder if there’s a connection between race and parenting for you, and how it looks for you as a multiracial family? How did that inform this project?
As I started working on the book and working through all that negative self-talk that shuts you down, you know, nobody is going to care, nobody wants to see this, I realized that the fact that Lome is a person of color made it that much more important to do the book, because he’s expressed frustration about the lack of positive images of men of color and dads of color in the world.
One of the holes I see in publishing in general is that I don’t see an evolved engagement with multiracial identity, especially in children’s books. For me, because my dad is also mixed and his grandparents are mixed, and my great-grandparents are mixed, and you know, everybody is just mixed, my perspective on it is a little different from the dominant biracial narrative or even triracial narrative. And because of my heritage, I can’t slice it up like a pie. I just can’t. And so with this book I wanted to make sure that when I was depicting people, their race wasn’t straightforward or wasn’t obvious. That’s one of my favorite things, depicting people of different heritages and playing with that. But as a multiracial family it’s interesting because we don’t necessarily talk about our racial identity, so much as just having racial justice conversations.
And you didn’t just release a book, you also started a publishing company, too.
I’ve actually been wanting to start a publishing company since 2000. I was in college, and it was like, we deserve to have an institution that’s going to hear us and know us and see us and be us. It’s important. It’s about creating space. No more gatekeepers, and no more doors that are going to be shut in our faces. We shouldn’t have to ask permission to share our stories.
But then I found out how much it costs to start a publishing company and it was like, well, that’s not going to happen. But then when I went on maternity leave with my first child I worked on a book. I thought, this is great. I know people in publishing. I’ve worked in publishing. I have an inside perspective. But everyone I was going to was white, and didn’t understand the story, and it was absolutely devastating. I was traumatized. It was like, never mind. I can’t think about a book again. To this day when I think of new projects I never think of that book.
When my second son was born, “Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!” just happened. It was like a song in my head. I wrote it and I realized this was a book. But I got paralyzed [because of my past experience]. I said, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” And someone was like, why don’t you just do it yourself. And it was like, oh, right! And that’s what led to the Kickstarter. As I was mapping out the book to create it, I got to the design point of the book. I was at the title page and I realized, the title page needs a publishing company. And I was like, “Oh my God! This is a publishing company!” And it was a no-brainer. I knew what the publishing company was going to be. I knew what the name was going to be. It had been brewing in the back of my mind for so long.