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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"How Many Different Fathers?": On the Intersection of Classism, Racism, Polyphobia, and Sexism

At my agency, families are supposed to be our clients. However, since children are not expected to change their behavior (so long as they are under 16, I believe), the onus of responsibility in ensuring that a case closes generally falls on the mother. Almost always the mother. Regardless of whether the case opened because the father's neglect of the children, and even sometimes regardless of whether it opened because of his abuse of them. Which is a whole other enraging post.

I have yet to have a case where a single father is raising children with the mother out of the picture, whereas the majority of my cases are ones where a woman is raising her children on her own, sometimes due to death of the father, more often due to the relationship ending and the woman "naturally" being given responsibility to raise the children. I often have cases where the father, who is still with the mother, doesn't live with the children, and as such his participation is seemingly only "encouraged" rather than "required" by the Department.

But, I wasn't intending to talk about my feelings about the Department's sexism. Or at least not about that particular iteration of its sexism. Instead I wanted to talk about the judgement that my clients receive about how many different fathers of how many different children they have.

It is, frankly, infuriating that social workers give a rat's ass about some other social worker's client's number of current or former partners. It's bad enough when I have to hear about some other worker's client who *OH NOES!* has 3 children from three different relationships, but to have people begging to know the details of my clients' sexual relationships? IN. FUR. IATE. ING. As it is when I'm complaining about a case to someone other than a coworker, and totally unrelated to what I'm saying, they need to know how many kids/fathers there are in the picture.

The thing is, I seriously don't give a shit how many partners someone has had, other than to get important information about familial relations between siblings and their parents. It is very relevant to me when I find out that one child's father is in jail, but the other child's father lives nearby and comes over once a month. It is relevant to me when I hear that a father of one of the children says that he "wouldn't mind" taking the other children if custody is taken away from the mother. These things matter to me because they say something potentially about how each child feels cared for in their family. They don't matter to me so that I can judge the mother better.

You know what literally never crosses my mind when talking to a mother who has had multiple sexual partners, and children with more than one?

That she doesn't respect herself.
That she is promiscuous and therefore less moral.
That she is out of control.
That she is stupid.

I had trouble writing that list because a) since I don't think those things automatically, it's hard to dredge them up when I try to, b) I fucking hate that these are considered appropriate things to think about someone else's choices to have children or not (or more likely, sex or not, because lots of people would just as harshly judge a woman who has had 3 abortions due to multiple sexual relationships as they would a woman with three children from multiple partners).

But I can see these thoughts scurrying across the faces and hear them embedded in the tones of those who ask me salaciously for my clients' relational details. And you know what? My clients all know that people judge them for these things. I know they know because on the few occasions where I've been able to convince (through my tone, body language, and probably some verbal cues) a client that I am not judging them for their sexual choices (or their father's or mother's sexual choices), they have invariably opened up to me emotionally and physically (less guarded posture, giving me details of their family lives, etc.) more than they had before, and more than they have with other workers.

So, this happens. Where does it come from? Perhaps you've noticed that I titled this post "On the Intersection of Classism, Racism, Polyphobia, and Sexism".

Most of my clients are poor (ok, all of my clients are poor).
Most of my clients are people of color (I was going to get my first white family this week, but another case came back so I still have a history of only families of color).

In our culture, poverty and non-whiteness are treated as though they are synonymous. This isn't the case, but you'll notice that my clients are all poor and they have all been people of color, so they *are* linked.
In some ways, I think the judgement is mostly a facet of classism, because there is an assumption that more wealthy people's relationships have been deliberated on (regardless of how long they lasted prior to marriage or children), whereas there is an assumption (and I can't say whether it's based in fact at all) that poor people are less likely to be married when they have children (I could see this being based in fact because it costs money to marry, and costs even more to divorce), which codes as "less likely to have thought about the relationship, prior to having children" (regardless of whether they've been together for 10 years) according to our society.
However, at the same time, since whiteness = money in our culture, a white family is not assumed to be poor as readily as family of color is. So, when we talk about "poor people" having lots of children "recklessly," as a society we are to be more honest as to our underlying thought processes, talking about "people of color" having lots of children "recklessly." As such, a random family of color* will be more likely to be assumed to have been the product of multiple relationships, as compared to a random white family. Related to this is the fact that since the majority of clients at my office are families of color, a "default" family that is being talked about, unless specified as white, will be assumed to be black (or maybe latino, depending on the social worker's experiences), and as such questions about sexual histories will be mapped onto a "default" family of color.

So that takes care of the classism and racism aspects of what I see going on when people ask "how many fathers?" (incredulously or certain of the answer, take your pick).

What about the sexism and polyphobia?

Well, as mentioned above, the vast majority of childraising parents are women. So, while fathers do get judged for having multiple children, just as often, I hear the mothers being judged for being in a relationship with a man with other children. Additionally, fathers often visit their children at their children's mothers' houses. As such, they have an ability to deny certain children if they wish, and social workers have an ability to neglect to wonder about other children, since there aren't any children in front of them requiring explanations. It's like a magic trick: "No children to see here!" And of course, in those instances where a woman has had multiple children with multiple partners, I NEVER hear judgement of the father for getting involved with a woman with other children. Usually, so long as he doesn't treat the other children like crap, he's just about lauded as a hero for having the courage and kindness to be able to love a woman with other children. Or something.

I trust I don't need to say that women's sexuality is highly stigmatized and denigrated in our society, and that children are the ultimate proof of sexuality. Do I? Because it is. So of course, that's another layer on the judgment cake.

And lastly, the thing that all ties it together with a big fucking bow is the fact that as a society, monogamy is viewed as moral whereas anything else is not. There is a book called The Ethical Slut, which for some in the poly community was their first introduction into polyamory. There is no book that I have heard of (and certainly none which are known in the monogamous community with the same type of recognition) called The Ethical Prude. Because, *obviously* prudishness is ethical. It's like when I heard the criticism of the phrase "white trash" where someone pointed out that specifying someone is "WHITE trash" implicitly assumes that people of color are trash, so you don't even need to put an identifying marker when talking about them. Same goes for The Ethical Slut, but in reverse: in our culture there is no need to write a book about how to ethically be monogamous, because it is assumed to be the case by default(even though lots of mongamous people treat their partner's terribly, or hurt their partner in petty little ways without noticing).

A couple months ago, in a paper to talk about one of my cases, I chose one where I had fucked up. I had assumed that someone had been raised by hir mother, because I have had the privilege of having been raised by an intact family, and my parents never were in a situation where they were too poor to feed themselves and their children, my parents never *needed* to give me to someone else to raise in order for me to eat. My privilege got in the way of my discussion with that client.
With hir partner, however, I was immensely prepared, because as zie was telling me (somewhat shamefully) about hir father and his multiple children, and how zie had 12 half-siblings (or whatever the number was), I was able to to bypass the step my supervisor would have needed, of judging and then working around that judgment. Because that's the topping on the cake for me, while my colleagues might (and many don't) acknowledge that classism or racism play a role in how they treat their clients, NONE of them seem to acknowledge how monogamism** plays a role in how they treat their clients.

I have classism that I have to conciously combat when working with my clients. I have racist ideas that I have to conciously combat when working with my clients. I have ableist ideas that I have to conciously combat when working with my clients.

What I don't have? Polyphobia. And unlike my coworkers and peers, I know that it exists and that it hurts people.

*in this case I believe Asian families would be partially immune
** like it? I just made it up. Do people know of a better word?

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